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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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt