I was watching Holyrood yesterday evening, I watched for a couple of hours, but the most notable thing that really stuck out was how, after a while, many of the MSPs started to morph into one, barring a couple of exceptions. I thought no wonder people get so turned off; there are so few personalities in our parliament.
There are some differences in policy overall between the parties, but the MSPs are mostly from a similar background and education, even those with work experience are from, in the main, what we would class middle level employment or higher.
Now I am not making any judgements on wither any of the new MSPs are any good or not but a snapshot would be Rona Mackay SNP, background Parliamentary Assistant to Gil Paterson. Jeane Freeman SNP, background, served as a senior advisor to First Minister Jack McConnell, and has also served on the Scottish Police Services Authority Board and the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland and chaired the National waiting Times Centre board.
We also have Oliver Mundell Conservative, holds a first-class degree in constitutional law and legal theory from the University of Edinburgh. His father is Conservative MP David Mundell. Daniel Johnson Labour, graduated from the University of St Andrews in philosophy and from the University of Strathclyde in management. Ross Greer Green Party, full-time job with the Yes Scotland campaign during the 2014 independence referendum. Alex Cole Hamilton Liberal Democrats, graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a degree in politics. Stood in several constituencies unsuccessfully as a Lib Dem candidate in Scottish Parliament elections in 2003 for the Kirkcaldy constituency; 2007 in Stirling. Worked for a Children’s Charity.
You can see where I am going with this can you. All of the MSPs are from similar educational backgrounds and have similar routes into politics. There is a part of me that is pretty depressed with that, forget about all women short lists to make up the gender balance in our politics, we probably need a background short list to get people in our parliament who are more representative of the public at large. It’s all so uninspiring. I have moaned in the past about our electing drones, now that is probably unfair to a degree but is it so far off the mark really and does this lead to voter apathy?
Turn out for Holyrood Elections and Westminster Elections is not great:
Scottish Parliament 1999 turnout 59%. Westminster 1997 turnout 71%
Scottish Parliament 2003 turnout 49% Westminster 2001 turnout 58%
Scottish Parliament 2007 turnout 51% Westminster 2005 turnout 60%
Scottish Parliament 2011 turnout 50% Westminster 2010 turnout 63%
Scottish Parliament 2016 turnout 55% Westminster 2015 turnout 71%
Scottish Independence Referendum 2014 turnout 84%
We can see that turnout, other than the referendum, is not great but probably not terrible compared to other countries. The turnout though implies that voters are not engaged enough in our political process, now I know that is nothing new but the referendum engaged people in the debate from all walks of life. I would argue that is what we need in our parliament now if we are to really make Scotland the place that we want it to be.
I know that we get told that class is no barrier, but is it! Look at the make up of our parliament, in the main it is mainly middle class parliamentarians coming through a similar educational, employment and/or party system process to be elected. A huge part of the problem I believe is selection, parties won’t select candidates that have a social media past in case anything crops up like calling a politician a rude name or saying something politically incorrect. Parties won’t select candidates that might stray from the party line, candidates that will vote on what they really believe or what their constituents believe in the main.
So what we do in fact get is a parliament where MSPs might sit with a different group, might wear a different colour at elections, might have some policy differences, but are pretty much the same from the same social economic backgrounds, in this scenario how are things supposed to really change.
One of the better parliaments we have had was in 2003 when five SSP MSPs were elected to Holyrood. We had Rosie Kane; background was mainly being a community activist and single parent. Carolyn Leckie, background was midwife in the NHS and union activist, Colin Fox, background salesman and community activist, graduate social sciences. Was there something more real about them, take away their left-wing politics, were they more in tune with the community, was their route of getting things done out with the system, challenging the system, more effective preparation for our Parliament? Did it make it more representative? Did it make it more interesting?
I enjoy politics, I take my vote seriously, I have been a member of two political parties but struggled with leadership decisions that reinforced discrimination via all women short lists or made decisions that were in the main politically correct, or often at the behest of the policy of the main party HQ based in London or Glasgow with no straying from the party line. Parties need discipline but does discipline create drones? If it does then we are the losers as no real personalities will sit in Holyrood and no real debate will take place. Personally I am probably not suited to party membership and as far as ever going for selection, I suspect I would never be selected; I just don’t fit the current criteria.
But we do need change; we need a more diverse parliament, a parliament that really represents our society, and our communities. I don’t know how we get there other than new parties, new money, a different narrative. In the current system all of that feels impossible, not achievable. So we need the parties to change, but will they. I doubt it!
In the event of no change will we see more apathy, will the voters turn away and what we will have is a John Major Parliament, filled with the same people, a grey and bland parliament. I really hope not.