Will It Still Be All White in May?

Since it was born eight years ago, the Scottish Parliament has stayed resolutely white. Is this a national disgrace, or doesn't it matter? And will May's elections change anything? Emma Seith investigates

Opposite Abdul Dean's clothing shop in Govan stands the impressive Pearce Institute, the building that got him into politics. When the A-listed institute, home to dozens of charities, was threatened with closure, Dean decided to stand in Govan as an independent candidate in the 2003 Scottish parliamentary election. "There was no-one backing me. It was just me, God and some customers," says Dean.

He got 226 votes, placing him sixth of eight candidates. As far as Dean was concerned, his political life was over. Following that foray into politics, however, both Alex Salmond and Tommy Sheridan's mum, Alice, have tried to sign him up to their parties, claims Dean. Why? "They all want the Muslim vote, so, they came to see me," he says. Political parties in Scotland are also competing for the kudos of adding a much needed splash of colour to Holyrood. Since the Scottish parliament was formed, no non-white MSP has been elected. Now, with another election approaching in May, the question is, will anything change this time?

Some view Scotland's monotone parliament as a scandal. Others - including some people from minority communities - argue that, given Scotland's small minority population and relatively young parliament, there's nothing to be ashamed of and diversity will come in time. Many Asian Scots say the priority for the first generation of immigrants was to get established in a community, become economically stable, raise their families, educate their children - not to run the country. That's an ambition more likely to be held and realised by the second and third generations.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, agrees that black and minority ethnic (BME) candidates are bound to do better in Scottish politics in the future. There will be fewer cultural barriers, no difficulties with language, candidates may have Scottish accents and could have been members of a political party since their youth. "It's going to be easier for BME candidates if they speak as though they come from Glasgow rather than as though they come from the Punjab," says Curtice.

Ali Jarvis, Scotland's race relations chief, gives these arguments short shrift. "From what we've seen, if we let these things evolve naturally, it takes too long." It would, according to Jarvis, who heads the Commission for Racial Equality CRE Scotland), take well over a century for even the House of Commons to truly reflect Britain's ethnic mix if things plod along at the current rate. She continues: "It depends whether you want to wait until, simply by dint of evolution, these things change. Or if you believe it's too important and you have to make a conscious effort to have a parliament that reflects the country."

Simple maths tell us that's not currently the case. The percentage of Scotland's population from an ethnic minority was 2% in the 2001 census, a figure Jarvis believes has doubled to more than 4% in the intervening years.

Holyrood has 129 MSPs. On the basis of the country's population, therefore, you might expect between two and five MSPs to be non-white. For Dean, two factors revived his political career: he was the victim of a racist attack and, following a visit to Glasgow Airport, his teenage son was grilled by officials as if he were a terrorist plotter. He felt someone needed to speak up for his community.

So, Dean, a practising Muslim, joined the Christian People's Alliance Scotland and - somewhat bizarrely - in the coming election he tops its list in Glasgow. "It's the only party that truly represents the views of the Muslim community in Scotland," he explains. Dean says it "beggars belief" that there has never been a non-white MSP. But it looks unlikely that he'll be the man to break the mould - at least this time around. The SNP appears to be the party most likely to deliver an ethnic-minority politician. Bashir Ahmad, who came to Scotland from Pakistan when he was 21, is second on the SNP's list for Glasgow. Of all the ethnic-minority candidates for the May 3 poll, only he seems to have secured a convincingly winnable proposition.

As Curtice puts it: "Unless the SNP really screw up, we're guaranteed a BME MSP in May." Ahmad says: "I hope that I will be able to bring my own unique experience to the Scottish Parliament and give a voice to not only Asian Scots but to all the people of Glasgow." A start? Possibly, but some political commentators have expressed their doubts about Ahmad's robustness as a politician as well as his communication skills.

The calibre of the first BME MSPs to enter the parliament is critical, experts say, as people will be all too ready to characterise an entire group based on their performance. Jarvis explains that, once elected, candidates who don't deliver can be quickly voted out. That matters less if they are white, but can damage the prospects of others if they are not. "It can often reaffirm people's stereotypes: this group can't be MSPs. People like to have their stereotypes confirmed with a sample of one, rather than consider the fact that there are lots of MSPs at Holyrood whose performances vary." Davena Rankin, second on the Scottish Conservatives Glasgow list, believes the first minority MSP to get through will have to be inspirational. "Then you'll get more and more people coming through but, if they're just horrendous for whatever reason, that will just turn everyone off," she says.

There's also a danger, says Jarvis, that when a BME MSP is elected, white MSPs would become complacent and look to them to take the lead in race issues. "Every MSP should be able to talk confidently about equality," she says. The BME MSPs of the future, Jarvis argues, should not be expected to represent minorities but should be there to accurately reflect the make-up of Scotland. "Because Annabel Goldie is a white woman does that mean that she represents all white women?" she asks. Osama Saeed, the Scottish representative of the Muslim Association of Britain, agrees with Jarvis. He says: "True integration comes when you have a damn good parliamentarian who just happens to come from an ethnic minority."

It's tough for ethnic minorities to engage with parties at a grassroots level, Saeed says, and even harder to get into a winnable seat. In order to bring forth talent, parties need to ensure they are not institutionally racist. And all, claims Jarvis, have work to do. "Every party has expressed a desire to be more diverse but you have to do something to make that happen," says Jarvis. The process of rising through party ranks, and reaching the selection stage for candidacy needs close attention. She adds: "That process often fits one section of the population and is difficult to access for the rest." The CRE received feedback from one party claiming that, in a predominantly white area, it's normal to field a white candidate. "Why is that normal?" asks Jarvis. "And what are the parties doing about it?" Too often, says Graham Campbell, who's sixth on the list for Solidarity in the city, succeeding in a political party means spending a lot of time socialising in the pub - not a pastime that suits people from every culture. "Political parties are institutionally racist because you have to know the in-crowd," says Campbell, who came from Jamaica to Britain in 1969. "In Glasgow that means hanging around in the pub after meetings, socialising.

