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Do you know who's coming to the party? - Political parties and ethnic monitoring

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Do you know who’s coming to the party?          

Political parties and ethnicity monitoring

Rebecca Marek  - December 2015

Recently, the Scottish Government held a roundtable discussion to address the lack of diversity and representation in public life and to consider ways to increase the participation of under-represented groups in elected office. As far as we understand, no representatives of political parties were invited, which is unfortunate, given that responsibility for ensuring equal participation of BME communities within party politics lies largely with parties themselves.

Equal representation is essential to racial equality, but before there can be equal representation, there must be active participation in politics, and therefore, active members in political parties.

As part of ongoing research to inform the Scottish Government's Race Equality Framework, CRER contacted the party offices of the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservatives and Unionists, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Green Party to enquire about ethnic demographics of their membership.

Four of the parties do not keep data on the ethnicity of their membership, with one party stating that the information was deemed “not important to collect.” One party had recently begun monitoring the diversity of its membership at a UK-wide level, but did not yet have data available.

Monitoring of equality data is a critical first step to achieving racial equality, as it makes clear whether the membership of a party reflects the demographics of a population and/or of its supporters, and whether efforts to improve upon this are successful.

Candidates for election are, with the exception of independents, generally chosen from the membership of political parties. Ensuring equality in membership is the first step to promoting equality in candidate recruitment and selection and in elected to public office.  

Equally importantly, diversity in membership fosters a diversity in ideas, and encourages manifestos and policies centred on equality that reflect the needs of communities in Scotland. It ensures as many people as possible are engaged in the political process, and that Scotland’s political structures are truly representative of Scotland itself.

Membership is certainly important, but simply having a diverse membership will not be enough. Active participation in parties makes the significant difference. BME participation must increase at all levels of party activities, from door knocking to backroom staff to policy development. Monitoring this is as important as monitoring membership diversity.

Scotland has recently made some progress to begin to achieve equal participation and representation in politics. This term of the Scottish Parliament saw Scotland’s first BME government minister, and a slight increase to two BME MSPs (one was elected in 2007, and none were elected in 2003 and 1999), making the Scottish Parliament 1.6% BME.

However, this is still a significant departure from the five BME MSPs needed to accurately reflect the ethnicity of Scotland’s population, and there has never been a female BME MSP.

Furthermore, only 17 of the 1223 (1.4%) seats in the 2012 Scottish local elections went to BME councillors, and only four of these were BME women, which equates to 0.3% of all elected councillors in Scotland. All but two of the 17 BME councillors are from South Asian backgrounds, which highlights the fact that many ethnic communities are not represented at all in local or national politics.

Scotland must continue to improve the representation and participation of BME communities in politics, and increase the influence these communities have in Scotland’s public life. Improving this requires increasing BME participation in Scottish political parties, and improving this requires increasing BME membership in parties. Political parties monitoring the ethnicity of their membership is a crucial step forward in this process.

If Scottish political parties are as serious as they claim to be about equality, when will they begin monitoring and publishing membership ethnicity figures?

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