As 2018 begins, the year we celebrate a centenary of universal suffrage across the UK, we face a democratic deficit in the representation of disabled people in local and national government. Parties across the political spectrum are already selecting new candidates for a future general election. But the glass ceiling is immutable for disabled people wishing to stand. Three changes would immediately transform the prospects of disabled candidates: re-instating the Access to Elected Office Fund, reviewing rules on candidates’ general election expenses and reforming the law to allow for All Disability Shortlists.
Whilst 18% of the working-age population have a disability (Scope), only 1% of MPs with a disability were returned to Parliament following the 2017 General Election. We need more MPs with the lived experience of disability to preside over the laws that affect our lives.
Last year, the UN’s inquiry into the UK raised serious concerns about the Conservative’s axing of the Access to Elected Office (AEO) fund in 2015 and the low number of persons with disabilities running for or holding elected public office. This fund provided candidates with a grant of between £250 and £40,000 for disability-related costs as part of standing for election. Disabled candidates are put at a disadvantage, as I experienced directly as a Parliamentary Candidate last year. We must campaign urgently for the re-instatement of the AEO, especially as a prospective parliamentary candidate selected this year may be fighting a general election campaign from between a few months up to four years.
If we want disabled candidates across the political spectrum to be picked in winnable seats, funding must be extended to cover party selection processes. The costs of moving locality, with all the physical barriers to relocation this entails, are prohibitive.
And, to top it all, current election law means that disability-related spending - a personal carer or disability-related transport costs - is included in a candidate’s personal election expenses. Whenever the next General Election iscalled, all parties will need to squeeze every last penny out of election expenses to seize victory in their target seats. The difference of including disability-related costs in the general expense calculations could be the difference between winning and losing their seat.
The numbers of MPs with disabilities across the House is sluggish and has remained stagnant over the last decade
But the changes needed are not solely financial. Thanks to the success of All Women’s Shortlists, introduced by Labour in the 1990′s, the number of our party’s female MPs climbed to 119 in 2017, representing 45% of our Parliamentary Party. Nevertheless, the representation of disabled women in this cohort is still significantly lower than that in the working-age population.
Although disability is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, the last Act of our last Labour government, gender remains the only characteristic where a legal preferential shortlist may be implemented. The numbers of MPs with disabilities across the House is sluggish and has remained stagnant over the last decade. In the face of the UN’s condemnation of the UK human rights record (DRUK), our political parties should be having an open and frank discussion about the need for All Disability Shortlists and a debate about amending the primary legislation. Such affirmative action would make a resounding statement to disabled people about our place in our democracy.
Our successful Oxford Labour Disability Network, supported by £2,000 from the Party’s National Executive Committee for training and workshops, has given me reasons to be optimistic about the future and electoral equality becoming a reality. Three people in our Network with a disability have been democratically selected by local Branch members in competitive hustings, to fight the 2018 Oxford City Council elections this May. We hope this sets the example and our Party makes a national roll-out of this scheme. This shows we don’t have to accept the status quo. Things can change, just as they did in 1918. On 6th February, as we raise the suffrage flag in Oxford to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, I hope our Party will set the agenda for increased representation of disabled people in local and national government.
Marie Tidball is an Oxford City Councillor and Board Member for Young People, Schools and Public Health, she is also Oxford & District Labour Party’s Disability Officer