There are around ten million people with a disability in the UK but only a hand full in the House of Commons.
How do we change this? And more to the point, why should we care?
I looked at the issue for this week’s Sunday Politics (44 minutes in), arguing that the dire under-representation of people with disabilities matters on two grounds: symbolic and substantive.
From Phillips, with her work on the theory of representation, to Childs and her investigations into the policy impact of ‘Blair’s Babes’ , there’s been considerable research into the effects of getting more women and people from ethnic minorities into the political arena.
Disability, though, has gone overlooked.
There’s no justification for this. At around 18% of the UK population, ‘the disabled’ are a sizeable marginalised group. Similarly to women, their under-representation in the House of Commons needs tackling – and in fact many of the arguments used to make the case for better gender representation can be used to make the case for disability.
Basic fairness is reason enough. It is patently unfair for white, rich, able-bodied, men to monopolize the political system. Unless we’re to believe that having a disability means a person is less able to take part in the political process, multiple barriers are unfairly keeping disabled people out. Once let in, disabled MPs can ‘stand for’ disabled people in a symbolic sense – their mere presence providing role models for disabled citizens and legitimacy to what, without them, is an exclusionary, unjust political body.
Disabled people’s presence in politics is not only needed for just and fair descriptive representation though, but for their needs to be substantively represented. The idea is simple: disabled people have a distinctive set of perspectives and interests; disabled representatives share these; put disabled representatives in power and they will act on them.
This assumes neither that disabled and non-disabled citizens don’t have shared interests nor that disabled people, as a monolithic faction, don’t have complexities and difference within their group. Just as Phillips argues in The Politics of Presence: The Political Representation of Gender, Ethnicity and Race when it comes to women, the argument for a more representative governing body does not depend on establishing a unified interest of all disabled people; it depends, rather, on establishing a difference between the interests of the disabled and non-disabled.
People with disabilities do have unique interests, both in terms of the disability elements to mainstream policies and those specifically related to disability. Simply put, a person may be more inclined to care about cuts to disability welfare support if they have at one time in their life applied for a disability benefit.
Disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, have no formal qualifications or be unemployed than people without a disability. Their needs are not currently being met. Who better to do so than disabled MPs?
As Phillips says, there’s something perverse about a democracy that accepts a responsibility for redressing disadvantage, but doesn’t see the disadvantaged as the appropriate people to carry it through.