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Is systemic racism to blame for the lack of diversity in the Scottish Parliament?

Nicola Sturgeon campaigns with former refugee Roza Salih ©Alamy

Is systemic racism to blame for the lack of diversity in the Scottish Parliament?

When the commission set up by Downing Street to examine the issue of systemic racism published its report at the end of last month, the conclusions were met with a mixture of anger and tired resignation.

Black historian David Olusoga called the report a “disaster”, while Lady Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen’s murder exposed institutional racism in Britain’s largest police force, said it would give racists the “green light”.

Convened in response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities painted a picture of a United Kingdom that while not yet a “post-racial” society, was nevertheless a “model for other white-majority countries”.

Perhaps most controversially, it found no evidence of the system being “rigged” against people of colour and those from ethnic minorities.

In his foreword to the report, chairman Tony Sewell, an education consultant and charity boss, said that while “impediments and disparities” do still exist, very few are the direct result of racism.

Sewell, who did concede that racism remains a “real force”, said factors including geography, family and socio-economic background were all more likely to play a significant role in limiting opportunities.

Yet it is not difficult to find racial inequality wherever you look in Britain, whether it’s the higher rates of death among people of colour during the pandemic or the disproportionate number of police stop-searches involving young black men in Britain’s cities.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the COVID-19 mortality rate for those of black African or black Caribbean ethnicity in the first half of 2020 was two to two-and-a-half times higher than for white people.

And researchers at University College London have found young black males are 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police than the general population.

In business, the arts, sport and politics, there is under-representation, particularly at senior levels.

One such example of that under-representation is the Scottish Parliament.

Since its creation in 1999, the parliament has had just four non-white MSPs, all of them men.

In 22 years, there have been no female MSPs of colour.

If the Scottish Parliament is not an example of a system “rigged against ethnic minorities”, then it comes perilously close.

However, there is hope that things could finally be beginning to change, albeit glacially.

Our communities deserve better from politics. Political parties should be engaging communities throughout the year, every year, and need to focus attention on tackling the inequalities within their selection processes and activism

Next month’s election sees the highest number of ethnic minority candidates since devolution.

The SNP, which is likely to be the biggest party after May 6, has 11 BAME (black and minority ethnic) candidates, six of whom are women.

Four of those candidates top the party’s regional lists, including Roza Salih who came to Scotland as a refugee and is above party leader Nicola Sturgeon on the Glasgow list.

Across all the main parties, there are 10 women of colour standing – six for the SNP, two for the Lib Dems and one each for the Conservatives and the Greens.

Talat Yaqoob, a campaigner who launched Pass the Mic to help improve the representation of women of colour in the Scottish media, estimates there should have been around 12 female MSPs of colour since devolution, based on population size.

The failure to elect a single black or Asian woman since 1999 is just one illustration of what she calls our society’s deep-rooted inequality.

“It is simply not the case that women of colour are less interested in politics,” she says. “It is a reflection of politics and political systems not working for them. We need better representation, and even more so, we need parliamentarians committed to tackling racism, sexism and bigotry through the delivery of policy that improves people’s lives.”

Yaqoob says that too often in the past, people of colour have been placed on shortlists as a form of “window dressing” by political parties, without any real prospect of being elected.

“Political parties too often reach out to communities of colour when they need a diverse looking candidate list and they need votes ahead of an election.

“Our communities deserve better from politics. Political parties should be engaging communities throughout the year, every year, and need to focus attention on tackling the inequalities within their selection processes and activism.”

Approximately four per cent of the Scottish population is from a minority ethnic group, although that figure rises to around 12 per cent in Glasgow and eight per cent in Edinburgh.

In the most recent parliament, however, just two MSPs – Anas Sarwar and Humza Yousaf – were non-white, making up around 1.6 per cent of Holyrood’s 129 elected members.

When Sarwar was elected Scottish Labour leader in February, he became the first person of colour and first Muslim to lead a major UK political party.

He previously represented Glasgow Central in the House of Commons, having succeeded his father Mohammad, the UK’s first-ever Muslim MP.

But despite his own electoral successes, he admits there is still plenty of work to do.

“In the entire history of Scotland we have only elected three MPs from Scotland’s diverse minority backgrounds – two from one family – and four MSPs, all of whom were men; all from Glasgow; all from a Pakistani background; and all Muslim,” he says.

“And far too often, to be honest, it has been in spite of their political parties, not because of them.”

At May’s elections, Scottish Labour has just two non-white candidates standing on the regional list – Sarwar in Glasgow and Foysol Choudhury in Lothian.

The lists were published before Sarwar became leader, and he says he hopes to improve the situation in the years to come.

“In 2018, I published a report on how to lead by example, including shortlisting of minority ethnic candidates, diverse selection committees and anonymous reporting,” Sarwar says.

“There has been some progress by my own party and by others, but there is still a long way to go.

“I have only been leader of my party for a few weeks but when it comes to the next candidate selection process, I want to ensure there is much greater diversity within our ranks.

“Yet the hardest challenge remains delivering change in society.

“If we are to succeed then we must see this as a mission for all of us, because ultimately we will be judged by our actions, not our words.”

For Yaqoob, the commission report was more than just a frustration.

She calls it a “whitewash of reality” which will do nothing to dispel the myth that politics in this country is a meritocracy where everyone of a similar calibre stands an equal chance of being elected, regardless of race or religion.

“Whether we look at employment outcomes, health outcomes, justice or political power, people of colour are left behind and disproportionately harmed – decades of evidence clearly illustrates this but has been ignored. The report fulfils one need only and that is to abdicate the UK Government of the responsibility to tackle institutional racism.”

Over the past few weeks there has been much discussion about strengthening Holyrood by introducing measures such as elected committee conveners and parliamentary privilege.

But Yaqoob says our parliament cannot fully realise its potential until it represents those it was set up to govern, a legislature built, in the words of the late Donald Dewar, on the “principles of social justice”.

She says: “We need to challenge the idea that politics currently operates through a meritocracy. When our politics is not representative of the population, in terms of gender, race or class then it clearly means that many of those with the merit to be in these positions are experiencing barriers preventing them from fully participating. It is our democratic duty to tackle those barriers.” 

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