Diversity in political representation in Scotland: data improvement project proposal

We have been scoping out a project to work with stakeholders to improve the completeness of data on the diversity of election candidates and elected representatives in Scotland. This paper sets out details of a proposed new data collection at the 2022 local council elections.

2. Context

2.1 Equality and diversity characteristics

Under the Equality Act 2010[1], it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of one or more of the following protected characteristics:

  • age;
  • disability;
  • gender reassignment;
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion or belief;
  • sex;
  • sexual orientation.

The Equality Act also provides the legal framework[2] for positive action measures by political parties, intended to address the disadvantages and under-representation experienced by people who share protected characteristics[3].

The Fairer Scotland Duty[4], Part 1 of the Equality Act 2010, came into force in 2018. It places a legal responsibility on particular public bodies, including Scottish Ministers and local authorities to actively consider how they can reduce inequalities of outcome caused by socio-economic disadvantage, when making strategic decisions.

2.2 Legislative context and voluntary commitments to publication of data

There is currently no legal requirement to collect or publish information on the equality characteristics of candidates for elections in Scotland. Section 106[5] of the Equality Act 2010 would require political parties to publish information relating to the protected characteristics of applicants for nomination and/or election candidates. It has not, however, been commenced by the UK Government. If Section 106 was commenced, it would not as currently set out in the legislation, include local government elections in its scope. It would also apply only to registered political parties, so not independent candidates who made up almost a fifth of candidates at the 2012 and 2017 Scottish local government elections[6].

The five largest parties in Scotland signed up to Inclusion Scotland's Access to Politics Charter[7], which includes a commitment to "voluntarily publish data on protected characteristics of our candidates in line with section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 for all elections, including Scottish local authority elections". At the time of publication of this paper no published data is yet available from political parties on the diversity of their candidates for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, and it is not yet known whether all parties plan to meet this commitment for the 2022 local government elections. Ensuring this data is gathered and reported consistently is important from the perspective of seeking to collate a national picture of the diversity of candidates. As set out at Section 4.1, below, this project hopes to make a contribution to the development of a consistent approach to collecting and reporting on this data.

The data that is available comes from surveys and observation, as set out briefly below. There is no publicly available data on applicants for nomination as candidates.

2.3 Current availability of diversity data

2.3.1 Data on election candidates

Data on the proportion of female candidates at local government elections has been collected since 1999, relying on names, knowledge of Returning Officers (ROs) and academic desk research. These methods of data collection are imperfect, and not able to be used for collection of data on all protected characteristics, but nevertheless provide a relatively complete picture for the gender breakdown of local government candidates since 1999 (see Figure 1).

The available data shows that the proportion of female local government candidates rose by only four percentage points between 1999 and the last election in 2017, from 26.8% to 30.5%. As Figure 1 shows, progress towards gender balance amongst candidates has varied considerably by party. There was a decline in the proportion of female candidates among all of the major parties following the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system in 2007[8]. At a national level there was no increase in the number of female candidates in 2012, and the proportion of female candidates only reached 30% for the first time in 2017.

Figure 1 – Proportion of female candidates at local council elections 1999-2017 (by largest parties and independent candidates)
Chart showing proportion of female candidates at Scottish local council elections, between 1999 and 2017,  by largest parties and independent candidates.

Source: Bochel and Denver reports for the Electoral Commission in 2007, 2012 and 2017 (see footnotes)

ROs have previously collected data on the gender of candidates, based on the names of candidates and their own knowledge[9]. Aggregated data for the 2017 local council elections was published in the Electoral Management Board (EMB)'s summary of candidates nominated[10]. This included a breakdown by local authority, showing that the proportion of candidates who were female ranged from a high of 40% in East Ayrshire Council to a low of 12% in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) local government elections briefings in 2012 and 2017 used data provided by the EMB to provide gender breakdowns of local government election candidates by political party[11] [12].

Professors Hugh Bochel and David Denver (and in 2012 Dr Martin Steven) have produced a number of reports on behalf of the Electoral Commission following Scottish local government elections. Noting that the figures for percentages of female candidates were according to their best judgement based on publicly available information, their reports have provided breakdowns of the percentage of women candidates by political party for each local government election from 1999 to 2017[13] [14] [15].

Within the 2016 and 2021 House of Commons Scottish Parliament Election briefing papers[16], data on the gender of candidates was gathered by volunteers for Democracy Club[17]. Candidate data was collected from 'Statement of Persons Nominated' reports, published by councils before an election. When data was not available the gender of candidates was inferred from the candidate's first name. The Democracy Club acknowledged the limitations of this methodology.

Data on the proportion of candidates with other protected characteristics is very limited, or not available for some characteristics, and no intersectional analysis is available.

In their report on the diversity of candidates and elected officials in Great Britain[18], the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) drew on data from surveys of candidates at the 2016 Scottish Parliament election and 2017 local government elections undertaken by Dr Wolfgang Rüdig at the University of Strathclyde as part of the cross-country Comparative Candidates Survey[19]. The surveys ask standardised questions across issues including campaigning and political views, but also collected data on age, disability, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Response rates to the surveys were 32% for Scottish Parliament candidates and 34% for local government candidates, so while valuable data was gathered across a range of topics, it is not known how representative the diversity data is of the national picture.

