top of page
Fawcett Milton Keynes logo.jpg

Women's participation in local politics:Milton Keynes Council elections 2022

Milton Keynes Fawcett Discussion Paper 4

Purpose of this discussion paper

MK Fawcett believes that local councils should reflect, as far as possible, the diverse communities they serve, and this should include having a similar number of female and male councillors. Conversations with those involved in local politics in Milton Keynes suggest this principle is shared by all political parties represented on MK Council.

To this end, we have carried out several studies of the representation of women on MK Council. An earlier discussion paper, published in October 2020, showed that women were under-represented on Council, a situation that had shown only limited change over five years. There were, however, differences between political parties, with Labour having more women councillors. Since then, we’ve begun annual monitoring of Council elections. Our 2021 discussion paper showed a slight increase in women councillors. In 2022 we can report more positive results: the percentage of women councillors increased further following elections held this year, exceeding 40% for the first time. There is still some way to go to achieve parity in representation, and there remain differences between political parties.


We hope the paper will stimulate discussion within MK Council, and within and amongst political parties, women’s groups, and others interested in how we can increase diversity and gender parity in local government. We would welcome comments on the paper, and suggestions for further work.

This is a report of research on women’s participation in local politics in Milton Keynes, with a

focus on Milton Keynes Council. The research was carried out by members of the Milton Keynes group of the Fawcett Society. It has benefited from consultation with members of political groups on Milton Keynes Council, Council officers, members of local political parties, the national Fawcett Society, and others working in related areas.

September 2022

Milton Keynes Fawcett

The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life. Their vision is a society in which women and girls, in all their diversity, are equal and truly free to fulfil their potential, creating a stronger, happier, better future for us all.

The Fawcett group in Milton Keynes was started in 2014 by a team of local women and activists, working to give voice and visibility to women in the new city. Our projects include:

  • street action to encourage women to vote in the 2015 general election

  • research on the representation of women on MK Council (2015/16)

  • an exhibition in MK Central Library and other parts of the city on Women Who Made Milton Keynes, to celebrate MK50 (2017-18)

  • contributions to an exhibition in MK museum on HERstory in Objects (2019)

  • starting in 2020, a series of discussion papers to explore gender equality in Milton Keynes, including further research on women on MK Council (May 2020, October 2020, September 2021, September 2022)

  • co-founding Voices of Women MK, a partnership of MK women’s organisations working together to champion women’s voices and bring about positive change (2020)

  • contributions to the Voices of Women MK mini-festival, celebrating International Women’s Day (March 2021)

  • organising a panel discussion on barriers to women entering local politics for the MK Community Foundation’s International Women’s Day Event (March 2021)

  • contributing to the Independent Remuneration Panel advising MK Council on parental leave policy (October 2021)

  • engaging with Milton Keynes parishes to encourage localised action to mark White Ribbon Day (November 2021)

  • as part of Voices of Women MK, and in collaboration with Community Action: MK, holding conversations with women across the city to gather snapshots of their lives (March 2022 - present)

During autumn and winter 2022/23, our major focus is on activities to end male violence against women and girls, and on supporting the national Back Off Campaign to prevent harassment of women attending abortion clinics.

Please follow our monthly blog exploring topical issues of relevance to women, locally and nationally. You can also subscribe to the Voices of Women MK Newsletter, which covers debates, information and resources for local women, including an issue on women in politics.


Contact details and further information:

Twitter: @fawcett_mk
Voices of Women MK website, including a link to the newsletter:

Discussion papers

1   Re-thinking Equality for Post-Crisis Times: a focus on gender (May 2020)

2   Women’s Participation in Local Politics: Milton Keynes Council 2015/16 and 2019/20
     (October 2020)

3   Women’s Participation in Local Politics: Milton Keynes Council elections 2021
     (September 2021)

4   Women’s Participation in Local Politics: Milton Keynes Council elections 2022
     (September 2022)


Discussion Paper 4 - Women’s Participation in Local Politics: Milton Keynes Council elections 2022 was prepared by the following members of Milton Keynes Fawcett:

Joan Swann (lead author), Margaret Gallagher, Barbara Mayor, Sheila Thornton, and Jane Whild.


