Why do we have so few disabled MPs?

With only a handful of disabled MPs, it’s time for Parliament - the biggest force for change in this country - to get the House in order before it preaches to others about the importance of disabled people advancing in the workplace.

When Lynn Jefferies was asked to run for York County Council in 2010, she took it as a chance to raise awareness about the disability issues she has spent the last 20 years campaigning for.

Two years after her election, she resigned. Injured in a dry ski slope accident in 1992, Jefferies felt that her fellow councillors were unable to look beyond her wheelchair. “They treated me like just another whingeing disabled person.”

As a result she found it hard to get her voice heard: “They see disabled people as people you do things for, not people you work with.”

The idea that disabled people are not people you work with was part of the theme at last weeks’ Disability Employment Conference in Westminster.

Speaking at the event, David Cameron said how important it is for disabled people to get to the top of every profession.

Nearly everyone would agree with him. There are millions of disabled people in the UK who can work, want to work, but can’t. Nearly one-fifth of our workforce is excluded from the job market. It makes sound business sense to change that.

But this is coming from the leader of a political class that is woefully unrepresentative of disabled people.

With over 10 million people in the UK suffering from some form of disability, if parliament was truly representative there should be around 100 registered disabled MPs. In reality there are fewer than 10 and none in the government.

With only a handful of disabled MPs, it’s time for Parliament - the biggest force for change in this country - to get the House in order before it preaches to others.

Jefferies’ experience is just one example of the barriers that disabled people face in politics. It’s not an easy ride for more high profile politicians either. Let’s not forget the time Jeremy Clarkson described Gordon Brown as a one-eyed, idiot and that in 2011, Paul Maynard MP revealed that members on the opposite benches openly mocked him by pulling faces and stretching their cheeks as he spoke. Maynard suffers from cerebral palsy. Then there is the recent example of Cornish councillor Colin Brewer who was forced to resign for the second time after comparing disabled children to deformed lambs that farmers kill by “smashing them against a wall”.

Bigoted examples like these send a dispiriting message to disabled people throughout the UK. Added to high-profile cuts to the disability allowance, constant press-denigration of ‘benefit scroungers’ and the recent rise in disability hate crime, there is little wonder why people coping with disability feel that attitudes towards them are going backwards.

However, four in five disabled people believe that having more disabled politicians would improve the way they are treated. Bring on more Beggs and Blunketts as role models and policy makers.

But if we are to see more high profile politicians rising up the ranks, we need to address the aspects of our political system that are not so disability-friendly.

The Palace of Westminster is one. Admittedly it is an old building, not conducive to people on wheels or crutches but tell that to Lib Dem candidate and wheelchair user, Greg Judge who has fallen out of his wheelchair on uneven ground outside Westminster Hall and, as a non-passholder been forced to sit in the rain between meetings because accessible pubs and cafes are too far away.

We also need to change the language of our political discourse and the attitude it purveys. “Scrounger” is bad enough but even describing a disabled person as “vulnerable” and “in need of support” preserves that misconception that disabled people are dependent. That kind of association will do nothing to encourage their contribution to our society, or politics.

Finally, Cameron talks about encouraging businesses but political parties need to take some responsibility.

The Tories have reformed their selection process (pdf) to create priority lists of candidates, a “significant” percentage of which should be from minority and disabled communities. There is nothing, however, to guarantee that someone from the priority list will be selected.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, has no such provision for disabled candidates and a spokesman told me that they have “more pressing things” to include in their 2015 manifesto.

There are surely few things more pressing than making our Parliament truly representative. We are not so well stocked with talent in Westminster and Whitehall that we can afford to ignore those who can bring expertise and new perspectives to British politics. Lynn Jefferies says she hasn’t given up on her political career yet but as the selection process for 2015 gathers pace, the leaders of all parties should start matching rhetoric with reality.

 

David Blunkett MP campaigning at the 2010 general election. Photograph: Getty Images
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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