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Diversity, devolution and democracy

Francesca Gains

Francesca Gains

This summer saw the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo march for greater parliamentary democracy. These commemorations came a year after the 100th anniversary of women – or some, at least – getting the vote. Professor Francesca Gains reflects on the revolutionary nature of Manchester and its support for gender equality.

Both the Peterloo march and women getting the vote grew out of Manchester and owe much to the radical social movements that have their roots in this region. The extension of the vote to all men and women over 18 years old was finally achieved in 1928. Yet despite the gains made since, there are still gaps in political representation and poorer opportunities for underrepresented voices to be heard in politics and policymaking.

Politicians in parliament and local government don’t look like the populations they represent – women, ethnic minorities and disabled people are all underrepresented, and other communities of interest may not be represented at all. Having a seat at the table and a political voice is important. The life chances of underrepresented groups show gendered and other intersectional disparities. Women are far more likely to work in low-paid occupations or part-time, with a consequent impact on income security in old age. The risks of being a victim of crime are gendered so that young men have the highest risk of being a victim of violent crime in public spaces and women are more likely to face domestic violence.

In 2014 Greater Manchester became the centre of another extension of democracy as the first area to sign a devolution deal. Now there are eight combined authorities with devolved powers led by elected metro mayors. More than 16 million citizens (a quarter of the UK population) live in combined authority areas and are affected by decisions devolved from Whitehall. It is vital therefore that there is diversity in whose voices are heard around policymaking tables in these areas, both in terms of who has decision-making power and communities of interest being able to have a voice.

Elected politicians (and the officials supporting them) need to consider how devolved decision-making can address gendered and other intersectional disparities within and across combined authorities. This means understanding how policy issues like education, employment and crime are gendered, and putting in place impact assessment and policy evaluations to assess the effectiveness of their policy interventions.

The experience of Greater Manchester in addressing equalities issues around representation and policy delivery can help to set the wider agenda. Speaking on the centenary anniversary of the extension of the franchise to (some) women, Mayor Andy Burnham championed women and girls having a louder voice “in the heart of politics and policymaking”. We as researchers have the opportunity to help get gender on the devolution agenda and highlight the links between democracy, diversity and devolution in Greater Manchester and beyond.

Professor Francesca Gains, Professor of Public Policy and member of both the Greater Manchester Women’s Voices Task and Finish Group, and the GM4Women2028 campaign.

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