We are grateful to the following for their support for our research, and for providing information, contacts, suggestions, or comments on a draft of this paper:

Michael Bracey (Chief Executive Officer, MK Council)
Gillian Davis (HR Resourcing Manager, MK Council)

Cllr Emily Darlington (Deputy Leader of the Labour Group on Council)

Cllr David Hopkins (Leader of the Conservative group on Council)

Edith Bald (Deputy Chair, Political, Milton Keynes Conservatives)

Cllr Jane Carr (Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Council)

Cllr Kerrie Bradburn (Chair of the Liberal Democrat Group on Council)


David Pye (Programme Manager – Research at the Local Government Association)

Jemima Olchawski (Chief Executive Officer, the Fawcett Society)

Emily Liddle (Communications and Campaigns Manager, the Fawcett Society)


Any errors or infelicities remain our responsibility.


Copyright © Milton Keynes Fawcett September 2022



Our local councillors have a powerful impact on our daily lives, shaping the things that make our society tick. The services local government runs are disproportionately delivered and used by women. It is therefore essential that councillors represent the thriving and diverse communities we all want to be part of. Yet, across England, women make up just 35% of councillors – with incredibly slow progress being made. Whilst the picture in Milton Keynes is more positive, edging closer to gender parity, there is still work to do to ensure that women in all of their diversity are elected to represent our local communities. This piece of work, looking in detail at the state of women’s representation, is a vital and highly valuable tool in understanding the nature of the challenge faced in Milton Keynes. Fawcett will continue to fight nationally and locally to ensure women are fairly represented in positions of power and the robust, evidence-based approach taken by this paper will always be at the heart of that effort.  


Jemima Olchawski, CEO Fawcett Society

1. Introduction: the background to this paper

In October 2020 members of the Milton Keynes Fawcett Society published a study of women on Milton Keynes Council: Women’s Participation in local politics: Milton Keynes Council 2015/6 and 2019/20. We believe that councils should reflect, as far as possible, the diverse communities they serve, and this should include having a similar number of female and male councillors. Our study, however, found gender imbalances across the Council as a whole: in 2019/20 women made up only 37% of MK councillors, with numbers fluctuating between 35% and 37% over recent years. There were also proportionately fewer women than men in senior positions.

We discovered party political differences. In particular:

  • The number of female Labour councillors had increased over the years – from 7 out of 23 in 2015/6 to 12 out of 23 in 2019/20. So by 2019/20 they stood at just over half of the total.

  • The situation was reversed for the Conservatives. The number of female Conservative councillors had dropped from 10 out of 22 in 2015/16 to 4 out of 19 in 2019/20. They now stood at under a quarter of the total.

  • The number of female Liberal Democrat councillors had increased to a small extent from 3 out of 12 in 2015/16 to 5 out of 15 in 2019/20. But female councillors still made up only a third of the total, under the average for the Council as a whole.


We studied patterns in the selection and election of candidates that had led to differences in the representation of women and men on MK Council. The executive summary to this earlier paper is included here as an annex.

Our report was well-received by all party-political groups: all shared an aspiration for greater diversity on Council, including more equal representation of women. In the light of this, we committed to continue monitoring local elections, focussing on the selection and election of female and male candidates, and resultant changes to Council membership. Our first follow-up paper covered the Council elections in May 2021. This is our second follow-up paper. We focus on elections held in May and July 2022, with 2021 data retained as a comparison.

In this paper we also include some data on women in leadership positions; and we emphasize the need for monitoring to be expanded to incorporate other aspects of diversity.

Our work, to date, has focused on MK Council, but participation in local politics at parish and town council levels is also of interest, not least because some members of MK Council also serve on parish or town councils, and there is movement between different local levels (and potentially between local and national levels). This will be the subject of a later discussion paper.

