Scottish Parliament Election 2021 – what happened? Where do we go from here?

Small steps toward a representative parliament

Published: 14 May 2021

Talat Yaqoob reacts to the Scottish 2021 elections for the Centre on Constitutional Change and RACE.ED, arguing that a participatory, modern democracy which focuses on communities most disenfranchised is a long-term goal which requires leaps forward, rather than the small steps witnessed in this election.

Last week’s election has already been praised in delivering the “most representative parliament of devolution”. Whilst that is true, the bar up to now has been exceptionally low; with no women of colour elected in 22 years, a stagnant number of women MSPs and a decrease in the number of disabled MSPs after the 2016 election. 2021 has delivered the first two women of colour MSPs in the history of the Scottish Parliament, one of which is also the first Sikh MSP, the first wheelchair using MSP and the highest number of women. Yes, history has been made, however we must also recognise that we have yet to elect a Black MSP and our parliament remains largely made up of university educated and financially privileged individuals. We are making progress, but slowly.

This progress is not accidental, it is consequence of years of pressure from both external actors and from within political parties; pushing for them to do better in delivering a representative parliament. In this election we saw the most significant use of adjusting mechanisms to create a fairer playing field for BAME candidates and women. Scottish Labour made use of all women shortlists (which they have been for over 20 years) and zipping (a method to ensure regional list candidates are placed alternately between men and women), SNP used all women shortlists and topped 4 of their regional lists with BAME candidates and Scottish Greens used measures to ensure regional lists were topped by women (and in Lothians the top 3 places were all reserved for women). For both the SNP and Greens, these measures have been successful with them delivering more than 50% women MSPs.

However, in the run up to the election there were, legitimate, concerns over the extent to which political parties have genuinely invested in these representative measures. Within the SNP, despite a record number of candidates of colour, only two were selected for constituencies (one being a prominent returning MSP), from polling it was already clear SNP would be most successful across constituencies rather than regional lists, so these outcomes mattered. Similarly, in Scottish Labour, no women of colour made the cut onto regional lists.

The scepticism around the level of effort invested in by parties is justified. It has taken many years for even this small step of progress, and political parties continue to reach out to ignored and racialised communities only when it is election time, either to encourage voting in their favour or to source diversity for the candidate lists. Instead, long-term and continuous effort is required to build trust and enthusiasm for politics in communities where it is not simply a case of apathy, it is disillusionment in systems which have failed to deliver for them.  

Research tells us that a more representative parliament can deliver more inclusive and progress policy. Muntaner and Ng found that women are more likely than men to hold left-wing views and as a consequence, higher numbers of women in Government has resulted in higher levels of investment in health and education. However, progressive policy making by representative parliaments cannot be assumed a path to a fairer society; we can simply look at the current UK Government Home Office to see a clear example. Pressure, lobbying and accountability must continue, regardless of the makeup of the parliament, to deliver policy changes which benefit those furthest away from access to opportunity, power and wealth.

In the last 22 years and five session of the Scottish Parliament, had we delivered a representative parliament, we would have seen 12 women of colour MSPs. The progress of last week is a step in the right direction but there is much further to go. Critically, we need to deliver politics and participation which goes beyond the walls of the Scottish Parliament and the role of an MSP. For Scotland to truly have a “peoples’ parliament” we need the people to be more involved and to feel that politics and policy making is something they have ownership over, rather than something that is done to them or on their behalf. A participatory, modern democracy which focuses on communities most disenfranchised and most overlooked is a long-term goal which requires leaps forward, rather than the small steps we witnessed in this election. While progress should be recognised, pressure must remain on delivering the political process we all deserve. 

More information

This piece was written by Talat Yaqoob for the Centre on Constitutional Change and RACE.ED, in reaction to the Scottish Parliament 2021 Election on 6 May.

Talat Yaqoob FRSE is an independent consultant and campaigner. She has been working in the third sector across multiple issues including women’s representation in politics, policy making and the labour market and civic participation. She is the co-founder of the Women 50:50 campaign and founder of Pass the Mic.

RACE.ED is a cross-university network concerned with race, racialization and decolonial studies from a multidisciplinary perspective, showcasing excellence in teaching, research and knowledge, exchange, impact (KEI) in race and decolonial studies at The University of Edinburgh.

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