Parked up in a field, Mary Griffiths Clarke – the Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for Arfon, in north Wales – is spending the general election campaign living in a caravan. Griffiths Clarke, 36, grew up 30 miles from here in Snowdonia and now lives in London.
Arfon is a Labour marginal target (Plaid Cymru currently holds the seat with a majority of 3,668) and Griffiths Clarke is clearly passionate about helping the area. “Whenever I go home, I see the high streets have become a ghost town. People are having to quit work because there’s no bus services now to get them there,” she says.
But as a disabled candidate, the cost – both financial and physical – of running for election is tough. Griffiths Clarke has ME, which is exacerbated by commuting from London, where she works as a director of a community law centre.
Traditional methods of campaigning – such as door-to-door canvassing – can be exhausting, she says. She is also dyslexic, which means she needs support with the vast written communication for the campaign. Or as she puts it, “All the things I’d have [help with] as an MP but you don’t get as a candidate.
The access to elected office fund (AEO) established by the coalition government in 2012 to help disabled people stand for elected office was designed to enable candidates to overcome the type of barriers facing Griffiths Clarke. Under the fund, disabled candidates were offered grants of between £250 and £40,000 to help with potential additional costs in standing for election as a local councillor or MP, such as extra transport or sign language interpreters. But only three years after being launched, it was quietly put on hold in England in 2015. In January 2016, the Green party’s Caroline Lucas led calls by MPs from across the political spectrum for the fund to be reinstated “as a matter of urgency” but there’s still nothing in place for disabled candidates despite a recommendation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for it to reopen.
but in 2015, the government said it was “evaluating the access to elected office fund pilot” – including the views of disabled applicants on its effectiveness – and looking to political parties themselves to help make further progress. “They’re best placed to drive opportunities for disabled people in political life,” it said.
Griffiths Clarke knows first hand how useful the fund was. When she stood in the 2015 general election for the Welsh seat of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, it helped pay for a personal assistant, as well as a hotel three nights a week. “I wouldn’t have been able to stand without it,” she says. This time round, with the fund closed, she has to rely on friends and charity to fill the gap. The caravan she’s staying in belongs to her agent. Volunteers help with paperwork, transport, and lifting and carrying.
“I’m fortunate that I have support and goodwill. But we shouldn’t have to be going backwards relying on charity,” she says. “The abolition of access to office has been disempowering. I know lots of disabled people who haven’t been able to run this time around.”
Emily Brothers, who is blind and hard of hearing, was widely reported in 2015 as Labour’s first trans parliamentary candidate when she stood for Sutton and Cheam in south London, but with no way to afford a sighted guide to help her on the campaign trail, she isn’t running again.
Brothers, 52, was able to use the AEO fund in the 2015 election to cover the cost of a guide. She says the fund was “invaluable”. and now that it’s closed the decision to stand for office is a “punt”: disabled candidates must calculate the chance of winning, not simply because they want to win but, because they need reassurance there will be an MP’s salary at the end to help pay off the disability-related debt built up through the campaign. She previously worked for the EHRC but her only income is now disability benefits. When she was turned down for her first choice of Andy Burnham’s old constituency in Leigh, though keen to apply for other seats with smaller majorities, such as Warrington, she felt she couldn’t take the risk.
“If I stand in an unwinnable seat, how will I cover my debts?” she says. “[The AEO fund] meant I could stand as a candidate on a fairly level playing field. It’s a different world now.”
Abolishing funding for disabled candidates is particularly worrying in light of parliament’s starkly low representation of disabled people. While around 16% of the working age adult population has a disability, they make up less than one percent of MPs. There are some signs of progress, with the Green party fielding Ben Fletcher, the first deafblind person ever to stand in a general election, in Greening’s constituency in Putney, south-west London. Fletcher says: “I have been able to stand for parliament thanks to the support of the Green party, who have shown themselves to be an inclusive, diverse and modern political party.”
But the overall picture is worsening. The retirement or defeat of several longstanding disabled MPs, such as Labour’s David Blunkett and Dame Anne Begg at the 2015 general election, saw the number of disabled MPs plunge to less than half a dozen, including Conservatives Paul Maynard and Robert Halfon. (There may of course be others who have not disclosed their disability.)
“Parliament would be better if it reflected the nation. That goes for ethnicity, gender and physical challenges. The question is, how do we get to that point?” says John Hayward, 46, the Conservative candidate for Cambridge City.
Hayward, who was born with one arm and no legs and uses artificial limbs, is a Cambridge University graduate who has spent his career in international development. He hopes to take the seat from Labour, and stresses he’s no different from any other candidate. “Everyone has challenges,” he explains.
Unlike many who rely on the access fund, Hayward doesn’t think it is necessary. “It’s a team so if a candidate has challenges, I’d look to them for support rather than financial support from the state”. He also believes the fund could be “open to abuse” from candidates or even be used to give them an advantage.
For Hayward, however, there can be physical barriers.“I remember helping in a parliamentary byelection [elsewhere] a few years ago in a seat where every street was on a hillside and every house had a flight of steps to reach the letterbox,” he says.
Back in Wales, while the campaign is in full swing the lack of state support is taking its toll on Griffiths Clarke’s health. She recently had a seizure while campaigning but with no
medically trained personal assistant to help her, she didn’t feel able to disclose it to anyone afterwards. She believes that in addition to the fund being reinstated, individual parties should create tailored training for disabled candidates (as there are for other diversity strands). This would include training in public speaking and media; setting up, running and evaluating campaigns; and holding surgeries. An online portal could breakdown geographical barriers and offer people resources, toolkits and a safe online chat facility to engage with others for peer-to-peer learning, she suggests. Mentoring could give one-to-one advice to suit individual needs and help with confidence, she adds.
Nine percent of Liberal Democrat PPCs at this election are disabled. The party already provides advice, guidance and mentorship for all prospective candidates. Although there isn’t currently a pot of money for disabled candidates, a Lib Dem spokesman says: “We work closely with our fundraising team to ensure candidates’ barriers are overcome, particularly in more winnable seats”.
Labour agreed last summer to set up a bursary scheme for both disabled and working class candidates. However, the scheme is still in the early implementation phase. For this snap election, only 1.6% of Labour candidates are recorded as having a disability.
The Conservative party failed to provide information about what support, if any, it provides to disabled candidates and how many are standing for election.
Griffiths Clarke says: “Unless people have the skills, they won’t succeed in being selected as candidates or winning elections. At a time when disabled people are increasingly marginalised and have inhumane ideological policies thrust upon them, we need disabled voices more than ever.”