In this paper we incorporate 2022 data from two sources: the main elections held in May and a by-election held in July. The by-election was to fill a vacancy in Woughton and Fishermead, following the sad death of Labour councillor Carole Baume in April 2022. It returned MK Council to its full complement of 57 councillors. We include data from the by-election because this occurred shortly after the main election, and at a time when we were still working on the final draft of the paper.

2. Composition of MK Council following elections in 2022

Figure 1.jpg

Milton Keynes Council has three councillors in each of 19 geographical wards, totalling 57 council seats. Elections are held in three out of every four years, when one seat per ward is elected.  Where additional vacancies exist, for instance because a councillor stands down before the end of their term, by-elections may be held simultaneously with the scheduled elections or at a later date.

The figure above shows the composition of Council following main elections in May 2022 and the by-election in July 2022.

After limited earlier progress (see above), the percentage of women on MK Council had increased to 39% by May 2021. The figure above shows a further and more marked increase: by July 2022, of 57 councillors, 25 (44%) were women and 32 (56%) were men.

The elections this year represent a very welcome change – we hope the Council will continue towards parity between women and men.

3. MK Council elections: May 2021 and May/July 2022

The tables below show the outcomes of this year’s Council elections by gender and political party, with results from the previous elections in 2021 as a comparison. Longer term changes, with 2014 as a base year, can be seen in our October 2020 paper.

The tables show, respectively, candidates standing for election, candidates elected, and the composition of Council following the elections.

Tables 1 and 2.jpg

Notes to Tables 1 and 2:

In 2021 there were two by-elections held at the same time as the main election, so 21 seats in all. Labour and Conservatives fielded 21 candidates, but because of an error the papers for the female Liberal Democrat candidate for Bletchley Park were deemed invalid, and the party therefore fielded only 20 candidates.

The 2022 data include the July by-election, so 20 seats in all. There is one fewer Liberal Democrat candidate because no candidate stood in Olney in May 2022.

We are aware of the dangers of using percentages for small numbers in Table 2: they are used here to facilitate comparison, but they may also inflate very small differences.


Gender of candidates is normally clear because of gendered names. Where this is not certain, we have checked against online or other evidence.

It’s helpful to read Tables 1 and 2 together: from these tables we can identify patterns in the selection and election of female and male candidates:

  • For the Council as a whole, more men than women were selected to stand as candidates in 2021 and 2022, though with proportionately more women selected in 2022.

  • In terms of absolute numbers, more men were also elected in both years. (Of the smaller number of women standing, proportionately more were elected.)

  • These general figures mask party political differences.

  • Labour had more female candidates standing in 2022, and more female than male candidates were elected. There is a difference here with 2021, where there were more male candidates standing, but more women were still elected.

  • There were substantially fewer female than male Conservative candidates standing in both 2021 and 2022. Fewer female than male candidates were elected in both years.

  • For the Liberal Democrats, there were fewer female than male candidates standing in both years (though differences were less extreme than for the Conservatives). Of those standing, proportionately more women than men were elected in 2021 – of 14 male Liberal Democrat candidates standing, only one was elected. In 2022, more men than women were elected – a reversion to longer-term patterns.


Table 3 shows the numbers and percentages of women and men serving on MK Council after the 2022 elections, again with 2021 as a comparison.

Table 3.jpg

The Independent councillor in 2021 is a former Conservative councillor, who did not stand again in 2022.


We mentioned above the marked increase in the percentage of women councillors serving in 2022. But again, there are differences between parties. In both years, Labour has more female than male councillors, with an additional female councillor in 2022. The Conservatives have many fewer female than male councillors in both years, but with one additional female councillor and two fewer male councillors in 2022. The Liberal Democrats have gained one additional female councillor; the number of male councillors remains the same. The overall increase in female councillors, and differences between parties, in fact result from gains and losses in elections and by-elections across three years.


As discussed more fully in our October 2020 report, in order to increase overall numbers on Council more women need to be selected to stand, including in winnable seats. Tables 1 and 2 suggest more could be done to achieve this. Political party members will have clear understandings of what constitute winnable seats, although it is difficult to identify these objectively. Table 4 below looks at two situations in the 2021 and 2022 elections in which there was an opportunity to select female candidates with a chance of winning.


