Baroness [Sal] Brinton, who will take over from MP Tim Farron on 1 January 2015, beat her nearest rival Daisy Cooper by 10,188 votes to 6,138 and now becomes the public face of the party.
She is the first disabled person to head her party and the first wheelchair-user to take such a role in any major UK political party. She has been an occasional wheelchair-user for about three years, but “fairly permanently” for the last year.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) that she felt “daunted” by the responsibility of her new position and was “carrying a weight of expectation”, but believed that her election was a “very significant” moment.
She said: “The old ‘does he take sugar?’ attitude has to continue to be challenged and having a senior politician in a wheelchair with a chronic illness working in a high-profile job, can only be helpful.
“People will have to talk to me and not with anybody who is with me, which is the automatic reaction.”
And she said she hoped her election would make employers “think again” about employing disabled people.
Baroness Brinton said that – despite the success of The Access to Elected Office for Disabled People Fund, which helps disabled people with the extra costs they face in standing for election as a councillor or MP – there were still discriminatory attitudes “in all the political parties about candidates with disabilities, and that is particularly true about candidates in wheelchairs”.
She said: “Having a high-profile politician in a wheelchair will also start I hope to change the attitude of activists in the parties about people with disabilities doing the job.”
She said her party would also have to ensure that venues where she was meeting people were accessible, including in the run-up to the May 2015 general election.
She said the 14 presidential hustings held by the party across England, Scotland and Wales showed her that understanding of accessibility – particularly about the needs of a user of an electric wheelchair – was “very limited”.
At one of the hustings, she arrived at the venue to find that although the entrance was wheelchair-accessible, the stage was not.
The organiser solved the problem by ensuring the other two candidates spoke from floor-level alongside Baroness Brinton.
She said: “I think that – given the amount of touring around the country that a candidate has to do – a lot of venues will be rethinking their accessibility.
“I will be all over the country over the next four to five months. That is the single clearest benefit for other wheelchair-users, that people will [now] be thinking twice.”
Her election has already had a positive impact close to home, with her party using it to try to persuade its landlord to improve access to its Westminster headquarters in Great George Street.
The party’s new president has already told DNS that she believes the Houses of Parliament are “not fit for purpose” because of “dreadful” access, and should be moved permanently to a more accessible building.
She has even missed a couple of votes in the House of Lords because there is only one lift from the Portcullis House building to its basement, which leads under the main road to the Palace of Westminster, and when the division bell rings for a vote the lift is always full.
Baroness Brinton said she was aware that the Liberal Democrat 2010 general election manifesto had not been well-received by many disabled people, but that there was already “pressure and awareness” within the party for improved disability policies in the 2015 manifesto.
Her election as president “will certainly help” with that, she said.
She also said that she understood that there might be some anger directed at her as the public face of the Liberal Democrats during the general election campaign, because of the coalition’s cuts and reforms to disability benefits and services since 2010.
But she said: “I’m not in the government, I’ve never been a minister, but I am certainly clear that that debate has been going on inside the party as well.
“The party has been very unhappy and if you look at the motions that we had to party conference, which have been passed by the members and therefore are party policy, my response as president is to say, ‘The grassroots of the party are unhappy as well.’
“I hope to be able to say as well that the manifesto will reflect that unhappiness and show what we will do in coalition next time with whoever.”
She pointed to this week’s announcement by the Conservative chancellor George Osborne, in his autumn statement, that there would be substantial future cuts in benefits, which she said was definitely not a Liberal Democrat policy.
And she said that one of the points made to the group drawing up the manifesto – of which she is a member – was that “we have got to get benefits for people with disabilities right, because what has happened over personal independence payment has been shambolic”.
She will be resigning as her party’s health spokeswoman in the Lords later this month to concentrate on her new role.
Baroness Brinton is a former bursar of two Cambridge colleges, a trustee of the United Kingdom Committee of UNICEF, a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and former chair of Cambridgeshire Learning and Skills Council.
She began her working life at the BBC, was later a successful venture capitalist, and now has a particular interest in education, skills and learning.
She created and runs the party’s leadership programme, which aims to increase the number of women, black and minority ethnic, disabled and LGBT MPs.
Her party leader, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said: “She has led the way in promoting diversity in the Liberal Democrats through the leadership programme and brings decades of political experience to the role.
“She will be a powerful advocate for grassroots activists in what will be a crucial election year and I look forward to working with her.”
4 December 2014