Following yesterday’s swearing-in of MSPs, our Scottish Parliament reporter Rafe Uddin considers whether the election delivered on diversity
The Holyrood Election has surprised many for returning a more diverse and eclectic range of MSPs than in 2016. In a short period of five years and following the concerted effort of campaigners, six MSPs of colour were elected at last week’s election. With MSPs attending parliament to take their oaths and elect a Presiding Officer this week, we were able to enjoy words spoken and delivered in twelve languages, including BSL.
Several MSPs used the short breathing space before making their affirmation today, to mark their allegiance to the people above the crown. Nicola Sturgeon stated this was in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition, with Patrick Harvie exclaiming he looked forward to the day voter’s “could choose their own elected head of state.” Several other Green MSPs, and Scottish Labour’s Mercedes Villalba and Katy Clark also followed suit.
Kaukab Stewart – the first woman of colour to be elected to the Scottish Parliament when results were announced for Glasgow Kelvin last Friday – delivered her oath in Urdu in a traditional shalwar kameez as she also marked the Muslim festival of Eid. Her fellow inductee and the first Sikh MSP, Pam Gosal, gave her oath in Punjabi. Both represent a marked change in this parliament’s composition, but they arrived as party nominees in very different ways.
Stewart benefitted from the use of an all-women shortlist (AWS) for selection after Sandra White announced she would retire at the end of the last parliamentary session. Gosal on the other hand was selected by a party which remains largely opposed to the practice. Her fellow MSP, Meghan Gallacher, wrote in 2019 the practice was both unfair and “forced equality” on party membership.
Women 50:50 has published figures from the election, which show while the SNP and Greens have returned more women than men to their benches, with 53% and 63% respectively, the Conservatives have just eight out of a total of 31. Labour which also used AWS for selection processes is just shy of 50:50 at 45%.
There will be a lot of scope for discussing the relative merits of quotas and shortlists and I’ve publicly thrown my support behind them in the past. But individuals would be justified in wondering why the Conservatives were able to deliver two people of colour, which is on par with their SNP and Labour counterparts, despite not adopting any direct measures for positive discrimination. Indeed, the Greens who are marked as a progressive force in Scotland, remain entirely white.
Crucially, while six people of colour have been elected, they all hail from a South Asian Background. Three MSPs have a Pakistani heritage, while two are Indian and one Bengali. To date, a Black MSP has not been voted into the chamber and veteran politicians such as the SNP Councillor Graham Campbell have yet to be selected as candidates in winnable seats.
Pam Duncan-Glancy’s election as the first permanent wheelchair user will hopefully be accompanied by a renewed effort to tackle the barriers put in front of those with physical disabilities seeking a voice and representation. Measures which support childcare provision and a more sensible work-life balance are likely to encourage rather than disincentivise standing for elected office.
With the election of a new presiding officer in the form of Alison Johnstone, many such as the former Labour Leader, Kezia Dugdale, have pointed to the opportunity to forward an inclusive agenda for elected officials. Speaking after her election yesterday, Johnstone said she hoped to encourage debate as she stressed while parliament was more diverse there were still challenges around delivering true representation. Policy outcomes and not sheer numbers will remain the key factor in determining whether the electorate has returned a true step-change in Holyrood.
The 2021 election results are a positive step towards a more inclusive and dynamic Scottish Parliament. Many will still argue parties should not rest on their laurels and there is a visible deficit in some which without any direct measures to remedy may see a slower closing of the gap. The absence of a first Black MSP remains a key issue in tackling a lack of visible representation for a growing demographic. Crucially, the pandemic has afforded an opportunity to radically rethink working practices for those who can do so remotely. There is nothing standing in the way of the Scottish Parliament following suit.