Conversations with councillors have suggested that sitting councillors tend to be reselected (though Labour and the Conservatives say they may be reconsidered formally alongside other candidates). Any tendency towards reselection would act as a brake on producing change in the gender balance of councillors selected/elected. However, there is an opportunity for change when a sitting councillor is not standing again for election, and the party holding the seat has to select a new candidate. Table 4 identifies wards in which this possibility was offered.


Table 4 also shows wards in which one party won a seat from another. This is a post hoc identification of ‘winnable seat’, however in most cases it would have been clear that there was at least the potential for a shift in political representation.

Previous councillor
New candidate from same party - starred
Candidate for party holding seat at last
Candidate for winning
Fri., June 20
The Academy, L.A
Book It
Thu., June 19
Bamboo, Santa Barbara
Book It
Sat., June 28
Cheers, Santa Cruz
Book It
Wed., July 6
The Roxy, San Francisco
Book It

Table 4 shows there was considerable movement on Council following the 2021 elections, with 11 councillors standing down to be replaced by new candidates, and eight seats shifting to another political party. With respect to gender:

  • The Conservatives replaced three councillors who stood down (all male) by new male candidates. Two of these were elected.

  • Labour replaced four male councillors who stood down by new male candidates, and two female councillors who stood down by new female candidates. In all but one case these candidates were elected.

  • The Liberal Democrats had two outgoing councillors, both male. One was replaced by a new male candidate, but the party also took the opportunity to replace the second with a new female candidate (on this occasion neither was elected).

  • The Conservatives also made political gains in the 2021 election. In most cases (five out of seven seats) this favoured male candidates.

  • The Liberal Democrats won one seat from the Conservatives, with a male candidate.


Movement was rather more limited in 2022. In the May elections, four councillors did not stand again and were replaced by new candidates. Four seats shifted to another political party. The July by-election in Woughton and Fishermead made a further seat available to a new candidate. With respect to gender:

  • The Conservatives replaced two councillors who stood down (both male) by new male candidates. One of these was elected.

  • Labour, once again, replaced former female councillors by new female candidates, both elected.

  • The Liberal Democrats replaced an outgoing male councillor by a new male candidate, who was elected.

  • In terms of changes in political party, the Conservatives gained one seat from Labour, with a female candidate.

  • Labour gained two seats from the Conservatives, with one male and one female candidate.

  • The Liberal Democrats also gained a seat with a female candidate. In this case (Campbell Park and Old Woughton) there was no candidate for a party previously holding the seat: the outgoing male councillor was Independent, although a former Conservative councillor. He did not stand in 2022. Candidates for the seat included a male Conservative candidate, but the female Liberal Democrat candidate was elected.


Across both years, there are examples of opportunities being missed to select female candidates to stand in potentially winnable seats. Councillors who stood down were mainly replaced by new male candidates. This is the case particularly for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (with one exception in 2021 - Campbell Park and Old Woughton, Liberal Democrats). It is a major block on moving towards gender parity on Council.

The situation is different for Labour because they are already well-represented by female councillors. Their replacement of outgoing male councillors with new male candidates, and of outgoing female councillors with new female candidates, is perhaps a strategy to maintain a reasonable level of representation of both genders.


Shifts in political party favoured male candidates in 2021 and (albeit with smaller numbers) female candidates in 2022. The message here is the same, however. To increase the number of women on Council, winnable seats need to be allocated more consistently to women – initially disproportionately, if there is to be a chance of redressing current imbalances. For this to work, it’s important to ensure there are enough potential female candidates in the pipeline, and to offer support to potential candidates.

4. Leadership roles

There is some good news on women in leadership roles following the 2022 elections. Women continue to be well-represented on Cabinet (five women and four men this year). There is also a new female Mayor. However, the Council Leader and the Deputy remain male and there are no female party leaders. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have female deputy leaders, who on occasion stand in for the party leader, and the Liberal Democrats also have a female chair. The Conservatives did initially elect a female leader, but she has since stood down.[1] The party now has a male leader and a male deputy leader. It is disappointing that there are not more women in leadership roles across all parties – not only in Cabinet, but also taking the lead in holding Cabinet to account. It will be hard to improve on this situation without more women being elected to Council in the first place, and then growing into more senior positions.


