Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Engaging Scotland's Ethnic Minority Communities

This is an article which I wrote for the next edition of the West Dunbartonshire CVS magazine, thought I would post it in case of interest.

At the last Census carried out in the UK (2001), Ethnic Minority (EM) people made up 2.2% of the Scottish population, a figure which has almost certainly risen in the period since. Yet this population is not adequately represented in the political structures which make decisions on its behalf. At the current time there are 11 elected representatives from traditional EM communities in Scotland – one MP (out of 56), one MSP (out of 129) and 9 councillors (out of 1222). In addition there is not an EM Member of the European Parliament for Scotland (out of seven) and never had been. All of the elected representatives are men, all of them come from either the Pakistani or Indian communities, and eight of them are from Glasgow, meaning that only four of Scotland’s 32 Local Authorities have EM representatives – cities such as Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee do not have anyone.

In a research report which CEMVO Scotland is currently undertaking (to be published in early 2009), we have identified the disconnection which exists between many EM people and the democratic process. A majority of respondents to our research do not regularly vote; a tiny proportion are members of political parties or actively engage with their elected representatives; and very few have positive views of either politicians or the democratic structures of which they are members.

Lack of representation plays a key part in this disconnect. If EM members of the public view political structures as “not being open to people like them” then they will be less likely to engage with those structures or to choose to put themselves for election. By not having representatives of EM communities living in their constituencies, democratic bodies miss on out important contributions which those communities can bring to their workings and struggle to truly represent all of their constituents.

So what can be done to try and overcome this democratic deficit? More work must be carried out to increase awareness of how the democratic structures function. At CEMVO as part of the Inclusive Democracy Project we have been undertaking information sessions across the country. To date (we are in year two of a three year project funded by the Electoral Commission) we have interacted with over 1000 EM people across Scotland, working to increase their knowledge of democracy and politics and to empower them to interact in greater depth with the systems. Alongside this knowledge, it is vital that EM people are given the opportunity to meet with their elected representatives, to learn more about what their role is in making decisions on their behalf. A common complaint from the public (and one that is common to all communities, not just minority ones) is that they only hear from politicians when there is an election looming – the rest of the time they are content to hide from public view. Elected representatives must strive to increase their connections with EM communities in the areas that they are elected to serve, so that they can properly represent their interests in the relevant bodies.

Political parties have to increase their outreach work to both encourage EM people to become members, and, crucially, to encourage them to play an active role in the inner workings of the parties that they join. To attend a political party meeting for the first time can be a daunting experience for anyone – to do so in the knowledge that you are likely to be the only EM person present is doubly so. Parties must seek to demonstrate that they want EM people to be members, and to support them when they do join so that they can be as active in the party as they wish. Generally politicians are elected as members of political parties (although this is not the only way) and increasing the number of EM people who are members of political parties is one way to increase the number of elected representatives.

EM people and communities also need to be aware that elected representatives are very important. As a representative democracy, our elections in Scotland and the UK are used to choose people who make decisions affecting every aspect of our lives. If EM communities want to ensure that their priorities and voices are heard and contribute to the ongoing debates, then they must be active participants in the system. This does not just involve joining a political party or standing for election, but also includes activities such as contacting elected representatives; taking part in protests; contributing to consultations; and of course, utilising their votes when elections take place.

Participation is important for all the community, minority or otherwise, to ensure that our democratic bodies truly represent the people. By working for greater diversity, we can create vibrant structures which are open to all and which will help to contribute to stronger and more inclusive communities across our country.

The Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations (CEMVO) Scotland is a national intermediary organisation committed to serving the needs of Ethnic Minority communities in Scotland through a programme of social regeneration designed to enable the EM voluntary sector to become self sufficient and sustainable in the long term.

Funded by the Electoral Commission, the Inclusive Democracy Project (IDP) aims to increase knowledge of democracy amongst Scotland’s EM communities through a series of learning and outreach events. With this knowledge, EM people in Scotland will have more confidence in interacting with the democratic system and participating in it, allowing them to play a role in shaping the country’s future.

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