Depending on religion or culture, not everyone wants to hang around in the pub." Ashay Ghai believes political parties remain reluctant to put ethnic minority candidates forward in constituencies because they think it will lose them votes. "I think there has been a fear among political parties when they are picking candidates that it will be more difficult to get ethnic minorities elected," says Ghai, who is fighting the Clydebank and Milngavie constituency for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. "So, if you've got a winnable seat they wonder: will an ethnic minority candidate make it less winnable? It's important political parties get over that." Ghai believes to participate fully in Scottish politics, minorities must clear two hurdles: get a candidate elected to the parliament and win a constituency seat.

Jarvis adds one more - get a BME candidate elected in a predominately white constituency. Of all the leading parties, only the Scottish Green Party has no ethnic-minority candidate. MSP Patrick Harvie said the party was "fully committed to equality", and said the Greens were working with the CRE to examine their procedures. He added: "A lot more needs to be done to attract members of ethnic minorities into politics. That's a problem suffered by every party, and an issue that we will continue to work on." Research commissioned by CRE shows that regardless of ethnicity Scottish citizens have the same priorities: improving standards in education and cutting crime.

It used to be true, says Curtice, that putting up a non-white candidate would have meant fewer votes for parties, but no longer. "Voters are not discriminating against BME candidates anymore," he says. "Around 20 years ago you could see that these candidates would do less well but that evidence is disappearing." Curtice points out that the Scottish parliament will probably always be predominately white. Few would disagree.

But the challenge for political parties is that it ceases to be, as the BBC was once described, so "hideously white".

The Herald Society asked minority ethnic candidates for the Scottish Parliament elections for their views on why it has remained all-white, and the chances of that changing.

DAVENA RANKIN, second on Glasgow list for the Scottish Conservatives "It's disappointing that the parliament hasn't attracted more black candidates. The point of having proportional representation was to represent the whole of Scotland which is why the SSP and the Greens were able to make a break-through.

"I like the fact that was able to happen but still the parliament is all-white.

"It's said that people don't join trade unions because they don't get asked. I think the same applies for political parties and minorities - people don't get asked.

"I think it's about taking the arguments into different communities. Parties are notorious for sticking to their areas.

Instead they need to go into communities and engage with people and talk to them."

BASHIR AHMAD, second on the Glasgow list for SNP "It's likely that the SNP will be the only party to return an MSP from an ethnic minority, which will be a huge first step for the party and the parliament.

"The lack of any Asian or ethnic minority voice in the Scottish Parliament has been deeply felt in my community. The SNP have righted that wrong and now stand to earn the trust of the Asian community."

REV GEORGE HARGREAVES, leader of the Scottish Christian Party, top of the list in Glasgow and standing in Springburn "The Scottish Parliament is very new so I don't see the lack of minority MSPs as a fault of the parliament, or the Scottish system. The Conservatives have only just at the last election got their first black MP at Westminster.

"As far as I'm concerned - unless it's really undercover - I have never felt racism in Scotland. I lead a party full of white Scotsmen and I have been embraced as a Christian brother - there are more jokes about me being English than black.

"However, should we prevail, which I think we should, Scotland will have the first black party political leader in the UK. That would be one up for Holyrood."

ABDUL DEAN, First on the Glasgow list for the Christian People's Alliance "The fact we have no Muslim or ethnic minority MSP beggars belief. After 7/7 I had a women who walked in the shop and said you should all be interned. This isn't just neds that are thinking like this, this is the effect on normal, educated people. We need to get this solved. A lot of people in the community feel we are the enemy now. We need Muslims in the parliament to speak up on these issues."

BASHIR MAAN, second on the Glasgow list for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party "An ethnic minority MSP would make the Scottish parliament representative of all segments of the community. It would make it a proper parliament that represents every point of view. Just now we have no voice there and that's not good for democracy."

ANAS SARWAR, first on the Glasgow list for Scottish Labour "There are very few role models in politics for young people from ethnic-minority groups. When one person manages to break through in Scotland, others will have the confidence to make an attempt themselves. But it's important that we don't push people through so that the parliament looks right'. If you look at the statistics, 79% of Asian households live below the poverty line compared to a national average of 29%; male unemployment in Asian families is double the national average; women from an Asian background suffer more health problems and report more to GPs. I hope that if an ethnic-minority MSP is elected, they will educate people on these issue, speaking up for ethnic minorities and the indigenous community."

GRAHAM CAMPBELL, sixth on the Glasgow list for Solidarity "We need people in the parliament who understand race issues from their actual experience. You can't have a conversation about racism without black people being there. And we have to race-proof the rest of the agenda - education, for instance. Research shows young black Scots are suffering because there are not enough black role models in schools and not enough that reflects black identity in Scottish education."

ASHAY GHAI, standing in Clydebank and Milngavie for the Scottish Liberal Democrats "I have to say I've never stayed awake at night worrying that this is a very white parliament. It's a very young parliament; it will right itself over time. I have never felt that I wasn't represented by the fact that my MSP or my MP happens to be white. That would be like saying if I were elected I wouldn't have the ability to represent someone that wasn't from a minority background, when clearly I would. The issues that concern the BME community are the same ones that concern indigenous Scottish people: education, health and crime." None of the Scottish Green Party's constituency or list candidates is from an ethnic-minority background. The Scottish Socialist Party were yet to finalise their candidate lists as Herald Society went to press.