[1] The Conservatives had a female Leader at the time of our earlier 2015/16 study: Cllr Edith Bald served as Leader from 2014/15 – 2016/17.

5. A note on diversity

We need to offer an important caveat to the figures and tables above. The figures refer just to ‘women’, but women, as we know, are not a homogeneous group. It is harder for MK Fawcett, from the outside, to monitor other protected categories that intersect with gender, but these data need to be collected. In 2019 the national Fawcett Society urged Government:

… to require parties to collect comprehensive, accurate election candidate diversity data, to enable a better understanding of how women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people are represented by implementing section 106 of the Equality Act.   (

And in our earlier (October 2020 and September 2021) papers, we recommended that MK Council, and political parties, conduct a regular diversity audit of Council membership. Diversity matters: we have suggested above that it’s important for councils to reflect, as far as possible, the diverse communities they serve, so that a range of local perspectives and experiences can be taken into account in policy development, planning and resource allocation. As an indication of potentially relevant characteristics, the box below shows results from a national census of local authority councillors carried out in 2022 by the Local Government Association (LGA). The LGA’s national figures may serve as a point of comparison for individual councils, but it would be important also to take account of the characteristics of the local population served by councils (the LGA does this for certain characteristics at national level).

… to require parties to collect comprehensive, accurate election candidate diversity data, to enable a better understanding of how women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people are represented by implementing section 106 of the Equality Act.   (

And in our earlier (October 2020 and September 2021) papers, we recommended that MK Council, and political parties, conduct a regular diversity audit of Council membership. Diversity matters: we have suggested above that it’s important for councils to reflect, as far as possible, the diverse communities they serve, so that a range of local perspectives and experiences can be taken into account in policy development, planning and resource allocation. As an indication of potentially relevant characteristics, the box below shows results from a national census of local authority councillors carried out in 2022 by the Local Government Association (LGA). The LGA’s national figures may serve as a point of comparison for individual councils, but it would be important also to take account of the characteristics of the local population served by councils (the LGA does this for certain characteristics at national level).

Findings on councillors’ personal characteristics from the 2022 LGA National Census

      •    40 per cent of councillors were retired, and 32 per cent were in full- or part-time   employment;

      •    61 per cent of councillors held other voluntary or unpaid positions, such as school       governorships;

      •    64 per cent of councillors held a degree or equivalent or higher qualification; only 4          per cent did not hold any qualification;

      •    59 per cent of councillors were male, and 41 per cent female;[1]

      •    The average age of councillors in 2022 was 60 years; 16 per cent were aged under 45       and 42 per cent were aged 65 or over.

      •    92 per cent described their ethnic background as white;

      •    84 per cent described their sexual orientation as heterosexual or straight;

      •    16 per cent had a long-term physical or mental health problem which reduced their          daily activities;

      •    46 per cent of councillors had a responsibility as a carer, most commonly looking after      a child.

Local Government Association: National Census of Local Authority Councillors 2022, pp3-4

The LGA census is based on responses from councillors, with a relatively low response rate of 30%. Because actual numbers are large (5,055 respondents), the LGA argue they are able to produce robust national estimates. In the case of individual councils, such as Milton Keynes, a higher response rate would be needed to draw any reliable conclusions.


[1] This does not correspond to the most recent (2021) data from the national Fawcett Society, which gives 35% female councillors. This is likely to be because of differences in data collection (data on council membership following election results in the case of Fawcett, reports from councillors surveyed in the case of the LGA census).

An example of good practice with respect to diversity and inclusion within MK Council is the comprehensive monitoring carried out of Council staff, which can show how representative they are of the community they serve.[1]


[1] Monitoring people employed by Council is clearly different from monitoring councillors, who are selected by political parties and elected by their local community. However, the issue of representativeness drives the monitoring of both council employees and councillors, and MK Council may be able to transfer some of what it has learned in one context to the other.

