The Political Representation of Disabled People and People with Long-Term Health Conditions Across the United Kingdom 

Introduction 

Despite being the largest minority groups in the United Kingdom (one in five working-age adults), disabled people have been and continue to be under-represented at every level in our political system. Only 8 out of the current 650 Members of Parliament have identified as disabled (1.23%). At the local government level, representation is slightly higher, with 16.1% of elected representatives declaring themselves disabled. Even with this statistic in mind, it is approximately 700 councillors short of being proportionally representative of the general population in the United Kingdom.   

Findings from the Disability Policy Centre 

Earlier this year, the Disability Policy Centre launched our Breaking Down Barriers Report in the Houses of Parliament, which highlighted important findings from disabled people about representation in politics. Our main takeaways from the report show that out of our interviewees who are disabled or have long-term health conditions:  

  • 82% became initially engaged in politics as a direct result of their disability.  
  • 100% believe that political parties do not do enough to ensure people with disabilities or long-term health conditions have the same opportunities as those without. 
  • 100% believe that the government is not doing enough to plug the gap of extra financial implications that are burdened onto disabled people who wish to seek election at a local and/or national level. 
  • 72% engaged with and participating in politics as councillors, activists or Members of Parliament, state that they do not feel comfortable declaring their disability to their political organisation for fear of discrimination. 

What can we do to improve representation?  

From interviews, roundtables, and surveys, the Disability Policy Centre captured the experiences and views of disabled people. From these findings, the Disability Policy Centre put forward recommendations for the government as well as recommendations for political parties to identify specific challenges and barriers that limited the full potential of disabled people in politics. These are as follows: 

Recommendations for the UK government 

  1. Use the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Programme to conduct an extensive review into the accessibility of Parliament for disabled people. Implement any recommendations in full to ensure that Parliament is accessible for anyone who wishes to seek elected office, visit or be employed in any capacity. 
  2. Conduct an extensive review into the accessibility of Local Authority buildings across the United Kingdom. Work with Local Authorities to ensure that services are to a high standard and completely accessible for disabled people. 
  3. Reinstate a formal funding scheme for disabled candidates. 
  4. Political parties are required to report annually to the Minister for Disabled People, Health & Work on what measures are being put into place to break down barriers for disabled people within the organisation. 

Recommendations for political parties 

  1. Encourage party staff, elected representatives and local association leaders to undertake reviews into how to include and promote disabled party members within their structures. As part of this process, it is recommended that training is implemented for staff and volunteers to highlight how to break down barriers for disabled people in the organisation.  
  2. Widespread and sustained commitment to the Disability Confident Employer Scheme. 
  3. Political parties must acknowledge that current campaigning techniques are not viable for everyone, and actively promote accessible campaigning methods for their members. These techniques must not be viewed as being less credible than traditional campaigning methods. 
  4. Political parties must conduct immediate reviews into their candidate selection processes, for elected representatives at both a local and parliamentary level, ensuring that all barriers to engagement and participation have been removed where possible. 

Conclusion 

Representation is much more than a tick-box exercise. Our political system must accommodate disabled people and people with long-term health conditions to allow for full political representation and participation. We must act to dismantle the societal, attitudinal, and physical barriers which create inaccessible environments. By tackling these issues directly, disabled people as well as individuals with long-term health conditions have the choice to participate in and engage with politics.  

You can read the full report here: https://thedisabilitypolicycentre.org/representation  

Kirstie Stage is a Director of the Disability Policy Centre. She is a disabled researcher passionate about public policy, political engagement, and human rights.  

A line of television cameras on tripods at news event

Gender Gaps in the Media Visibility of Politicians 

The most recent UN report (2022) on the sustainable development goals makes it clear that the world is far from reaching gender equality; in fact, the report states the world needs 286 years to remove discriminatory laws and close prevailing gaps in legal protections for women and girls, 140 years to achieve gender-equal representation in leadership positions in the workplace, and 40 years for gender-equal representation in national parliaments. Although the report focuses heavily on some of the most gender-unequal parts of the world, it also includes assessments of gender equality related to advanced democracies. Unsurprisingly, advanced democracies have fared a lot better than other parts of the world when it comes to gender equality. Despite this, however, democracies in Europe and Northern America were able to meet only one of the many targets related to gender equality, and it is clear from the report that there is still much work to do regarding the political representation of women. 

