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Hannah Barham-Brown: "I haven't seen many people who look like me in politics"

26th June, 2020

You don’t see many politicians in wheelchairs. There isn’t a single MP in the House of Commons who uses one. The House of Lords is a wee bit more representative with legends such as Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson and Baroness Jane Campbell. But fair to say, I haven't seen many people who look like me in politics; our representation really isn’t representative.

I never thought of myself as ‘political’. Politics was for posh, straight, white, able people – generally boys. I was an activist, sure. A campaigner? No problem. There were a lot of issues I really cared about, and I was more than happy to talk about them, but that didn’t make me political, right? Eventually, my campaigning led me into the British Medical Association. But I still wasn’t ‘political’ – I was a trade unionist, sure, but I still didn’t feel I fitted into the mould of a politician.

I’d tried joining a political party (that shall remain nameless) and left feeling decidedly underwhelmed on a number of fronts. Then I was invited to speak on a panel – something I do a lot – about women’s health and a research project that the BMA had run looking at this. So, on a cold Friday night, I travelled down to Kettering, ready for the Women’s Equality Party’s Conference. I hadn’t heard of them before, but a quick Google showed me that they were co-founded by Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer, both of whom I had admired for a while, so I figured it would be an interesting way to spend a weekend at least. By the time I left, I had signed up as a member, hugely excited by the incredible, passionate people I had met, and the many ways they worked to achieve equality for all.

Within six months, I had run (rolled?) as a local council candidate, and an EU parliamentary candidate. I soon realised that everything about politics is ableist as hell – you ‘stand’ or ‘run’ for positions. The base of a lot of campaigning is about ‘canvassing’ – going door to door and speaking to the voters; fine, if you can get to the door in the first place, and often, that’s just not possible on wheels. They had to go away to confirm for me that I would even be able to get into the council chamber were I to be elected.  This could all go some way to explain why disabled people just aren’t seen in politics.

Two weeks ago, I was announced as one of the new deputy leaders of the Women’s Equality Party – we believe I am the first ever visibly disabled deputy leader of a UK political party. Am I going to be able to fix the ableism rife in British politics? Not quickly. But it means a huge amount that I’m being given the opportunity to try; and most importantly, I’ve been given the opportunity to show that politics isn’t just for the posh, straight, white, able boys, and to be a ‘roll model’ for the next generation – so they never think politics can’t be for them.