6. Looking forward

This discussion paper is designed to monitor election outcomes in 2022, with 2021 as a comparison, and to document choices made in candidate selection that will have led to these outcomes. We shall continue this monitoring in future years. Our aim is to provide evidence that will inform the development of strategies to increase diversity in MK Council, including more female councillors. We would like to see MK Council achieve gender parity, and become a local government leader in equity and diversity.


We have not discussed actual or potential ‘diversity’ strategies themselves, though this topic was addressed in our earlier (October 2020) discussion paper. Two of the recommendations made in this earlier paper, slightly amended below, are particularly relevant:

  1. Conduct a regular diversity audit of Council membership

  1. Establish a gender- and diversity-aware strategy across wards for selecting and electing candidates, and monitor its effectiveness

We hope that this paper, together with our earlier work, will promote continuing discussion within Council and amongst party groups on how: a diverse range of women can be attracted to the role of councillor; effective female candidates selected to stand for election; and new councillors supported in their role.


We have received positive responses to our work from members of all local political parties represented on Council, including comments on previous papers and an earlier draft of this paper. Parties are keen to represent a balance on Council in terms of gender, as well as, more broadly, to reflect the diversity of communities in Milton Keynes. Labour has pointed out that this drives a number of Council initiatives, including Milton Keynes becoming a White Ribbon City, seeking to tackle violence and abuse towards women and girls by men and boys.


Labour has an all-women shortlist (AWS) policy, in line with national party policy. There is also a Women’s Officer on the local party executive, who runs training and events for women members to build confidence and encourage women to get more involved.


The Conservatives have established an active MK Conservative Women's Network (now just over a year old). This runs social and networking events - it is hoped it will encourage new women candidates by providing support and building confidence, seen as a barrier to potential women candidates. This positive action may help to redress current imbalances.


The Liberal Democrats have pointed to recent positive steps in leadership – we mentioned above they have a female Deputy Leader (new last year), who is also Cabinet Member for Tackling Inequalities and Child Poverty, as well as a female Chair. They acknowledge the need for continuing work, particularly in the selection process.


Set against positive initiatives from political parties, a few points of concern have been mentioned: first, the general lack of interest and engagement in local politics from members of the public, not just women (e.g. low turnouts at local elections). The lower number of women present on Council may itself discourage other women from engaging – a question of the visual image of politics. Young women, in particular, may find the role of councillor challenging in the light of other commitments, including childcare, where women still tend to take on greater responsibility than men. In the light of such concerns, it’s important not only to raise the profile of Council and encourage more women to stand, but also to provide a realistic appraisal of the role of councillor to prepare candidates for this, coupled with ongoing support for new councillors, particularly those facing competing priorities. In our more comprehensive October 2020 paper we refer briefly to strategies to help women, and indeed any councillors experiencing competing priorities. This is something that merits continuing discussion by Council.


While our focus here has been on the election of councillors, we recognise that there are additional ways in which a wider range of voices may inform Council decision-making. It’s welcome news, for instance, that, following discussion with all party group leaders, Milton Keynes Council is to create two new councillor roles, an LGBTQI+ and an ethnic minority champion. The aim is to encourage engagement among different communities, ensuring their voices are represented within local government (MK Citizen, 17 June 2022).


Looking forward, we welcome feedback and continuing dialogue on our findings; discussion of strategies to increase the number of women on Council, alongside a broader focus on diversity; how the effectiveness of these strategies may be monitored; and suggestions for future activity, including further research.

  1. For further information or to offer feedback and suggestions please contact:

Executive summary from Discussion Paper 2 - Women’s Participation in local politics: Milton Keynes Council 2015/6 and 2019/20

Rationale for the research

  1. Our research on women’s participation in Milton Keynes Council was carried out in the light of wider concerns, expressed by the Fawcett Society and other campaigning groups, about women’s lack of engagement in politics at both national and local levels. We share concerns that women should be involved in decision-making that affects women’s lives. The research is also informed by evidence suggesting that, with women in positions of influence, policy making is more likely to reflect women’s experiences and perspectives; and that diverse teams contribute to more effective decision-making.

