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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Meet the Brits protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration this weekend

The British campaigners joining in international anti-racism, pro-women’s rights demonstrations against the new US President.

On Friday 20 January, across the UK, in cities spanning York, Aberdeen, Bradford, Cambridge and London, huge banners will be dropped from bridges, emblazoned with the words: “Bridges Not Walls”.

A tightly coordinated direct action, the intended message is one of solidarity: by standing up for one another’s rights, we can prevent the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups of people. “In London, there are about ten bridges,” says Harry Jefferson-Perry, a 23-year-old gay man who’s involved in the organising. “There’s a bridge run by people fighting Islamophobia, an LGBTQ bridge, and a women’s bridge. It’s about smashing borders – physical and metaphorical. It’s a form of protest against the rise of the far right everywhere.”


Harry Jefferson-Perry. Photo: Malaika Ibreck

The #bridgesnotwalls protest is one of several nation-wide actions taking place in the UK this weekend as Donald Trump is ushered into the White House and attends his first day of presidency. The campaign group Stand Up To Racism is holding a rally outside the US Embassy in London on Friday evening, the day of Trump’s inauguration, with more than 3,000 people confirmed to attend on Facebook and 20 corresponding sister marches set to take place around Britain.

On Saturday, the international Women’s March is scheduled in approximately 600 sister locations and counting, in all 50 states of America, and countries spanning Norway, Nairobi and Japan. In London, around 30,000 people have confirmed attendance to the march, the real number expected to be much higher.

The goal of the Women’s March is a street-level demonstration that women’s rights are human rights. Their manifesto maintains that they’re not directly targeting Trump (it seems they wouldn’t want to give him the credence), but to the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic ideology his presidential campaign spun.

The demonstrations are bigger than the man himself, as illustrated by their apparent global appeal. “It’s about bringing the point home that just because equality is an everyday issue, and it doesn’t go away or rise and fall with who’s in government, that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent,” says Isabel Adomakoh Young, a 24-year-old British-Ghanaian student and activist from West London who will be attending the Women’s March on Westminster this Saturday.


Isabel Adomakoh Young​

Adomakoh Young says she heard about the original Women’s March on Washington in November via black feminists she follows on Twitter. For her, going along to the London march is, in part, an act directed at the US government. “Between Trump and Brexit things aren’t looking good for people suffering oppression,” she says. “As a queer, black, cis female, I’m worried that Trump normalises unacceptable behaviour. He’s also seemingly immune to journalism, fact-checking and video, so I think people being in the street is going to hit home harder than op-eds in middle-class newspapers.”

The second reason she’s going, she says, is to show solidarity with other women: “With social media and technology people get lonely. You read the news and you think you’re the only person having feelings of isolation or, specifically as a woman, feelings of diminishment.”

As well as lobbying with a gender equality campaign group called 50:50 Parliament, for whom she’ll be making a speech in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Adomakoh Young is also an organising member of the activist group Sisters Uncut, who focus on fighting domestic violence.

However, it’s clear that many of the people who are attending marches and rallies this weekend don’t come from an activism background at all, but have been moved by recent political events to seek out a way to protest. Kimberly Tyler-Shafiq, 41, from Texas, lives in Surrey and works in HR. She is married to a British-Pakistani man with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. When we speak on the phone she tells me that she hasn’t been to a protest since those against the war on Iraq in 2003.

“After the election results I felt devastated,” she says. “We were on the precipice of having the first woman president in the US and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman. I know I’m from a conservative state but when I saw Texas come in red it still lit a fire in me – people cannot be allowed to get away with what Trump has in terms of racism and sexism. I started looking for groups on Facebook and found the Stand Up To Racism rally.”

Tyler-Shafiq wanted to meet, “likeminded people who want to make a change”, and in this online group she found people with the same agenda. As she sees it, Friday night’s demonstration isn’t an act against democracy, just a message that people “are not going to roll over and play dead”. Tyler-Shafiq plans to take her four-year-old to the event with her.

Over in Ireland, American Fanya O’Donoghue and her Irish husband Donal have similar motivations to Tyler-Shafiq. “After the election I was so stunned and embarrassed for my nation that it spurred me into action,” says Fanya. “I’ve always felt strongly about immigration because that’s affected us. Now I feel like, if we were to go back to the US, what would my husband’s green card mean?”

O’Donoghue decided to set up her own Women’s March on Galway as a response to these feelings. Again, like Tyler-Shafiq, she’s been uninvolved in politics before. “This is the first time I’ve been active like this because it’s the first time politics have made me cry,” she says.

To register her sister march, she contacted the US March on Washington team, and they added her to the admin groups, global Slack messages, and emailed over organising kits, press kits, posters and guiding principles. Then she reached out to Irish non-profits who might be interested in spreading the word; anti-racism groups, pro-choice campaigners and the like.

When asked why the march is relevant to Ireland, Fanya replies, “the rights we want to defend for America apply to every country where women are paid less, have unfair maternity rights or experience sexism”. That’s every country in the world then.

She sees the action as “linking arms”, and wholeheartedly believes that when the 600-odd marches happen on Saturday, people will be forced to pay attention. “Women are like a sleeping giant,” she tells me passionately. “It’s like they say – if you want something done, ask a busy person – and the busiest people are mums and working women. It’s important for my sons to see how powerful a woman is.”

She passes the phone over to her husband and he reiterates her sentiment: “Our kids are half American so they’ve had a bunch of questions about the election at school. We thought: what better way to show them that democracy is an active process than organising our own march? Change starts with people coming together and fighting for their beliefs.”

It’s yet to be seen how many people around the globe attend Saturday’s Women’s Marches, but from estimated attendance it currently looks set to be the biggest global demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests that Tyler-Shafiq and millions of others attended.

Perhaps it is the open-door policy and lack of specificity that’s seen the marches seized upon by so many disenfranchised groups around the world. “I don’t think people feel obliged to read up or be intellectually infallible before they go,” agrees Adomakoh Young. “It’s just for anyone who is pro-equality. A universal cause to rally around.”

Likewise, Jefferson-Perry encourages anyone to get involved with #bridgesnotwalls. “Look on the website, see who you affiliate, drop in and join them,” he says.

For Tyler-Shafiq, the march will, she hopes, be an outlet for the frustration that her and many other Americans in the UK are experiencing. “It’s hard to sit over here watching what’s going on in my homeland and feeling helpless.” And yet, while it’s “good to be involved as an expat”, she is aligning herself with likeminded Britons who want to influence UK leadership to stand up to homophobia, racism and sexism too.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent about how Trump’s agenda is trickling into British politics because of the close relationship between the two countries,” she says, before adding that this weekend cannot be a one-off. “It’s good that people are making a stand, but it’s important that we get organised all over again when Trump decides to visit the UK.”