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
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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad