Scottish Parliament Election 2021 – what happened? Where do we go from here?

The journey to a more diverse Scottish Parliament

Published: 17 May 2021

By Dr Timothy Peace, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow.

Dr Peace shares his analysis of the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections – “2021 election results show that the challenge has been recognised, but the fight for equality and better representation in Scotland continues”.

The journey to a more diverse Scottish Parliament

In the immediate aftermath of the 6 May election, many commentators have focused on the new-look Scottish Parliament, which will be the most diverse since its creation. More women were elected than before (45%), with more MSPs with visible disabilities and more representatives from ethnic minority backgrounds. The variety of languages used for the swearing in ceremony on Thursday 13 May indicated a very real marker of this diversity.

Prior to these elections, there had been a lot of discussion about the lack of ethnic minority MSPs, and it was easy to see why. In the previous parliament there were only two (Humza Yousaf for the SNP and Anas Sarwar for Labour) which represented just 1.5% of the total. Given that the latest data indicates that Scotland’s ethnic minority population is around 4-5% of the total, one could not say that the debating chamber previously reflected the now multicultural and multiethnic nature of Scottish society. It also compared unfavourably with the UK parliament which, after the 2019 General Election, had 65 MPs from an ethnic minority background, which represents 10% of the House of Commons.

Scotland actually has a number of firsts in terms of the representation of ethnic minorities (all the more remarkable when we consider the much lower numbers compared to other parts of the UK). Bashir Maan became one of the first South Asians (and possibly first Muslim) in the UK to hold an elected position when he became a Glasgow councillor in 1970. In 1997, Mohammad Sarwar became Britain’s first Muslim MP and was the first person from an ethnic minority background to represent a Scottish constituency at Westminster (Glasgow Govan for Labour). More recently, his son – Anas Sarwar, became the first person of colour and first Muslim to lead a major political party in Scotland and indeed anywhere in the UK.

Yet prior to last Thursday’s historic election, just four people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds had been elected to Holyrood. None of whom were women and all of which came from the Scottish Pakistani community representing the city of Glasgow:

  • Bashir Ahmad (SNP, elected 2007 Glasgow region)
  • Humza Yousaf (SNP, elected 2011 for Glasgow region and 2016 Glasgow Pollok)
  • Hanzala Malik (Labour, elected 2011 Glasgow region)
  • Anas Sarwar (Labour, elected 2016, Glasgow region)

At Westminster, in addition to Mohammad Sarwar and his son, the only other non-white MP elected in Scotland had been Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. She was the first ever woman of colour from Scotland to be elected to any Parliament - European, Westminster or Scottish. On 6 May 2021, she stood, unsuccessfully, for the newly created Alba party. After Anum Qaisar Javed’s win in the Airdrie and Shotts by-election, there is now, once again, one Scottish MP from an ethnic minority background.

Low numbers of non-white elected representatives, at least prior to last Thursday’s results, reflect broader problems with diversity and representation in Scotland. Black and minority ethnic workers make up less than two per cent of the civil service in Scotland, according to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre. The same research highlighted that there are ‘just 10 ethnic minority civil servants at the most senior level, while the percentage of non-white employees is below one per cent in 21 local authority areas, with the proportion falling to 0.1 per cent in some instances.’

The Scottish Government has responded by investing last year in a leadership and development project targeting Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups. The initiative is based at the University of Glasgow’s John Smith Centre with the aim of breaking down the barriers to public life that minority ethnic groups encounter. However, is it enough? Could and should more be done to close the gap?

A call to improve representation answered

Following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, there were calls for greater diversity in Scottish politics and the main parties accepted that they had to up their game ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections. The SNP party conference, for example, passed a resolution to increase minority representation of its candidates. The National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to put forward people of colour to fight for selection in every seat although this drive to increase diversity was dismissed by some insiders as ‘window dressing’. The choice to select more diverse candidates later developed into a row over the legitimacy and legality of the proposal that the top spots on the eight regional lists would be reserved for either a BAME candidate or a disabled candidate.

The 2021 elections saw a noticeable increase in the number of candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds, with those representing the Conservatives contesting both a constituency seat as well as being placed on the regional list. It is interesting to note that in the constituency of Glasgow Pollock, easily regained by the SNP’s Humza Yousaf, the four main parties all put forward an ethnic minority candidate. The SNP had the largest number of BAME candidates and although many of them were at the top of their regional lists, the idiosyncrasies of the Additional Member electoral system meant that none were duly elected as regional MSPs. Indeed, despite winning 62 of the 73 constituency seats, the SNP only ended up with two ‘additional members’. For the other parties, placing BAME candidates at (or near) the top of the regional list led to better results.

The big news from results day on 7 May was the election of Kaukab Stewart in the constituency of Glasgow Kelvin. By virtue of the constituency results being called first, she became the first woman of colour elected to the Scottish Parliament.[1] She was joined by Pam Gosal, elected for the Conservatives on the West of Scotland list, who is also the first ever-Sikh MSP. The full list of BAME MSPs now reads as follows:

  • Foysol Choudhury (Labour, Lothian region)
  • Pam Gosal (Conservatives, West of Scotland region)
  • Sandesh Gulhane (Conservatives, Glasgow region)
  • Anas Sarwar (Labour, Glasgow region)
  • Kaukab Stewart (SNP, Glasgow Kelvin)
  • Humza Yousaf (SNP, Glasgow Pollok)

These six representatives now make up 4.5% of the Scottish parliament and better reflect the makeup of Scottish society. It is evident that there is still more chance of being elected as an ethnic minority candidate in the region of Glasgow, which is also reflected in the number of BAME candidates that were put up for those seats. Unsuccessful candidates included Nadia Kanyange for the Scottish Greens and Roza Salih for the SNP who was one of the ‘Glasgow Girls’. Had either been elected, they would have been the first MSPs who were previously asylum seekers.[2] It was recently reported that SNP members broke party rules in the candidate selection process when Ms Salih stood as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Clydebank and Milngavie constituency. Indeed, her story of being overlooked for a constituency seat tells a wider story of frustration that more minority candidates were not placed in a better position to actually win a seat.

The results from last week, which saw a tripling of the number of ethnic minority MSPs, will be seen as an important step forward, but political parties cannot rest on their laurels.

As Talat Yaqoob has recently noted: “We still have many communities including black communities who have never had visible representation in our parliament…So there is a long way to go yet and we cannot take progress for granted.”

It is also important to remember that many people are put off by the potential of online abuse. Fatima Zahra Joji (SNP lead candidate in the North East region) told a reporter prior to the election of her experience and how she feels that the “colour of my skin and the fact I am a visible Muslim already singles me out for abuse”. These issues are, of course, not unique to Scotland. However, in a country that can sometimes think of itself as immune to the problems of racism, it is a reminder that more can always be done. As the authors of the Taking Stock – Race Equality in Scotlandreport remind us, ‘the only way to make meaningful progress on race equality is to work across sectors, government departments and stakeholders, and recognise that this continues to be the urgent challenge.’ The 2021 election results show that the challenge has been recognised, but the fight for equality and better representation in Scotland continues.


[1] Kaukab Stewart was also the first woman of colour to stand for election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

[2] At this election refugees and asylum seekers were allowed to vote for the first time.


About the author

This blog was written by Dr Timothy Peace for the Centre on Constitutional Change and RACE.ED. 

Dr Timothy Peace is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow. His research deals with the politics of migration and he has recently been a co-investigator on the GLIMER (Governance and the Local Integration of Migrants and Europe’s Refugees) project. He has also worked on social movements and political participation among Muslim minorities. He is the author of the book European Social Movements and Muslim Activism (Palgrave 2015) and edited the collection Muslims and political participation in Britain (Routledge 2015).

RACE.ED is a cross-university network concerned with race, racialization and decolonial studies from a multidisciplinary perspective, showcasing excellence in teaching, research and knowledge, exchange, impact (KEI) in race and decolonial studies at The University of Edinburgh.

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