Nicola Sturgeon's government has talked a lot about progressive ideas. When will it have the courage to deliver? – Talat Yaqoob

It’s a historic sixth session of the Scottish Parliament as we keep being told.

The new Scottish Parliament is more representative of the population. Will that mean progressive ideas are more likely to be turned into reality? (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)

The highest number of women MSPs, the first woman of colour, the first Sikh MSP and the first permanent wheelchair user. Of course there has been a moment of celebration and applause, as there should be; the parliament looks a little more like Scotland now and feels more like the nation we claim to be.

But taking a step back, after 22 years of devolution, to still be counting these kinds of firsts, dampens the celebration.

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The reality is we should have been much further ahead by now. Simply looking at population numbers, we should have seen 12 women of colour elected since 1999.

Representative politics is not simply a tick-box, research suggests that it can deliver more fit-for-purpose policy. An increase in women in parliament has been linked to higher levels of investment in health and education, as well as more collective, cross-party working.

This cannot be taken for granted, however, and as we emerge from Covid-19 with a focus on recovery, we need to set the expectations of our parliament and government higher than it has ever been before.

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For all the talk of progressiveness in Scotland, Covid-19 has shone a light on the superficial nature of that label and shown us how quickly the progress we thought we had made can unravel.

The election revealed how many communities and groups in Scotland are being not just forgotten, but sometimes, actively ignored; unpaid carers, under-paid hospitality workers and those experiencing mental health problems are just a few examples.

There were some one-line promises in manifestos and good rhetoric during TV debates that have maybe already forgotten when these should be the basis of parties’ strategies for the next five years.

We have no shortage of ideas in Scotland, but there is a shortage of investment and, after three terms of an SNP government, a shortage of courage. Bold ideas are often given a stamp of approval by government and a supportive tweet but the follow-through is either lacking or becomes a diluted version of the systemic change needed – education and attainment being a prime example.

We have too many policies that claim to do big things but instead are only scratching the surface of deep structural problems and providing piecemeal change.

This next parliamentary session and government needs to be one of radical action, one that recognises the system failures which have plagued Scotland for decades. Problems which have persisted through different leaders and colours of government and, as such, require a response which cannot stop at party lines or be used as political ammunition.

Over the last few years, too many have assumed that a group set up to talk about an issue is the same as delivering change on that issue. A problem is identified, often raised by communities and campaigners, and in response a working group is set up to show that something, anything, is being done. But that is not a solution, it is only the start of one.

There is no shortage of working groups, strategy groups, advisory panels in Scotland. Yes, the input of experts – particularly those who actually experience the injustice being tackled – is crucial, but what happens next?

A report written, a short period of enthusiasm and bold agenda-setting, but fast-forward a year and what changes have communities on the ground actually seen? I have been part of these groups, I have felt this frustration deeply, as have so many others; putting effort into developing policy positions, gathering data and talking to communities but not seeing the results that Scotland desperately needs.

We know what will work, whether it’s a basic income guarantee or affordable, flexible childcare; we’ve spent enough time talking about it, now we want to see it happen.

The efforts of opposition and backbench MSPs need to not only be effective in the debate chamber, but have to resonate with the people of Scotland beyond the walls of Holyrood.

All opposition parties need to get better at maintaining focus and pressure beyond that initial moment of interest, so that any issue of injustice raised cannot be ticked off the to-do list simply because it has been acknowledged or an initial step of progress appears to have been made.

Covid-19 has been a wake-up call, reminding us of the need for bold, wealth-redistributing change. In the first few months of the pandemic, the words “build back better” were everywhere, aside from being some clever messaging, over a year later what have we learnt and what will actually be done as a consequence?

The people who have kept us safe or have kept us fed are often those on the lowest pay, working under poor conditions. If we are to respond to the learning of the pandemic, then we need solutions that completely change the face of the economy and who it prioritises. This session of the parliament must be one where the big questions are asked and where those in power are made to feel uncomfortable with the status quo.

With a quarter of the parliament being new, fresh faces, an opportunity is on the horizon. There is a chance to shake things up. Many of those who have been elected are campaigners who have been working on the ground to create a fairer Scotland. This is their moment to keep that campaigning mindset, including within their own parties, and demand change alongside the thousands of voices across Scotland.

We need radical, transformative change, the question is whether the 129 people entrusted by the electorate have the political will and courage to deliver it?

Talat Yaqoob is an equalities consultant and campaigner

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