The research process

2. We carried out an initial study in 2015/16, looking at women’s representation on Council and Council Committees, and women’s participation in Council meetings.

3. We followed this up with a further study in 2019/20, to investigate the extent of any changes since our earlier work. In this second study we added new material on differences between political parties, and on the election of councillors. We also began to investigate strategies that have been devised, in Milton Keynes and elsewhere, to encourage women’s greater participation in politics.

4. We carried out the bulk of our research between September 2019 and June 2020, after which we circulated a consultation draft setting out our findings. The draft was sent to key members of MK Council, Council officers, and members of local political parties. In response to feedback we carried out further research, engaging in continuing consultation as our work developed. Our final report was completed in October 2020.

Findings from the research (Sections 2 and 3)

Women’s representation on Council and Council committees (Section 2)

  1. We found limited change in Council membership between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Across this period, no party held the majority on Council. Labour remained the largest party with 23 seats. The Conservatives dropped from 22 to 19 seats; and the Liberal Democrats increased their share from 12 to 15 seats.

  2. Out of 57 councillors, numbers of women fluctuated between 20-21 (35%-37%) over the years.  At this level, there has not been any meaningful change.

  3. This general pattern, however, masked striking differences between party political groups: an increase in female Labour councillors (from under a third of all Labour councillors in 2015/16 to over half in 2019/20); and a decrease in female Conservative councillors (from just under half of all Conservative councillors in 2015/16 to under a quarter in 2019/20). The Liberal Democrats saw a smaller increase in female councillors, from a quarter of all Liberal Democrat councillors in 2015/16 to a third in 2019/20.

  4. This was due to complex patterns of gains and losses over the years. The Labour group lost similar numbers, proportionately, of female and male councillors; but they gained many more new female councillors. The Conservatives lost many more female than male councillors; of the new councillors they gained, most were male. The Liberal Democrats lost relatively few councillors, female or male. They gained proportionately more new female councillors, but not enough to correct their original gender imbalance.

  5. These patterns are related to the election process: the selection and election of candidates. In studying this we took the May 2014 election as our baseline, as at this point ward boundaries were redrawn and there was a full Council election.

  6. We found no consistent positive relationship between the number of female candidates selected as candidates and the number elected to Council. Sometimes, there was a negative relationship. The key factor in getting more women elected to Council is their allocation to safe, or at least winnable, wards.

  7. Some changes (the increase in female Labour councillors, the decrease in female Conservative councillors) have been recent and quite rapid: events in just one or two years can have dramatic effects. We consider implications for policy and practice later in the report (Section 4).

  8. There was limited change with respect to senior positions on Council between 2015/16 and 2019/20. The Labour group retained its female Deputy Leader, and increased the number of female Cabinet members. Further positive changes included a female Deputy Leader in the Conservative group and a female Liberal Democrat Group Chair. However, the Council remained male dominated at the level of Mayor/Deputy Mayor, Leader and political group Leaders, and the Conservative Shadow Cabinet. Council had lost a female Conservative group leader.

  9. Change was also limited with regard to committee membership between 2015/16 and 2019/20: women remained proportionately represented overall in 2019/20, but were still over-represented in certain types of committee, notably Corporate Parenting, Children and Young People, and Health and Adult Social Care. Conversely, they were under-represented on the Development Control, Audit, and Regeneration Committees.

  10. Only four of the 16 main committees in 2019/20 were chaired by women, mostly in the broad sphere of community and social care. Each fully constituted committee also offers two vice-chairing roles, normally appointed from other political parties than the chair. Despite the theoretical possibility of allocating these chairing roles proportionately between female and male councillors, the competing principle of appointing chairs from across the political spectrum prevailed and women remained under-represented overall, both as chairs and as vice-chairs. Three committees (Audit, Development Control and Scrutiny Management) had an all-male chairing team.

