The Liberal Democrats are set to become the first political party to choose a candidate to fight a parliamentary seat from a shortlist containing only disabled people.
The party voted overwhelmingly at its spring conference in favour of measures to improve the diversity of candidates fighting Westminster seats at the next general election in 2020.
The Liberal Democrats were nearly wiped out at last year’s general election, and were left with just eight MPs, all of whom are white, non-disabled men, and much of the attention focused on a measure that will mean candidates for some winnable seats will be selected from all-women shortlists.
But the party also agreed that any local party should be able to select a candidate from an all-disabled shortlist.
And in seats where Liberal Democrats won more than 15 per cent of the vote last year, the local party will have to provide evidence that it carried out “a thorough search for potential candidates from under-represented groups” – including disabled people – before starting its Westminster selection process.
In the party’s best-performing 10 per cent of seats at the 2015 election – excluding the eight constituencies with a sitting Liberal Democrat MP – shortlists for 2020 will have to include at least two candidates from under-represented groups, which could include disabled candidates.
But Baroness [Sal] Brinton (pictured), the disabled president of the Liberal Democrats, has told Disability News Service (DNS) that she would like to ensure that one seat selects its candidate from an all-disabled shortlist, and is discussing with local parties whether one of them will agree to do so.
She believes the new rules on under-represented groups will lead to more disabled people on the party’s shortlists – which usually contain four, five or six names – for the 2020 general election.
She said: “We are trying to change the entire culture so that every local party [where the party won more than 15 per cent of the vote in 2015] has to have talked to and got interest from people from under-represented groups before they can proceed.
“They will have to have demonstrated that they have gone out to try and get people, they will have to name them and they will have to say which [under-represented] strand they are from.”
She added: “The party has recognised for the last two to three years that its practical application of diversity does not match its rhetoric.
“Yesterday, the entire atmosphere at conference was different and people started to think and behave differently.
“It was very noticeable in some of the other sessions that people were saying, ‘We haven’t heard from a particular under-represented strand on this.’
“People are now speaking in a different way and I think it will really start to change things.”
But she warned: “It will only work if it comes from the members and the local parties up.”
Baroness Brinton said likely candidates who will benefit from the new rules include David Buxton, a Deaf BSL-user, who she said was “brilliant” and would now “almost certainly” be on a shortlist in 2020.
Buxton, founder of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, spoke in favour of the proposals at the conference.
He told DNS afterwards: “I had never believed in ‘tokenism’ and voted against all-women shortlists many years ago.
“But, after a frustrating thirty years of facing endless barriers as I tried to get into parliament, I realised it was time to speak up.
“After the wipeout of the party at the 2015 election, I knew that my chances of selection in any of the held or top 20 target seats were even more remote.
“I realised that for me and my equally ambitious Deaf and disabled friends to break through, changes in the party were needed.
“The Liberal Democrats do not have any women, black and minority ethnic (BAME), disabled or LGBT in the parliamentary team.
“Mindsets and attitudes must change and the party must become more welcoming, inclusive, relevant and diverse to reflect 21st century Britain.”
He said the Conservative victory at last year’s general election had delivered “a very heavy blow to diversity at Westminster”, as there were now just two disabled MPs, both Conservatives.
And he said the government had still made no decision on the future of the Access to Elected Office fund, which he said was introduced by the coalition because of Liberal Democrat pressure, and as a result of his years of campaigning, but has been lying dormant since the election.
He added: “Clearly, political parties have not done enough to identify and encourage potential Deaf and disabled candidates.
“Not only disabled but women and BAME too, to reflect national averages. Parliament needs a major shake-up to ensure fair and true representation and a voice from all diverse communities.”
The measures taken by the party were also welcomed by groups campaigning for better disabled representation in politics.
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “The Liberal Democrats are to be congratulated on making such a progressive move to help get more disabled candidates.
“Disabled people are desperately under-represented in the Commons. It should be as big a landmark as all-women shortlists were in the Labour party.
“All other parties should follow this lead and consider all-disabled shortlists.”
She added: “The Liberal Democrats also need to link up with other parties and propose legislation to enact job-sharing for MPs as a way of encouraging more disabled and women candidates.”
Ryan McMullan, Labour party ambassador for the Scottish-based One in Five campaign, also welcomed the Liberal Democrat move.
He said: “It’s a great initiative and the Lib Dems should be commended.
“For too long, disabled people have been on the sidelines of politics. Positive action like this is exactly the sort of thing that will change that. We look forward to seeing how the party implements it.”