As the results of the election are digested and discussed across the country, much attention is, quite rightly, being paid to the greater diversity of the new Scottish Parliament. A record number of women have been elected, with 58 out of the 129 seats now occupied by female MSPs. At 45 per cent female membership, the parliament is the closest to a true gender balance it has ever been and includes its first women of colour with the election of the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart and Conservative Pam Gosal. Also notable is the election of a permanent wheelchair user to the parliament for the first time, with Scottish Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy becoming an MSP.

Inevitably, thoughts are turning towards next year’s local elections and the opportunity that Scotland’s voters have to increase diversity within local government. Currently, just 29% of councillors and 16% of council leaders are female, compared to 51% of the population, so there is more to be done to ensure a representative balance in local elected office. When we look at councillors who are people of colour, both male and female, they represent less than 1% of local elected members in Scotland, as compared to around 4% of the population. These figures starkly expose the need for more diversity amongst local councillors to truly represent, and reflect, Scotland’s diverse population.

This is not to do our current cohort of councillors a disservice, however. As Cosla President, I have had the privilege of seeing first-hand their deep commitment to democracy and to making a real difference to their local area and the diverse communities that they serve. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen councillors working tirelessly to support individuals, communities, businesses and vulnerable groups in their local authority area. What next year’s local elections do offer, however, is an opportunity for an even wider variety of lived experience within communities to be reflected in our local democratic processes.

Cosla’s Barriers to Elected Office Special Interest Group was established following the 2018 Achieving Gender Equality in Local Politics conference, which brought together women in politics and public life from across Scotland to identify the barriers to elected office faced by women and to propose actions to overcome these. As a result, the group has developed guidance for local authorities on lone working and parental leave for councillors and has identified supports for women working through the menopause.

In addition, it has supported Cosla’s work with the other UK local government associations to tackle the online abuse that many councillors face and to promote civility. A good number of our current councillors have also volunteered for the training in mentoring offered by the Improvement Service, so that they are able to offer real support to people from different backgrounds stepping forward for the first time. The rationale behind this and related work is clear – increasing representation of traditionally marginalised communities or groups in local elected office will ensure that councils are better able to identify and meet the needs of the diverse populations they serve.

There is, however, still more to be done and work has started on supporting a more diverse range of people, particularly women of colour, to consider standing as candidates in 2022. Cosla has a long-standing relationship with Elect Her, an organisation working to support, motivate and equip women to stand for elected office. Formerly known as The Parliament Project, the organisation facilitates workshops to demystify the process of standing for elected office, runs training programmes to support women with the skills they need to stand and nurtures a community of women through peer support circles. 

There is a real opportunity to further strengthen the voice of local democracy through increased diversity amongst Scotland’s councillors. Local representation more reflective of Scotland’s communities and a gender balance of councillors will mean that a wider range of voices and experiences are able to directly influence decision-making at a local authority level.  As we look ahead to next year’s local elections, we must continue the progress made so far and support people to step forward for local office and thus have a real opportunity of opening up our council chambers and electing a cohort of councillors that is more representative of the diversity of Scotland’s population and which achieves true gender balance in local elected office.

Councillor Alison Evison is the President of Cosla.