Archive for September, 2013

Political Equality

September 3, 2013

Political Equality
How the Access to Elected Office Fund is helping the fight for electoral equality for Disabled would-be politicians

Experience of injustice came early to me. As a partially sighted child I was bullied and taunted because I was different. I was enraged that it was me they objected to for all I’d done was be disabled.
As I journeyed through the Women’s, Disability and lesbian and gay liberation movements, my rage at sexism, ableism and homophobia fuelled my activism. In my work as an artist, writer and local government officer, I sought to change the world through exposing the outrageous hatred of the different.
I wrote, I ranted, I organised and I sat down. I sat down for peace, against apartheid and for disabled people’s right to ride. But I wanted mainstream politics to take up these issues so I decided to get involved in formal party politics.
My first bid was for a seat on the Greater London Authority. Proud to be selected for the London Labour List, I was unfortunately far too far down it to stand a chance of being elected. Still, I loved the fight, campaigning outside tube stations and on the street with Ken Livingstone, the underdog in the fight. But we gave Boris a run for his money and narrowed the gap hugely by the day of the vote. I couldn’t do any of the campaigning without a support worker and as the Access to Elected Office Fund had not opened, I had to foot the bill, myself.
I was amazed when I discovered that the Access to Elected Office Fund not only existed but would support would-be politicians to get nominated as well as when they had been selected as the candidate. Suddenly, a huge pile of barriers fell away. This well-kept secret needed exposing.
My next bid for office was to seek the Labour nomination for the Hornsey and Wood Green Parliamentary seat. Well blow me down if I didn’t get into the last three! This time, with the support of the Access to Elected Office Fund, I was able to pay for support workers to assist me on door to door canvassing. I believe that it was the fact that I had support workers that helped me raise my profile and get to the shortlist. I didn’t win the nomination, but thanks to the Access to Elected Office Fund, I was able to really enjoy the fight.
Now I’m on the shortlist for a Councilor nomination in Haringey. . If I get it, there will be months of hard work to bring the ward back to Labour. I have asked the Access to Elected Office fund to support me to campaign and research the issues. With their support, I will stand a greater chance of getting the nomination.
If I get the nomination, I will then need the Fund to help me pay for support to be out on the streets and the doorsteps canvassing local people. Support workers can help me produce campaign material, and undertake research about community concerns so I can fully understand what local people want of their councilors. I can’t do this without sighted help.

As a blind person, there are many barriers put up to stop me participating in society. This is reflected in how political parties organize and how would-be politicians campaign. Canvassing on the doorsteps and streets is expected of candidates, but this is not easy to do if you are disabled. In order to run a good campaign, I must keep abreast of local issues and research policy areas so I can say what I will do when I am elected. This is hard when information is very inaccessible. If I am to have an equal chance of getting nominations and participating as a candidate in elections, this is the kind of support I need.
I well remember David Blunket’s fight to get adequate support when he was elected as an MP. He had to argue for additional staff and reasonable adjustments so that he could get the huge piles of ink print information MPs are deluged with, made accessible. David has kicked open the door for blind politicians but there continue to be barriers put in the way of our participation. Government Internet Security policies as applied by different departments put more barriers in the way of anyone using adaptive technology to access information. No one has thought of the impact of such policies on disabled politicians.
Being disabled is still seen by the public as a negative thing. Voters need to be confident that we can do the job. When they see a disabled candidate campaigning well and being supported to do so, this gives confidence that we might be worth voting for. This is why the Access To elected Office Fund is so important.
Unnecessary barriers are put in the way of disabled candidates thanks also to the way political parties organize. Most will plead that they are cash strapped, but I think some fundamental ground rules about organizing in accessible venues or providing things in word documents, are central to good organizing. People wouldn’t organize a meeting and not provide any chairs or refuse to say what the meeting is about, so why organize in inaccessible venues and fail to provide accessible information? There are lots more to do in the party to change this, but I for one as a disabled would-be politician don’t want to have to spend my time arguing to get through the door, I’d rather make policy.
Most parties want to choose candidates who are involved in the work of the party in some way. Activists are expected to canvas on the doorsteps all year round, or do envelope stuffing or phone canvassing. Without support, and depending on the access barriers, some or all of these are difficult to do. Disabled party activists have to rely on the good will of colleagues to be able to do this. Yet if we don’t do it, we’re less likely to be considered when going for a political nomination.
I’m going to Labour Party Conference for the first time this year but the access barriers are daunting. I can’t afford to pay a support worker to go with me so will have to rely on the kindness of strangers if I can’t get access to the handful of enablers provided by the party. I’m negotiating over being provided with accessible information. I’m already tired just thinking about how I’ll manage. It is such a real disincentive to involvement.
What would make a difference for disabled would-be politicians? 1 Clear access and inclusion policies and minimum standards backed by funding, agreed and implemented in all political parties. AS part of this, training to run accessible campaigns and activities integrated into party campaign training. We have to do something so that being an activist isn’t such hard work just to be included.
2 The extension of Access to Work to provide reasonable adjustments for politicians as soon as they are elected, so that disabled politicians can be supported to do their jobs.
3 Mentoring and shadowing schemes targeting disabled would-be politicians and funding to meet reasonable adjustments for disabled MENTEES AND SHADOWEES.
4 The extension of the Access to Elected Office Fund AFTER 2014, to help disabled would-be politicians get onto the political ladder. 5 Most of all, that the parties themselves raise the inclusion issues and do the work to make it happen so that we would-be or current disabled politicians don’t have to keep raising it and instead can concentrate on making policy and doing our jobs of representing the people.