The Scottish Labour Party’s executive committee is meeting on Saturday to decide how the party’s regional list will be selected for next year’s Holyrood elections. Today, all but three Labour MSPs are drawn from the regional list and the likelihood is that the majority elected next year will also be list MSPs. That puts a tremendous amount of responsibility in the hands of the SEC to shape the group of MSPs who will be in parliament until 2026.
There’s a lot that you could write about how the party might improve the list selection process, especially at a time when we are badly in need of a shot in the arm to recover from our current polling position of 13%. But a few facts should weigh heavily on the SEC’s mind as they make their decisions tomorrow.
In the near 22 years since devolution, the Scottish Labour Party has only ever had one openly gay Member of the Scottish Parliament. It has only ever had two BAME MSPs. It has never elected a woman of colour. And it has never had an MSP who is a wheelchair user.
We may be far ahead of other parties in the measures we have rightly put in place to secure gender equality, but for other under-represented groups there are gaping holes in Scottish Labour’s parliamentary representation.
A lack of diversity in our parliamentary party serves us poorly. We know from studies in the public and private sector that a lack of diversity and representation can mean worse decision making, groupthink taking hold and a failure to be able to grapple with complexity.
And on a political level, if we want to one day replace the SNP as the national party of Scotland, how can we do that if our representatives do not look and sound like modern Scotland?
The consistent failure of our selection systems for the Scottish Parliament to deliver more than a handful of LGBT, BAME and disabled MSPs over the course of 22 years points to a failure of the system. If we are serious about taking action to improve representation, there is no point in tinkering round the edges. We need to change the system.
During the last Scottish Labour leadership election, Richard Leonard said: “As leader, I’ll make sure women, LGBT, BME and disabled candidates are supported and prioritised to stand in any and all elections.” But while the Scottish Labour Party is planning to take more action to try to maintain 50:50 representation after the next elections, there is nothing being offered to secure better LGBT, BAME or disabled representation.
I can’t speak for BAME or disabled colleagues – I’m not from either group – but I do know about being LGBT and seeking elected office. I joined the Labour Party on the encouragement of the late David Cairns, then the MP for Inverclyde. Meeting him when I was 17 was the first time I ever realised it was possible to be both gay and successful in Scottish politics.
We know from our own experience the importance of role modelling for people from under-represented groups. Being able to see someone like you in a position of power and influence is often the first step in demonstrating to people that it is possible, and there is a reason to fight.
The Scottish Labour Party has supplied amazing role models over the years for women who aspire to be elected (though still too few). But we have not done our job when it comes to other groups.
Today, if you are a young LGBT person who is thinking of running for office, the Scottish Labour Party has no one in Holyrood you can look up to. If you are a wheelchair user, there is no one. If you are a member of a BAME community, there is one person. It is simply not good enough. The Scottish executive committee is right to be looking again at how we maintain women’s representation in parliament, but too many people are being left behind.
On Saturday, the SEC should shelve its selection plans for now and work with LGBT Labour, BAME Labour, the Labour Women’s Network and others to establish a system that – in Richard’s words – supports and prioritises all under-represented groups. One that can see us elect a representative group to Holyrood next year.
When Richard was elected Scottish Labour Leader, he said: “This is no time to tinker around the edges. We need wholesale, real and radical change.” To really be able to say we are the party of equality, it is time we stop just tinkering around the edges.