A leading Labour activist has called for action to address disability discrimination within the party and the “shameful” lack of disabled people on its ruling national body.
Emily Brothers has told Disability News Service (DNS) that she will be seeking one of nine seats available on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) for candidates representing local constituency parties (CLPs), when the elections are held later this year.
She believes that none of the 41 current voting members of the NEC publicly identify as a disabled person*.
Brothers said: “It is not only frustrating but also quite shameful for a party that talks about being in the vanguard of social justice and diversity not to have disabled people at the table.
“If we are to be a party that really, truly reflects society, we do need to grasp that issue around diversity.
“We need disabled people at the table in order change the culture and practices of the party, so it becomes inclusive.”
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She added: “We have seen great strides in representation in parliament with women and BME [black and minority ethnic] and LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] but we are not seeing that really with disability and we are also not seeing it in our party structures.”
She said disabled people need to be standing as Labour candidates in winnable parliamentary seats “and shaping our programme for government”.
To be representative, Labour would need more than 50 disabled MPs in the current parliament, she says, rather than the current two or three.
And she believes there are only 9,000 party members who have identified themselves as disabled people, out of a Labour membership of about 570,000.
Brothers stood unsuccessfully for the Sutton and Cheam seat at the 2015 general election – she was Labour’s first transgender parliamentary candidate – and was a Greater London Assembly candidate the following year.
She is also elections co-ordinator for LGBT Labour and serves on the executive committee of Disability Labour and the centre-left Fabian Society.
She is just the latest disabled member to raise concerns about disability discrimination within the party.
Last September’s annual conference saw calls for the party to end years of “blatant discrimination” against its own disabled members, while there were also complaints about “inexcusable” access failings at the conference in Brighton.
Brothers said: “With the Tories closing the Access to Elected Office Fund, Labour needs to step up by investing in disabled people’s representation.
“From providing specialist equipment to paying for support workers, making buildings accessible and meetings more inclusive, training for disabled candidates and developing a team of allies, there is much for Labour’s NEC to do.”
But she said there were also attitudinal barriers within the party.
She told DNS: “There is quite a bit of people feeling harassed and all kinds of abuse going on that can be difficult for disabled people, but particularly if you have a mental health condition.
“We need a different, kinder, gentler politics, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, and we seem to have been shifting away from that very laudable ambition.”
She said she had been bullied herself within the party, with “shouting, hectoring, quite aggressive behaviour”, although she declined to provide further details of where this had happened.
Brothers said: “There have been times when I have felt excluded and at times I think that is a common experience for many members, particularly disabled people.”
As someone with a transgender history, she also said it was “very concerning” that transphobia within the party appeared to have worsened over the last two years, with “increasing numbers of transphobic comments by Labour party members”.
Some of this has been linked to attempts to stop party members with a transgender history from standing on all-women shortlists or becoming women’s officers.
Brothers said: “That is why I had to think long and hard to decide if [seeking election to the NEC] was the right thing to do. I came to the conclusion it was.
“It is not right to be intimidated not to take part in a democratic process, even though it is going to be tough, potentially.”
She said the increase in transphobia has also been seen in the national media, with negative stories and comments “virtually on a daily basis”.
She said there was “a case for each equality strand to be directly represented on the NEC”, but even if that happened, just one disabled NEC member would not be enough.
Two disabled party activists, Sarah Taylor and Nicola Morrison, learned last month that they had failed to win seats when the party voted to elect three new CLP representatives onto the NEC, although they had secured nominations from 18 CLPs between them.
These three, and six other CLP places on the NEC, will all be up for election later this year.
The deadline for securing nominations is 22 June, and Brothers believes she has a chance of winning one of the nine places.
Winning a seat on the NEC has become even harder for “independent” candidates like Brothers because of the re-emergence of “slates” of candidates representing particular factions within the party, such as Momentum, Labour First and Progress, which she said were failing to take account of the need for their chosen candidates to be diverse.
She said: “I am not a great fan of slates. I don’t think they help democracy. That’s why I am hoping to seek nomination as an independent.”
Brothers appealed for both wings of the party to work together, and to put aside their highly-publicised differences.
She said: “Just as gender isn’t as binary as many might believe, Labour is more than about left and right.
“Many in our party feel isolated by these divisions, with many accounts of bust-ups and bad behaviour. That’s my bruising experience too.
“A lot of the politics around this is unnecessary and it is energy-sapping. As the movement of solidarity, surely we can be better than this.
“The key issue is do we really want power, and if we do then we need to be more disciplined and more respectful that there are differences in approach and views, but we can find ways of accommodating people’s different views.
“I don’t think the differences are as wide as people might believe.”
She says she fears that “elements of the left” and new members brought in by Momentum “may see equality solely through income inequality and not be so tuned into identity politics”, although she recognises that income inequality is a real problem and “is getting wider” and also points out that some on the right of the party are also dismissive of “identity politics”.
She points to recent disputes and tension around Jewish Labour and gender identity, although she is pleased that the party leadership appears to be supportive of people’s right to self-identify their gender.
She also points to comments from some party members about other groups such as gypsies and travellers that she “would not think appropriate for the party of social justice”.
But she is also concerned about the tendency – across the party – to “dismiss disabled people” and “treat disabled people as victims” who “need to be looked after”.
She says there is not “a sufficient rights-based narrative” about disabled people “working, having a family, participating in politics or sports, or whatever ticks their boxes”, and there is too much emphasis on cuts and not enough on rights.
She said: “Yes, Tories have done terrible things in targeting disabled people. We should be shouting about it, holding them to account, but that could be done by taking a stronger rights approach rather than reinforcing victimhood.
“Remember that I live on benefits, so this isn’t about dismissing what good work Labour does in this area.
“I just want us to be more strategic and embrace the rights agenda with more vigour.
“Even if financial inequality is substantially narrowed, the environment and information will, for instance, remain largely inaccessible should we not address the root causes of exclusion.”
*By noon today (Thursday), the Labour party had failed to comment on her concerns, or confirm that there are no disabled members of the NEC.
News provided by John Pring at disabilitynewsservice.com.