Surveys of councillors are undertaken after each local council election by the Improvement Service (and previously by Cosla). In 2003 and 2007, the Scottish Government undertook parallel surveys with unsuccessful candidates so that a national picture for all candidates was produced[20] [21] [22]. The surveys collected data on the characteristics of candidates as well as their motivations and experiences of standing. Both surveys resulted in response rates of around 60%.

2.3.2 Data on Councillors

SPICe briefings following the 2012 and 2017 local government elections[23] reported the proportion of council seats in Scotland by party and gender using data provided by the EMB. The reports by Bochel and David Denver (and Steven in 2012) for the Electoral Commission have provided data on the percentage of female councillors by political party for each local government election from 1999 to 2012[24] [25].

Figure 2 shows the proportion of female candidates and councillors at each local council election since 1999, against the proportion of women in the population (51.3% in 2017[26]).

Figure 2 - Proportion of female candidates and councillors at local council elections 1999-2017
Chart showing proportion of female candidates and councillors at Scottish local council elections between 1999-2017.

Sources: Bochel and Denver reports for the Electoral Commission in 2007, 2012; SPICe; National Records of Scotland (see footnotes).

Data on the proportion of councillors with other protected characteristics is limited, or not available for some characteristics, and no intersectional analysis is available.

Surveys of councillors in Scotland have been carried out by Cosla, and then the Improvement Service, following each local government election since 1999[27] [28]. Diversity data is collected as part of these surveys, although it is not their primary purpose. The response rates are not sufficiently high for the surveys to be a reliable source of data on the equality characteristics of elected members over time (only a third of councillors responded to the most recent councillor survey in 2017).

2.3.3 Data on Members of the Scottish Parliament

SPICe briefings following 2016 and 2021 Scottish Parliament Elections provided gender breakdowns of MSPs elected by political party. Following the 2003 and 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, SPICe published the sex, ethnicity and age profile of elected MSPs. Educational, occupational and political background was also published[29].

The EHRC's report on the diversity of candidates and elected officials in Great Britain[30], included data on the age, sex and race of MSPs gathered from publicly available sources such as MSPs personal websites, political parties' websites and the Scottish Parliament website[31]. Two ethnic minority MSPs were elected in 2016, which increased to six in 2021 including the first two women of colour. The first permanent wheelchair user was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2021, however, no reliable data is currently available on the overall proportion of MSPs with disabilities, since these are very often invisible or 'hidden'[32].

2.3.4 Data on Members of the UK Parliament

The House of Commons Library have published a number of reports examining the characteristics of MPs. The reports draw on data from the House of Commons library MP database, academic sources, newspaper articles and observation. The reports publish data on the gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, parliamentary experience, education and occupation of MPs[33] [34] [35].

The EHRC report on the diversity of candidates and elected officials in Great Britain published data on the diversity of elected MPs from the 2017 General Election[36]. Data on age, sex and race was available for almost all of the elected MPs using observational data. Data on disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and trans status was taken from a parliamentary candidates survey[37]. Response rates for the survey questions on disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and trans status was only 28% for MPs, with response rates for questions on disability and sexual orientation dropping to 8%.

2.4 Approaches to data collection in other countries

A brief review of practice in selected other countries found a range of different approaches to collecting data on the diversity of candidates, to some extent related to whether those countries have population or centralised candidate registers.

Finland and Norway use similar methods to each other, where data is gathered prior to parliamentary and municipal elections on the Finnish electoral candidate register[38] and Norwegian electronic election administration system[39]. Data gathered includes gender, age, country background, education and occupation.

In Sweden, candidate data is collected from the population register. Data is collected on sex, age and whether or not the candidate is a Swedish citizen based on information in the population register. Ballot papers contain candidates' name, party, age, gender and occupation[40].

In Canada, political parties do not collect, or publish, individual-level candidate data. Accounting for this absence, a largescale dataset (4,516 candidates) has been produced that has collated candidate data from the four most recent federal elections[41]. Data collection methods have involved analysis of official party and candidate websites, social media, news report, the Library of Parliament, and biographical and photograph analysis. Data includes gender, race, occupation, party, prior electoral experience and electoral outcome.

In New Zealand, local government candidates were surveyed by the Department of Internal Affairs between 2001-2007. The response rate in 2001 was 63%. Data was collected on gender, age, place of birth, Maori ancestry, ethnicity, employment, occupation, geographical location, household income and household composition[42].

As part of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011[43], every local authority in Wales is required to conduct a survey of councillors and candidates at each local government election. The survey includes questions on gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religion or belief, health, education and qualifications, employment and work as a councillor. In 2017, the response rate for county candidates was 24% and for community candidates was 17%[44].

The Comparative Candidates Survey[45] is a cross-country survey that asks elected representatives various questions about their political candidature and background (including sex, year of birth, citizenship, level of education, employment status, affluence, religion, marital status, children). There are 35 participating countries from Europe, North America, South America and Australasia. Dr Wolfgang Rüdig at the University of Strathclyde has collected data in Scotland as part of this project (see 'Data on election candidates' section, above).


Email: Gillian.Cruickshank@gov.scot

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