Women are under-represented in local politics and Basildon Borough Council is no exception.
Ahead of the May 5 local elections, only nine out of 46 total candidates standing in the borough are women – just under a fifth or 19.5 per cent.
To compare with other Essex councils up for election this year, 37.9 per cent of the candidates standing for Colchester Borough Council are women, and 30.5 per cent in Epping Forest.
In Basildon, the only woman standing for the Conservatives, which currently controls the council, is Terri Sargent, who has been a councillor since 2002.
For the remaining parties, four women out of 14 candidates are standing for Labour, three are standing for the Liberal Democrats out of 10 candidates, one for Reform UK, their only candidate, and none for the groups.
Once again contesting Crouch ward, this year against Labour’s Tracey Hilton, Cllr Sargent says she wants to see more women involved in local politics and has helped set up the newly-formed Basildon branch of the Conservative Women’s Organisation.
Nationally, news about the treatment of women in national politics has been at the fore as Conservative MP Neil Parish faced calls to resign over allegations he watched porn in the House of Commons, and Angela Rayner was accused of uncrossing her legs while wearing a skirt to distract Boris Johnson.
The LDRS spoke to Cllr Sargent ahead of the upcoming elections, during which the council will be electing one third of its members, and the initiative which she hopes will help boost its female numbers.
The old school
As the day of the election fast approaches, leaders, councillors and party members have been competing for votes over a variety of issues facing the borough, most prominently the current administration’s controversial decision to pull its local plan earlier this year.
Conservatives like Cllr Sargent say the blueprint, which planned for over 20,000 new homes in the borough, would have seen too many houses built on the green belt.
Labour and independent councillors criticised the decision, saying it will leave the borough exposed to speculative developments getting through on appeal, and consequently result in even more houses on the green belt.
As it stands, women currently have less say on big issues such as this, because there are fewer women on the council voting on these major decisions.
In addition to being the party’s only female candidate this year, Cllr Sargent is also one of only four women out of the 25 Conservative councillors on the borough council.
Labour also currently have four female councillors, out of a total 10, while three of the four Independent Group councillors are women. Two councillors make up the Wickford Independents, one man and one woman. There is also a non-aligned councillor on the council, Elaine McDonald (Lee Chapel North), according to the council website.
All of the group leaders are men.
Cllr Sargent argues seeing women in positions of authority will do some work to send a message to female residents, because such a lack of representation acts as a barrier to other women getting involved in politics.
She said: “It’s so vital that you get that woman’s view, because too much we do become the silent majority.
“I will always, as much as I can and where appropriate, speak up because you’ve got all these blokes to get through and a lot of them, they all think alike. Especially the old school lot.”
She also believes other barriers include the pressures of family life and busy careers.
“If you get into politics, your life revolves around that,” she said.
“But I do believe in the right person for the job and not just putting somebody there because they look good or they’ve got the right attributes.”
What has been the response to under-representation?
In response to the lack representation, a Basildon-specific branch of the Conservative Women’s Organisation has been set up and members will be knocking on resident’s doors for the first time this weekend.
Sitting in the Towngate Theatre cafe, Cllr Sargent speaks excitedly about the the initiative.
“The Conservative Women’s Organisation has been set up for some time, but in Basildon we’ve been lacking,” she said.
“I am so pleased and so proud that they will be coming out with me to hit the road and hit the doors and I can’t wait to see how we get on, because normally it’s like an old boys club.”
The CWO is a national female representative organisation affiliated with the Conservative Party. According to its website, it aims to help women navigate the party structure, providing training, mentoring and networking opportunities.
It has regional branches under its national umbrella, including one for Essex generally, but until recently none in Basildon.
This newest branch was formed last month on the suggestion of the chairman of the local conservative association, in recognition of the lack of women in the party at a local level.
Councillors Yetunde Adeshile (Vange) and Davida Ademuyiwa (St. Martin’s) will also be joining Cllr Sargent on the group.
The new branch has been too late to boost the number of female candidates this year.
However, Cllr Sargent hopes a visible presence in the borough could help combat under-representation in the party in future elections, by encouraging more women to become members, and later candidates and councillors.
Local CWOs are far from new initiatives and many local parties across the country with similar representative groups have yet to succeeded in reaching equal numbers of male and female candidates.
But for now, the hope remains that future elections will see a fairer proportion of genders standing as candidates, and consequently becoming local representatives.