David Blunkett's guide dog Sadie at Labour conference. Photo: Getty
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How can we make parliament more representative when we've scrapped the fund for disabled MPs?

For the last few years, aspiring MPs and councillors who have a disability have been able to get help from the Access to Elected Office fund. But it's being closed in March. 

In her spare room, Emily Brothers shows me a battered old Braille machine. It looks sturdy, like a toolbox, and weighs a tonne. “When I was ten, and losing my sight – well, it was 1974 and my dad was on strike,” she says. “We didn’t have any money, and the men in his trade union got together to buy me this.”

Forty years on, the machine still works; Brothers punches out a card with my name on to prove it. She now uses it in her effort to be elected as MP for Sutton and Cheam, a constituency on the outskirts of London at the far south of the Northern Line. Her chances are, it is fair to say, not good; Labour scored just 7 per cent of the vote in this Lib Dem-Tory marginal at the last election.

Brothers is also aware that this might be her only roll of the dice. In order to campaign, she relies on her two assistants to skim-read information and convert it into accessible formats, and to steer her towards the right people to talk to at events. She tells me that being blind at party conference makes networking far harder, as it is easy for her to get stuck with the “conference bore” or, worse, end up “talking to a pillar”.

But the money to pay for her assistants comes from a cross-party pot, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, called the Access to Elected Office Fund. It is being closed in March. “Beyond the next election, I’m not going to get funding – unless a Labour government gets in and makes a quick decision,” she tells me over a cup of tea in her living room. “There is going to at least be a gap.” She bangs her fist on her lap for emphasis. “The parties should have got around the table and come to a cross-party commitment and continued it. They haven’t. That is a criticism from me to all parties – and a challenge.”

The loss of the fund will be felt particularly keenly for several reasons. The first is that several trailblazing MPs (such as David Blunkett) are stepping down at the next election, leaving only a handful of disabled representatives in the Commons, with little prospect of replacing them. Brothers knows of only one other disabled candidate, Mary Griffiths Clarke, who has ME, who is standing for Labour. “Mary keeps quoting that we have 11 million disabled people in this country; that equates to 104 disabled people in parliament,” says Brothers. “But we’ll be lucky if we have five or six.” (It is possible there are others who have not disclosed their disability to selectors – which was not an option in her case; her condition is “blindingly obvious”, she says with a wry smile.)

Dame Anne Begg, who has been the Labour MP for Aberdeen South since 1997, concurs that there is a problem. “With disability issues, it’s often two steps forward, one step back.” This parliament, she tells me over the phone, “has been the one step back. Attitudes seem to have polarised to ‘Aren’t they wonderful?’, which is the Paralympics, or ‘What a bunch of scroungers. If they got off their bums, they could do a lot more.’” Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have hit disabled people particularly hard, with cuts to several services – each of which might be manageable on its own – piling up for people who rely on multiple benefits to keep them mobile and active.

This point exercises Emily Brothers hugely, because, as someone who was born sighted and had to learn to cope with going blind, she insists vehemently that disabled people’s potential is being overlooked by employers. “I believe there needs to be some form of [statutory] disability leave – where people can take time out, under an agreed action plan, to adjust or rehabilitate,” she says. “It might be time out for treatment, it might be time out to learn new skills.”

Both she and Begg mention better public transport as a way of giving disabled people more independence. London buses are now wheelchair-accessible, and have audible announcements of stops – simple changes that make a huge difference. But in other ­areas of the country, progress is slower.

Why does any of this matter? “It’s not just about how the chamber looks,” Brothers says. “It’s about how decisions are made. I think if you’re talking about access for disabled people in the transport system, using the roads, benefits, employment opportunities . . . if you’re talking about those issues and you have a disability, you bring a different perspective. That adds value, in the way that it adds value for us to have more women.” She believes that a more representative parliament would help combat the anti-politics mood, where “people feel that politicians are not like them”.

Frances Ryan, who writes for the NS web­site on disability issues, adds a caveat. “Getting more disabled people into politics is never going to be the magic bullet for fixing the pretty dire state of disability policy in this country,” she tells me via email. “It’s better class representation as much as disability that would help the Commons understand what it’s like to have to get by on £61.35 Carer’s Allowance a week. But it’s clear that a policy such as the bedroom tax –
which got through based on a hugely flawed understanding of disabled people’s needs – would have looked very different if there had been more disabled voices in the room.”

At least getting into the Commons is now only electorally, rather than physically, challenging. “Given that it’s a historic building, they’ve done a good job of building access in,” says Begg, who uses a powered wheelchair and has an office close to the chamber.

She advises disabled candidates to be upfront about reassuring voters and selectors that they are up to the job – because although no one will say anything for fear of seeming politically incorrect, “they’re still thinking it”. Finally, she says, they should cherish the hard work and bloody-mindedness that got them into selection in the first place: “The kind of qualities you need to survive as an active disabled person are the same qualities you want in an MP.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.