Barriers to Participation

As awareness of social justice movements increases, so too do the number of schemes designed to encourage members of marginalised groups to run for elected office. Such schemes may provide mentoring, financial support or publicity for women, disabled people, LGBT+ people, BAME people etc. Yet before one can even access such schemes, the barriers to political participation loom tall and seemingly impassable.

Inclusion Scotland offers the Access to Elected Office Fund for disabled people seeking selection, or who have already been selected as candidates in Scottish Parliament elections and local authority elections in Scotland. While this removes the financial barrier – undoubtedly a good thing – it assumes, of course, that the disabled candidate can make it to the stage of candidate selection in their political party (this does not apply to those running as independent candidates, which is more viable in some areas than others).

Assuming, for the time being, we are looking at a member of a political party, the would-be disabled candidate must first face their party’s candidate assessment procedures. It is here that so many of the non-financial barriers block the way. Prospective candidates are expected to be experienced campaigners in all aspects of campaigning, must fill out complex forms full of jargon, and attend interviews about their skills, experience and pasts. Each of these steps throws more obstacles in the way, not just for disabled candidates but for all of those who face any marginalisation.

In a country where most people’s homes are in tenements, up a set of stairs, or otherwise inaccessible to wheelchair users and anyone with mobility impairments, traditional campaigning methods such as leafleting and canvassing are all but impossible. For many neurodivergent or mentally ill people, non-white people, visibly queer people or women; going up to people’s front doors unannounced, accosting them in the street, or even just entering a block of flats to deliver leaflets can be terrifying, and can often actually be dangerous when alone. Those least likely to feel confident and comfortable with traditional campaigning are also those least likely to be represented in politics.

From my writing style, it is obvious that I am familiar with complex language, but even I found the initial candidate application form for the SNP to be confusing and unintelligible. The jargon in such forms is so thick that even those familiar with politics in general will find them tricky to understand. For people with learning disabilities or difficulties, non-native English speakers, or just people less familiar with the deep jargon of politics, such forms will be immediately off-putting.

Finally you have the interview – if you even get that far – where they will look at your past experience and skills, and also if there is anything in there which could damage the reputation of your party. So good luck to neurodivergent people, who are more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school; people of colour who are more likely to have had contact with the police thanks to the institutionalised racism of that particular organisation; and queer people who may have been kicked out of their homes and struggled to find housing and/or employment due to discrimination. 

Most parties in Scotland talk of the need to increase the representation of marginalised groups in politics; indeed there are signatories from most parties on the Women 5050 website, a campaign group to get more women into politics and policy making. At the same time, these parties are taking few or no steps towards making it more likely that members of these groups are able to pass their own assessment processes, much less be selected as candidates and go on to win an election. 

Providing funding for candidates more likely to financially struggle, implementing quotas for candidate selection and campaigning for better representation are all positive steps forward but they mean little if those of us who face these barriers can’t even make it to those stages of the process. There are cost-free steps that could be taken in order to support marginalised candidates such as workshops to help with filling out the forms until they can be rewritten, yet even these bare-minimum steps have not been taken. If what we are assessing is how well people can walk up a set of dark stairs and knock on a stranger’s door alone, who can fill out barely-comprehensible forms, and who has the least tumultuous past, then very few women, BAME people, queer people or disabled people will even make it to selection.