Political science research shows that one of the challenges facing women in politics is their unequal representation in the media, and this bias of media coverage shows no sign of abating even in advanced democracies (Van der Pas and Aaldering 2020). In our latest research published in American Political Science Review (Thesen and Yildirim 2022), we analyzed the media appearances of members of parliament who served at least one term in the House of Commons from 2000 to 2016 to produce a detailed picture of some potential biases in the media. More specifically, we collected and coded over 1.5 million news stories published in the Guardian, the Times, and the Sun over 16 years, and then queried the news corpus to find out the frequency with which politicians appeared in the news. This left us with nearly 400,000 news stories in which at least a politician was mentioned. 

We estimated empirical modelsled that predicted the media visibility of politicians with demographic and political factors, including age, gender, electoral safety, political work, and partisan characteristics, among others. Raw data clearly show that women in politics lag behind their male counterparts in the frequency with which they appear in the news. Without looking at some potentially confounding factors, however, this figure is not enough to reach a conclusion about gendered patterns in media visibility. This is mainly because women in the House of Commons have, on average, less political experience and electoral safety, and participate less in legislative activities than their male colleagues, and these factors are known to collectively influence one’s potential for media coverage. Our models showed that the gender gap documented in the raw data was mainly due to men’s initial advantage in political experience, political work, and other relevant factors. Once these factors are controlled for in the model, the gender gap in the media coverage of politicians disappears completely.  

In the other country-case under investigation in our study, Norway, we found gender gaps that did not disappear when controlling for various power resources such as dominance in parliamentary activities, political experience, and electoral safety. We believe that the reason why this gloomy finding does not hold in the UK is due partly to electoral systems. Although the UK’s first-past-the-post system is not particularly conducive to producing a diverse parliament, it minimizes potential biases in journalist-politician relationships simply because each electoral district produces only one winner. Stated differently, when political journalists are interested in covering a political story related to a constituency, they do not have a list of politicians to choose from when preparing the story. Instead, there is only one politician to be contacted for each electoral district. Additionally, as majoritarian electoral systems are often more competitive for groups traditionally underrepresented in politics, women elected through such systems are also those who managed to overcome various challenges facing women in politics. This implies that women in politics who are elected through the first-past-the-post systems are likely have strong qualities (such as established connections with journalists) that make them appear more in the news, relative their counterparts in countries with proportional electoral system.  

British politics is and will likely be gender-unequal in the foreseeable future as far as the media coverage of politicians is concerned. However, unlike in Norway, the gender gap in news visibility in the UK can be attributed to men’s initial advantage in power relations in the system. Our findings suggest that equalizing those factors will contribute greatly toward women’s presence in political news stories. That is, the gender gap in the media will likely disappear when the share of women politicians in the parliament, women’s overall political experience, and their participation in parliamentary activities are no less than those of men. This certainly implies that there is still a lot of work for women in politics to do to overcome the challenges facing them, although our results suggest that gender equality in the British news media is achievable.  

Gunnar Thesen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Stavanger, Norway. His research focuses on party competition, electoral behaviour and political communication.
 
Tevfik Murat Yildirim is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Stavanger, Norway. His research focuses on legislative studies, gender and politics, and political representation.

References 

UN Report (2022) https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/Progress-on-the-sustainable-development-goals-the-gender-snapshot-2022-en.pdf 

Thesen, Gunnar., and Tevfik Murat Yildirim. 2022. “Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political News: Analyzing the News Visibility of Members of Parliament in Norway and the UK.” American Political Science Review 

Van der Pas, Daphne J., and Loes Aaldering. 2020. “Gender Differences in Political Media Coverage: A MetaAnalysis.” Journal of Communication 70 (1): 114–43.