Saturday, 7 May 2011

Minority Report

Two days on from Scotland's election, a fair bit has already been written about the gender imbalance in parliament. Only a third of MSPs now are women. Personally this doesn't worry me too much - below a third and I'd start to worry, but variation to that degree is, I think, something we can expect to see from time to time without any special cause. (Of course, only time will tell if it sometimes varies in the other direction.) Any concern I might have is further mitigated by the calibre of our female MSPs. With women like Nicola Sturgeon, Annabel Goldie and Margo MacDonald around, what women may lack in numbers they make up for in talent and force of personality.

What we should perhaps be more worried about is the shortage of representation of key minority groups in parliament. The new intake gives us only two non-white MSPs - 1.5% - whereas 11% of Scotland's population falls into this group. Of the two, one (Humza Yousaf) is only twenty five but already has some impressive achievements to his name and seems a promising new talent. The other is Hanzala Malik. Those familiar with him from his work on Glasgow City Council are not exactly expecting great things. Of course, they shouldn't be obliged to carry any extra burden beyond what we ordinarily expect of MSPs, but the fact remains that young people will look to them for an example if their first impression of parliament is that it's a white people's club they have little hope of joining.

The same issue applies to openly lgbt people. There were four in the last parliament and, so far as I can discern, five in this one (two have left). Patrick Harvie is, of course, a formidable (though very likeable) presence and punches well above his weight, being particularly good at courting media attention, whilst the SNP's Marco Biagi seems likely to achieve big things. Still, their numbers fall well short of the Westminster government's estimate that 6% of the population is lgbt, a figure considered by many lgbt groups and academics to be a considerable underestimate. Again, the impression is given that parliament is for a particular type of person and, among other things, that person is straight.

62% of MSPs are (or pretend to be) straight white men.

As far as age variation goes, the Scottish parliament is fairly impressive, with around 3% of MSPs in their twenties, 12% in their thirties, 30% in their forties, 33% in their fifties and the rest older. That there are no truly elderly MSPs probably reflects on the youth of the parliament itself; the oldest politicians in any such institution tend to be long-serving incumbents. At any rate, this matches up fairly well against positions in industry and academia with comparable levels of responsibility, suggesting that age discrimination isn't something we need to be concerned about.

With this balance in mind, however, it's all the more remarkable how few disabled MSPs there are. Holyrood just got its first blind MSP in Dennis Robertson and Margo MacDonald has spoken extensively about her experiences with Parkinson's disease; there are also a few MSPs with minor sensory and mobility impairments; but this is in stark contrast to the 14% of the general population identified as disabled in official statistics, especially allowing for the fact that people are more likely to be disabled from their forties onwards. Of course, not all disabled people are capable of working outside their own homes, or at all, but it's still evident that something is wrong here.

What can and should be done about this? "It ought to be about merit," many people protest, quite understandably. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with any individual MSP being straight, white, male and able-bodied, but when most of them are, that's a big problem. It means that parliament lacks the experience and expertise to be properly representative; it lacks the depth of perspective available to more balanced groups. Parliament is poorer for it - we are all poorer for it - and to make things worse, it's a self-reinforcing problem.

This applies for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, young people considering careers in politics are often put off if they perceive people like themselves as being excluded. Secondly, those from minority groups who do want to give it a try are less likely to have useful social contacts who can help them along the way. It would be nice to think that, in modern Scotland, people would socialise across the boundaries or things like race, sexual orientation and disability/able-bodied status, but research demonstrates that this isn't the case; or that, at any rate, it is proportionally a much less successful form of networking than that conducted within such groups. This is something which, one hopes, will change in time, but it may need a few nudges to do so.

This brings us to the big question: what can be done to remedy the imbalances in parliament? Many people shrink in horror from the term positive discrimination, yet the example of Westminster demonstrates its success - numbers of women in the House of Commons have increased dramatically since it was introduced on certain party shortlists. The counter-argument to this is that rushing women through the system means many reach positions of power despite a shortage of experience or talent, and this is indeed a problem, but the short term difficulty (along with the short term unpleasantness of any form of discrimination) must be balanced against the long term gains - the generational difference that is made when newcomers are able to find the role models and make the connections that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. There is, after all, no reason why these newcomers should be lacking in ability.

If it is used, positive discrimination has to be a party thing - it is not something that parliament as an institution can do. This means that parties have to take responsibility for the imbalances among their own MSPs. The Greens have the best record for this (taking into account their candidates as well), but none of the other major parties in Scotland is significantly worse than its opponents. All seem to want to move forward and address the problem. It is a matter, for each one, of figuring out how best to do so within its own party structures.

One final point - it is a notable characteristic of parties which employ positive discrimination to advance women that their ambitious men complain about having to work harder to get to the top. From a party perspective, this means additional gains - not only a better gender balance but more capable, more accomplished male candidates. Any smart party will therefore ask not how can we make things easier for women? but how can we make things harder for men? A tough, competitive party environment that doesn't let anybody cruise by on traditional advantages will result in stronger politicians getting to the top and should improve a party's chances of electoral success.

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