Southwark Council is ranked 20th out of 123 local authorities in England for the ethnic diversity of its councillors, a new report shows.
The statistics, compiled by Operation Black Vote, show Southwark has eighteen councillors from black and ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds, from a total of 63 – around 29 per cent, despite the fact Southwark’s total BAME population is 45.7 per cent.
Southwark is trailing behind top performers Brent, Newham and Hounslow, where more than two thirds of councillors are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, in line with their population.
However, Southwark is above both Lambeth – with just fifteen BAME councillors out of 62; Greenwich, which has only thirteen from an overall total of 51; and Lewisham, coming in 39th.
The report’s authors say the report is a ‘wake-up call’ and recommends all parties put a plan in place to balance what it describes as a democratic deficit.
In Southwark, Labour councillor Evelyn Akoto, originally from Kennington, told the News she was trying to find the next generation of leaders from BAME backgrounds.
She decided to stand for local election when she was living on the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth. Despite its large black and ethnic minority population, the area’s three local councillors were all white.
“I didn’t see diversity there, but realised that rather than complaining about it, it was up to me to put myself forward,” she says, ultimately encouraged by the fact other black women had also become councillors.
Being selected by the party was the first hurdle: “There was a time when I wanted to give up. When you stand, other candidates are having a new person standing against them, and it was a bit of a minefield,” she admits.
Cllr Akoto secured the support of her colleagues and was elected in 2014 to represent her Old Kent Road ward and become a full-time cabinet member, with responsibility for community safety and public health.
“I get people who talk to me who do not want to talk to anyone else, people can relate to me because I’m from their community and have lived in Southwark all my life.
“A lot of BAME women especially come to me and in an area with two other councillors who are male, women are often more likely to speak to me about certain things.
“Diversity in political representation is so, so important, I can’t emphasise that enough. Without BAME people’s views we at the council are missing the mark,” she says.
But prospective candidates need to be under no illusions that being a councillor is a demanding and high-profile role: “As a mother, one of the hardest things is the late meetings and getting home at nine or ten o’clock.
“It’s being able to be the mother I want to be as a well as the community leader – managing the two can get a bit difficult.
“There is a lack of role models for young people from BAME backgrounds. They don’t see themselves in politics and in the judicial system, so they think it’s not for them.
“We have to change that and the answer is mentorship.
“I am reaching out and trying to finding the outstanding people, the next generation, and encourage them to put themselves forward. We need to be active in this.”