I was in the gym when it happened, about 20k into a 35k ride on a Wattbike. Since my knees started playing havoc in 2018, I have had to make do with two wheels. Outdoors is okay but the indoor version is mind-numbing. I need all the distraction and inspiration I can muster.
Yesterday, it came, unusually, in the form of an election result. The brilliant, indefatigable Pam Duncan-Glancy had been elected to the Scottish Parliament on the Glasgow list for Labour. In doing so she became the first wheelchair user to be an MSP.
I had torn myself away from the results after Aberdeenshire West because the gym closes earlier on Saturday and I had to get my punishment in. But anxious not to miss the last results, I positioned myself next to a large TV screen which fortunately was on the right channel.
If we had needed a reminder why Pam’s election mattered, the ordeal she faced just getting into the count at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena had supplied it. Pam, as ever, had borne the whole episode with remarkable grace. But the indignity of her experience was shocking.
As her result came up, my sweaty fist punched the air and my eyes welled up. ‘Yesssssssssssss….’ I knew Pam was fourth for Labour but wasn’t sure the party would pick up three or four of the seven list seats available. Confirmation she had done it was not just joyous because I know and like her, but also because of the barrier she had smashed.
My first visit to Glasgow as an adult came in the mid-1980s. In the summer of 1986, I arrived there from London as a young trade unionist, part of a national positive action working party established by the white-collar union, NALGO. I was on the working party as a representative of the union’s fledgeling lesbian and gay committee which we had self-organised two years earlier.
Participation in the working party alongside women, black, and disabled members was one of the first occasions our committee had been recognised formally. Just getting regions to fund representatives’ attendance had been a slog. Scotland had not been the most resistant. But on at least one occasion I had effectively been told to mind my London ways by a senior Scottish official.
Arriving in Glasgow that summer on a series of visits around the country, the working party’s representatives had been met with a sea of white, able-bodied, male faces. At that time, only one of Scotland’s seven members on the union’s executive committee was a woman. The executive at large was scarcely better. Of its nine standing committees, only two were chaired by women. One other committee had a female vice-chair.
Two passages from our hard-fought over report — far from uncontroversial — have always stayed with me. And they came to mind yesterday as I watched Pam clinch her seat:
‘But despite the fact that the trade union movement has done more than most, a century of white, able-bodied, male dominated trade unionism, purporting to treat all members equally, has not seriously challenged discrimination.’
‘Since it is impossible to really understand prejudice and disadvantage unless you experience it yourself, it is crucial that those who do experience it should have the opportunity to meet and put forward measures to overcome that disadvantage.’
Pam’s victory came alongside another historic first, the election of a woman of colour, Kaukab Stewart, to the parliament, and Pam Gosal, the first Indian Sikh. In fact, the number of minority ethnic members elected this time — six — is more than the number across the first five Holyrood parliaments put together. And the number of women elected to the parliament reached a record high of 45%.
For me, there was another notable first, the election of Paul O’Kane, the first gay man elected to the parliament on a Labour ticket. I was a Labour member for the best part of 35 years until 2015 and cut my political teeth in the trade union movement.
I remember vividly the adoption of policy on gay rights by the Labour Party in 1985, thanks to the efforts of the then Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The same year, NALGO seconded a motion on gay rights at the TUC which was also carried. We organised a fringe meeting the night before the TUC debate. It was attended by just six people — and a dog.
Of course, we’ve seen gay men representing Labour at Westminster and other parties at Holyrood. But Paul’s election felt personal. For all the remarkable change of the last four decades, not for the first time I thought, it’s been a long road to here.
Yesterday was a day to celebrate historic breakthroughs. In an era when identity politics’ is misrepresented and accusations of ‘wokeness’ are traded unceremoniously (back then they called it ‘political correctness’), equality and diversity are all too often cheapened.
But the barriers confronting those who face prejudice and discrimination are far from historic — they are clear and present in everyday lives. This election was one of firsts which must not be lasts — and there are still more firsts to come.
A diverse parliament is not just a nice to have, not merely a colouring in. It is an affirmation of rights. The challenges facing our parliament over the next five years are immense. To meet them, it must look like the country we live in as well as the one we want to be. If it does not, its endeavours will be found wanting.
Equality is not a luxury. It is an essential prerequisite to better policy — decision making informed by a legislature inclusive of the whole population it is intended to benefit. We are all the richer for that — ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.’