Women’s participation in Council meetings (Section 3)

  1. In our earlier study in 2015/16 we carried out observations in 15 Council meetings, including three full Council meetings. The October 2015 full Council meeting is used as an illustration in the 2015/16 report. In our follow-up study in 2019/20 we focused on full Council meetings as important occasions where all councillors potentially have a voice, and which also have high public visibility. We observed meetings in October 2019, November 2019, and January 2020.

  2. In our first study, it was clear that women were under-represented in discussion and debate in Council meetings: this was evident, for instance, in the October 2015 full Council meeting. We observed greater variability in our second study. Women were slightly under-represented in November 2019 and, to a greater extent, in January 2020; however, they spoke proportionately more than men in October 2019. We relate these differences in part to the seniority of speakers (see points 18 and 19).

  3. Many individual councillors did not speak at all at meetings: generally, just under or over half made no contributions, though this went up to two thirds of female councillors in November 2019 and January 2020.

  4. Some individual councillors made a larger number of contributions, often consistently across meetings: these were more often male councillors. The October 2019 meeting was different from other meetings in that proportionately more individual women spoke than men, including making a relatively high number of contributions.

  5. A range of factors may affect the differences in levels of contribution mentioned above, including the relevance of agenda items to different councillors. We argue, however, that seniority is particularly important: those in senior positions tend to contribute more within each meeting, and across meetings. While there were more women than men in Cabinet, across Council as a whole those in senior positions were usually men (see point 11).

  6. In October and November 2019 the female Deputy Leader stood in for the Leader, making a large number of individual contributions and increasing the overall percentage of female contributions. Also in October, more female than male Cabinet members were present at the meeting. All of them spoke, further increasing the number/percentage of female contributions during this meeting. This helps to explain differences between meetings referred to above.

  7. Confrontational behaviour was not common in meetings, but when this occurred it involved men rather than women. We suggest this may be a deterrent to councillors uncomfortable with such behaviour.

  8. We argue that more councillors should be encouraged to contribute to public debate on Council, so that a wider range of voices and perspectives is heard. As part of this diversity, women should be better represented, and more visible, in debate. To achieve this we need to see, first, more women councillors across the whole of Council, in all parties, followed by a greater number of women in senior positions. This is clearly consistent with the points made in Section 2.

Conclusion and recommendations (Section 4)

  1. In our consultations with councillors and officers we have been struck by a consistent commitment to greater diversity on Council. We argue that this commitment needs to be translated into action across the whole of Council. We conclude therefore with a series of recommendations, building on and developing existing practices in Milton Keynes and initiatives elsewhere. Some of these recommendations carry cost implications, whereas others are more a matter of attitudinal shift. Some will have an immediate impact, whereas others may need to be part of a longer-term strategy.

  2. The recommendations, listed below, relate to the identification and selection of potential female candidates, enabling new councillors to contribute more effectively to the work of Council, supporting female councillors to progress and serve in the longer term, and broader issues affecting the councillor role.


  1. Conduct a regular diversity audit of Council membership

  2. Raise the profile of local government and the work of councillors

  3. Provide an enhanced package of support to all aspiring candidates

  4. Establish a gender-aware strategy across wards for selecting and electing candidates, and monitor its effectiveness

  5. Consider the possibility of time-limited tenures for councillors

  6. Ensure that appropriate induction, training and mentoring schemes are in place and functioning effectively

  7. Foster an internal culture that challenges discriminatory behaviour

  8. Take ongoing action to give women greater voice in Council meetings

  9. Lobby central government to retain the option of online attendance at all Council meetings

  10. Extend the availability of shadowing opportunities

  11. Enable formal job sharing of senior roles where desired

  12. Extend the remit of the SRA scheme

  13. Embed the practice of exit interviews

  14. Take steps to tackle verbal abuse and harassment

  15. Lobby central government to re-establish councillors’ pre-2014 access to the Local Government Pension Scheme

YiS logo.png
AVMK logo.jpg
Fawcett Milton Keynes logo.jpg
bottom of page