When it was formed in 1999, Holyrood raised the bar for gender equality in political representation in Scotland (and the UK) with women making up 37.2% of MSPs, reaching a high of 39.5% in 2003. Then followed three successive elections of decline and stagnation, with figures hovering in the 33-35% range.
The early promise of Holyrood as a place where politics can better represent the communities it serves feels alive again after the 2021 election. Significant strides have been made in some areas, with women making up a record 45% of MSPs including the first two women of colour and the first permanent wheelchair user. These are gains to be celebrated, however they did not happen by accident.
Since 2016, activists have been putting in work to make their parties more inclusive and accessible to people who have traditionally been underrepresented. This has involved asking some hard questions and trying new approaches in areas such as candidate selection. For 2021 most parties trialled new methods for this process - including ‘zipping’ lists to ensure gender balance, reserving positions on lists for disabled people and minority ethnic people and having all-women shortlists. Some parties have also invested in peer support programmes and networks. Some of these approaches have worked well and translated into more seats, with others the picture is less clear, but together the results in May show how internal policy choices and the will of parties to try new things is crucial to bringing about change in our institutions.
It is a good start, rather than mission accomplished, with work still to do. Women, disabled people, LGBTI people and minority ethnic people continue to be underrepresented at all levels of decision making. The scale of this inequality is particularly stark at the local level, where only 29% of councillors are women, and research from CRER has found that out of a total of 1227, there are only 17 BME councillors in Scotland (1.4%), and of these only 4 are women. On a related note, it’s worth pointing out that quality intersectional data on political representation is currently not readily available. This is a problem because without understanding the base line, it makes it harder to measure progress. There is a real need for parties and institutions to be proactive in gathering this information. But that’s for a whole other blog!
Councils are making vital decisions about education, social care, transport – and the voices around the table are still overwhelmingly those of older white men. We need to put in the work to ensure that progress doesn’t stall, or worse, recede as we’ve seen before. The 12-year slump in terms of women’s representation in Holyrood serves as a reminder of the consequences of complacency.
With council elections taking place across Scotland in 2022, it is essential that the gains we’ve seen in Holyrood are replicated. Parties have a crucial role to play. While some key measures in achieving equality in politics are outwith their direct control (for example increasing councillor salaries, legislating for candidate quotas), parties as organisations are in practice the ‘gatekeepers’ of representation, controlling the who and how of getting involved, staying involved and actually becoming a candidate – not to mention becoming a candidate who is likely to win. Parties as organisations have a lot of power over who ends up representing us, and this is both a responsibility and an opportunity.
The Equal Representation in Politics Toolkit has been created by members of the Equal Representation Coalition to support parties to be proactive within their own structures to increase diverse representation. Available on the web and in app form, it is a free, comprehensive and easy-to-use set of resources for members of political parties (including volunteers, staff, elected representatives and ordinary members) looking to enhance current practice around accessibility and inclusion. The Toolkit covers 7 topics across a spectrum of themes of party life. Issues covered range from candidate selection and party policy, to boundary awareness and organising accessible meetings, to fostering a positive party culture which tackles issues like microaggressions and online abuse. It includes self-assessment quizzes, downloadable guidance and users will receive tailored action plans on completing each topic detailing areas for review and suggested changes.
We know that diversity grows engagement in public life, increases participation in elections and enriches policy decisions. Making sure your party is open, inclusive and accessible is also likely to have a positive impact on all aspects of party life, from boosting membership numbers to success at the polls. It’s important work, and it’s worth doing.
Building equality within long-established institutions like political parties isn’t always easy, which is why the Toolkit has been created. If you’re interested in using it or in the issues it covers I would love to have an informal chat about your goals and help you make the most of the resources! Ongoing support is available and will be completely based on what is appropriate for you and your party but could include speaking at your branch/staff/committee meeting; support to raise awareness of equalities issues in your party; delivering workshops and training; creating bespoke support materials for your members; practical support to implement your action plan – whatever you need to make your goals for an inclusive party a reality.
No matter what point of your journey you are at, or role within your party, the Toolkit is there to support you and your party to take up the responsibility and opportunity that this moment offers. I look forward to hearing from you and supporting you with this work!
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