Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Welfare and equalities

Barriers to diversity in Scottish local government

An LGiU briefing released earlier this year outlined the findings by Green Park on diversity within local councils in the UK. LGiU’s Kat McManus follows up to provide a summary of the state of diversity in Scottish local government, examining what barriers to diversity exist, and how local government can work to be more inclusive, representative, and diverse.

Scotland’s record of sexual orientation representation has seemed strong in recent years, with the SNP setting the bar for the highest proportion of LGBT-identifying MPs in the world (14%) following 2015’s General Election. Improvement Service’s survey found that compared to the Scottish population, the councillors who responded to the survey had more diverse sexual orientations. 5.6% of councillors said that they identified as gay/lesbian and 1.5% as bisexual, compared with 1.1% and 0.4% of the Scottish population.

Yet in other diversity arenas, Scotland is lacking. According to estimates from research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, less than 1% of representatives were from an ethnic minority background, compared with 4 per cent of the Scottish population. In terms of gender, women make up just 29% of councillors in Scotland, and 103 out of 353 Scottish local councils are currently represented entirely by men. According to Women5050.org, a campaign driven by former MSPs for fair representation in Scottish government, without radical action equal gender representation will not reach 50% in local councils for another 50 years.

The lack of diversity in age is also striking; the average age of a councillor in Scotland is 53 years old. 32% are in their 50s compared to just 18% of the population, and whilst older age groups are overrepresented, younger age groups (below 30 years old) are very much underrepresented, at just 6% of the population compared to the 17% of the population they make up. Although partially explained by the long length of political careers as opposed to extreme lack of age diversity at entrance points to local government, a lack of representation for young people can perpetuate disengagement.

Barriers to diversity – what do they look like?

The EHRC’s research suggests that a lack of recognition regarding what diversity problems local authorities are facing is a barrier in and of itself – there is currently no way to understand the full extent of underrepresentation in local government in Scotland. Political parties do not routinely collect data on the diversity of membership and electoral candidates, excluding gender. This makes it is difficult to see whether other protected minority groups are represented in line with the Scottish population.

Resources are an important barrier of entry to standing for election. Those lacking personal finances often face greater exclusion, reducing diversity of backgrounds and experiences among councillors. Those with additional costs such as childcare responsibilities or disabilities, who are already underrepresented face further exclusion due to finances. The timing and location of events necessary for standing matter for diversity, as do requirements to fulfil time-based commitments such as leafleting. Whilst often essential for successful progress within local government, these activities can risk leaving those with time responsibilities and accessibility requirements excluded – ultimately reducing diversity among protected characteristic groups. Careful approaches, ensuring that events are held in accessible ways and alternative efforts to aid campaigns recognised, are important for diversifying those standing for elected office.

Another barrier to diversity among those in local government can be behaviours faced by certain protected characteristic groups, as a result of those characteristics. In the EHRC’s study, 48% of female candidates and 12% of male candidates had experienced ‘unwanted behaviour that they had found to be humiliating, offensive or intimidating’. In the same survey, racism was also reported by a number of participants. A lack of formal or informal response from a political party to discrimination, harassment or inappropriate behaviour can be a barrier to continued involvement or progression for those facing unwanted behaviour.

How can local government begin to break down the barriers?

To address gender representation, several political parties have already launched initiatives and commissions. All-women shortlists can be used secure a female election candidate to improve representation in a party, typically used when an incumbent is stepping down. Other methods introduced include policies to ensure that 50% of winnable local council wards are will have a party list headed by a woman. Outside of the ballot, numerous campaigns work to improve the participation and recruitment of women in Scottish politics exist. Projects such as Engender and Women5050 provide a variety of free resources aiming to inform Scottish women on the work of local councils and how they can participate and influence, ranging from information on voting to seeking local election.

The EHRC found that election strategies may risk reinforcing other resource barriers; only promoting candidates who can focus the most time and resources on the winnable seats can be exclusionary and skew representation to those with the most ability to campaign– whether that is those who are older, or do not have time commitments or care responsibilities, or who are most physically able. Therefore it is important to diversify the pool of potential candidates chosen to stand for these positions so that central and local parties’ resources do not risk reinforcing inequalities in diversity.

Overall, to address its findings, the EHRC has set out the following recommendations:

  1. Identify the diversity of candidates, so parties can prioritise and take positive action – by including a legal requirement to collect and publish diversity data on local election candidates under section 106 of the Equality Act 2010, amended to include local government elections.
  2. Overcome the barriers to participation in political parties – parties should hold responsibility from the top down for a plan of positive action in their selection processes to tackle under-representation.
  3. The changing of party culture, where parties take more responsibility to prevent discrimination and harassment through the adoption of party code of conducts that are widely accepted and enforced.
  4. Addressing issues with resources for those wishing to stand for local government by extending the Access to Elected Office Fund to earlier on in the election process to provide even greater support to disabled candidates, and by extending the fund to include other protected characteristic groups, for example “to cover additional childcare and other caring costs that disproportionately affect women”.

Whilst many institutions and parties are stepping up to follow research and introduce a variety of policies to address diversity – with gender representation being the most targeted so far – these efforts should continue alongside even greater improvements targeting ethnic minorities, disabled people, and young people. There’s no doubt that local government has a vital role to play in addressing exclusion at all levels and types of barrier if the gap between the diversity of the Scottish population and their representation in local government is to close any time soon.

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