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11 August 2016

Don’t forget the most under-represented group in our democracy – disabled people

Roughly 16 per cent of working age adults are living with a limiting long-term illness, impairment, or disability, but just 1 per cent of MPs. 

By David Barker

There are currently 192 female MPs, a hundred of which are from Labour alone. Together, they make up 30 per cent of all MPs, compared with women representing just over half of all British people. Less than a third is far from equal, but this figure is higher than ever before.

Excluding the 18 Northern Irish MPs, 6.6 per cent of MPs are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This, like the number of female MPs, is a record high. And similarly, Labour leads the way, with 10 per cent of its MPs being BAME, compared with 13per cent of the general population. Again, it’s not an accurate reflection of our country, but at least it’s progress.

However, when it comes to representation of disabled people in parliament, the May 2015 election saw the numbers decrease. There are now four physically disabled MPs: three Tories and one Labour, down from seven.

Estimates vary, but the Department of Work and Pensions’ Office for Disability Issues states that around 16 per cent of working age adults are living with a limiting long-term illness, impairment, or disability. They are represented by less than one per cent of MPs.

The problem this lack of representation brings is the same as for any group of people suffering from historic, structural inequality. If one set of people are absent from law-making, then laws will be made against their interests. A recent example of this was the planned cuts to Personal Independence Payments.

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So how do we get more disabled people into political office?

Mathy Selvakumaran is an East Midlands Regional Ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy UK Trailblazers, as well as a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She tells me, as with many problems people with disabilities face, the biggest issue is with accessibility: “There used to be support in place, like the Access to Elected Office Fund”.

This helped pay towards costs like transport and sign language interpreters for disabled people wanting to run for local and national elections. “Without support like this,” said Selvakumaran, “It’s difficult to ensure that people with disabilities can participate as equally in political life as their able-bodied counterparts”.

Selvakumaran advocates more flexible working conditions: opening positions to job shares, working from home, or even shorter working days and weeks. This would enable people with disabilities to do the job without feeling limited by their conditions and without putting their health at risk.

But the problem goes beyond physical barriers: “Often, the extra arrangements required to create an accessible workplace environment are seen by employers as frivolous or an unnecessary headache, and the prospect of having to face these negative attitudes can put people with disabilities entirely off of even trying in the first place”.

To find out more, I spoke with Lucy Seymour-Smith, a UNISON organiser in the West Midlands. At 17, Lucy addressed the 2005 Labour Party Annual Conference, calling on Blair’s government to do more for the manufacturing industry. The local MG Rover complex in Longbridge, Birmingham, had recently closed, taking with it 6,500 jobs.

Seven years later, she fought to be Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Warwick and Leamington. The seat is a Tory-Labour marginal, which the Conservatives had won back in 2010. It was an all-women shortlist.

 Seymour-Smith has chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as ME. Like most illnesses, the severity of symptoms can vary greatly, but all people with CFS will have some degree of persistent exhaustion that doesn’t go away with rest or sleep.

Selection battles are tiring.  Seymour-Smith drove after work from Birmingham to Warwick and Leamington almost every night for several weeks. One of her major selling points, she says, was her energy and enthusiasm. But despite her passion, and a political CV beyond her years,  Seymour-Smith wasn’t selected. A local councillor was chosen instead, who went on to lose in 2015.

After narrowly missing out on the Warwick and Leamington selection, the Birmingham Mail reported  Seymour-Smith was aiming for Birmingham Yardley (which was later won by Labour’s Jess Phillips). The truth, however, was that she was considering a number of available seats in the West Midlands. Sadly, that was when her ME struck, which left her unable to go for any of them.

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, presented a bill in 2012 to Parliament to change the law to allow MPs to job share. No vote was taken, and the campaign continues. “Job sharing is definitely something to explore”, Seymour-Smith said, but she believes it should not occur in isolation. She advocates more training for constituency officers and activists, and, specifically to Labour, greater integration with Disability Labour. “At the moment it seems to be completely separate. It needs to be a normal part of every meeting.”

“I’ve personally had a really good experience of support in the Labour party, but I think we could be doing a lot more to promote activism within the disabled community, to make people realise that it’s possible.”

If simply getting selected is this much of a struggle, it’s hard to imagine the difficulties encountered if successfully chosen as a candidate, let alone elected.

Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys since 2010, was born with cerebral palsy. He said: “I find the problem personally is as much one of perception as of reality”. As a consequence he feels aware he “can’t just be ‘good enough’”, but actually has to over-perform: to demonstrate he can do the job to people who presume otherwise.

Perception is key. Having had his larynx damaged since birth, Maynard’s speaking voice isn’t always as clear as he would like. People sometimes make judgements based on that, but he doesn’t believe it relates to his ability to do his job.

In practical terms, he concedes, many aspects of politics can be made harder by disability. Doorstep canvassing, for example, is an essential part of campaigning, and keeping in touch with constituents, which Paul says a wheelchair user may find this more challenging. However, like with visual and hearing impairments, he strongly believes people are adaptable and capable of finding a solution, if given the opportunity. 

The 2010 Equality Act, one of the last Acts of Parliament under Gordon Brown, requires equal treatment in access to employment for disabled people. This makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled people: to actively exclude them from selections, however, it doesn’t solve the problem of indirect discrimination: of the routes to power being fundamentally inaccessible.

While Maynard and other MPs have proven it’s possible for disabled people to overcome the barriers between them and political office, it seems fair to say that not enough has been done to encourage them. In his maiden speech to the House of Commons, Maynard made the point that simply being in the room changes perceptions: “The more people we have with a broad spectrum of impairments, the more we can inspire others with impairments of all political beliefs to get involved in politics, which can only be a good thing”.

Selvakumaran, Seymour-Smith, and Maynard all say, in different words, that the difficulty in making politics more accessible is how disabilities cover a huge range of requirements: one person may need physical access to a building, whereas another may have issues with the length of work.

Seymour-Smith says she makes a point of highlighting this to help others in future, but Selvakumaran believes it’s the responsibility of the political establishment. They must encourage more people with disabilities to run for office, rather than expecting disabled people to take on making an environment more accessible. 

Fair and accurate representation of all demographics is a vital part of any healthy democracy. Achieving this, on all fronts, requires commitment from the top.And this will depend upon whether or not those already in power think disabled people deserve a seat next to them