Political debate in this country in recent years has focused on Brexit, social inequality and as always, the NHS. But how much importance is given to the issues of disabled people in modern politics? There are around 13.3 million disabled people living in the UK. There would be at least 65 disabled MPs if the House of Commons was representative. There are currently 5. Why are the disabled so grossly underrepresented, and how does this affect their issues?
Parliament is unrepresentative. There should be far more disabled, BAME (black and minority ethnic) and female MPs in the House of Commons. The 2017 general election brought our most diverse parliament ever, with a record-breaking 51 MPs from non-white backgrounds elected, 208 female MPs and 5 disabled MPs. Change is happening, just very slowly. If Parliament was representative, there would be (and should be) more or less 100 non-white, 325 female, and 65 disabled members of parliament. By party, Labour and the Conservatives have 2 disabled MPs each and the Lib Dems just one. Labour is the only party close to hitting the representative 50% mark for its female MPs though, with 45% of its MPs women. The Conservative Party, our elected government, has this figure at just 21%. Women still only make up nearly a third of the House of Commons.
In the midst of all this under-representation, it’s the plight of the disabled that suffers hugely, with less than 1% of Parliament being made up of disabled MPs. Even with (slightly) more disabled MPs achieving power, will this help disabled people? Just because an MP shares a condition society has marginalised (being a woman, disabled or non-white) it does not mean the MP will stand up for the interests of other people who share this. There have been anti-immigrant immigrant UKIP members. Maria Miller is the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select committee, yet does not believe in a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. But the legislative success on LGBT issues for example, is by enlarge reflected, and perpetuated by, there being 43 LGBT MPs for the first time in history. When disability benefits are about to be slashed in the Commons, there needs to be a balanced debate. To see disabled MPs in the Commons would be a massive step. It would show them that they are included – their issues matter, they are literally part of the conversation. Sadly, these MPs are in desperately short supply.
A Speaker’s Conference on Representation concluded that the lack of disabled voices in Parliament meant that there was ‘inadequate‘ attention to ‘the major disability dimensions of mainstream policy priorities from child poverty to skills’. This conference also noted that there was ‘a lack of role models to inspire trust in Parliament from disabled people‘. This lack of trust is something that is vital to overcome. It is not surprising – not only is there barely any representation, but the cuts made to disability benefits are so severe that the United Nations described them as ‘grave, systemic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities‘.
Political representation of minorities like disabled people in the UK is making progress, but very slowly. There are many more female voices having an impact, while non-white and LGBT voices are also an important part of the political discourse. But the plight of the disabled is still fought for by far too few. This needs to change. Before it is, can we really claim to be an inclusive, tolerant society?