Before the Ballot - Why Candidate Assessment is a crucial step on the journey to more equal representation in politics

With partners in the Equal Representation Coalition, Engender is launching a brand new chapter of the Equal Representation in Politics Toolkit focusing on Candidate Assessment. Ahead of the Scottish Parliament and Local Council elections in 2026 and 2027, now is the time for parties to review how aspiring candidates gain approval to stand if we're to see more diversity on the ballot. Our Development Officer for Equal Representation, Jessie Duncan, explains how the new Toolkit chapter can help. 

 The graphic shows a dark purple background with cream left-aligned text quote that reads "Across our councils & parliaments, underrepresentation of marginalised groups is rife –  women make up approximately just 35% of councillors in Scotland.". The quote is attributed to Jessie Duncan, Equal Representation Development Officer at Engender. In the top right-hand corner of the graphic there is Engender's logo, which is an equals sign in a white circle.

Before the ballot 

When we think about how to make councils and parliaments more representative of the communities they serve, we normally think about elections. How do we elect more women, more minority ethnic people, more disabled people and more LGBTI people? The ultimate decision about who makes it off the ballot and into our councils and parliaments, of course, rests with voters. But in reality, so much about elections is already decided long before polling day. Parties largely have control over who makes it onto the ballot, with many decisions taken in the months and years leading up to election day, shaping the outcome before any votes have been cast.  

Parties decide who becomes a candidate through the process of candidate selection. Selection is where the party decides on who from a list of nominees will become the party candidate at the upcoming election. There is a lot of evidence showing the positive impact that using different policies, such as voluntary quotas during selection, can have on the diversity of elected representatives. However this is only useful if there is a diverse pool of potential candidates available to choose from. 

Candidate assessment and discrimination  

Not just anyone is allowed to put themselves forward for selection - aspiring candidates will usually have to gain the party's approval. This process is known as candidate assessment (sometimes called vetting, screening or shortlisting), and it is at this stage that the first decisions about who our elected representatives will be are taken. Processes vary but usually involve some combination of written application form, an interview with a panel , and might include a test before a final decision is made. Some parties might use these stages to filter, and just like any recruitment process, without consideration of how to combat discrimination and to ensure equal access, candidate assessment risks stifling a more equal, representative politics right at the outset.  

Chronic underepresentation – It's not good enough 

Unfortunately, no robust data that would tell us about the protected characteristics of our elected representatives is published at the moment, but what we do know tells us that across our councils and parliaments, underrepresentation of marginalised groups is rife – for instance, women make up approximately just 35% of councillors in Scotland, and it took until 2021 for the first two women of colour to be elected to the Scottish Parliament. This kind of chronic underrepresentation benefits no one – we know that when there is meaningful diverse representation, better decision-making follows. Parties have a tremendous responsibility to their membership and to the communities they seek to serve to ensure that candidate assessment processes do not enable and reward only those whose experiences and pathways to politics conform to an outdated status quo of what makes a politician – because it's clear that the status quo is broken. 

What will help? 

While progress on increasing diversity is often focused on electoral outcomes, to ensure that progress at the ballot box is sustainable, it's essential to look at all stages of the journey and to invest in developing a strong, diverse pipeline of future candidates. This means considering how potential candidates are developed, supported and assessed. As well as being a responsibility, this offers parties a huge opportunity to put into practice often-stated principles when it comes to building a fairer, more equal society. 

Parties must ask themselves: 

  • What qualities and experiences do we want to see more of in public life? 

  • Is the way we assess potential candidates perpetuating inequality? 

  • Are our values as a party reflected in the candidates that we approve to stand? 

  • Are we meeting our legal duties to ensure a fair and open process under the Equality Act?  

To help answer these questions, we're launching a new chapter of the Equal Representation Toolkit, focused on Candidate Assessment. The chapter is aimed primarily at party members and staff who are involved in assessing candidates or in designing assessment processes. Guidance is given on how to run an inclusive and accessible candidate assessment approach that enables people from a wider range of backgrounds to succeed. This includes looking at things like how to advertise and raise awareness of the assessment process; providing equalities training for people involved in assessment; valuing diverse experience; and how to provide constructive feedback and ongoing support for unsuccessful applicants.  

As with the rest of the Toolkit, users are invited to take a self-assessment quiz and receive a bespoke action plan highlighting areas for reflection and recommendations for improvement. The Toolkit is easy-to-use and each chapter takes no more than 5 minutes. We can also offer workshops and 1-2-1 support – please get in touch with us if you're interested. 

While all attention may be focused on campaigning for the General Election, it's essential to remember what comes next. We are currently 2 and 3 years out from the next Holyrood and local council elections, but it is likely that the processes which will shape these results will begin much sooner. Candidate assessment is the first in a chain of decisions that determine who our elected representatives will be. It's up to parties to make sure that hopes for greater equality in our democracy are built on strong foundations – starting with asking who is given the chance to be on the ballot.

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