Marie Tidball: Oxford West’s Labour candidate on disability, representation, and making change happen

Two days after interviewing Marie, it was announced that she’s Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon. Having spent an hour talking to her, it’s not hard to see why. When we meet at the Story Museum café, she’s fresh from a busy morning of canvassing, supporting her Labour colleagues in the run up to local elections. Marie is passionate about supporting her local community, and sees the upcoming elections as “a real opportunity to hold the Tories to account and challenge them on the terrible things that they’ve done that have eviscerated funding for public services across the county.”

Elected as Oxford City Councillor for Hinksey Park in 2016, Marie has done a lot for her local community. Withdrawal of funding by the government led to the closure of essential frontline services such as 44 children’s centres that were rated good or excellent. In response, Marie led a team of school governors to raise £54,000 to save her local children’s centre, which she tells me is what she’s most proud of. She’s also Oxford’s Mental Health Champion, and has worked with charities like My Life My Choice to help those with learning disabilities, autism, and mental health problems be fully integrated into the community. She says, “I’m so grateful to have such a supportive local community and really feel like we’ve achieved a lot together.”

“Ask yourself: what’s the big change that you want to see?”

Marie has also done a lot to raise the profile of disability at Oxford University. She and her friends set up a campaign to get disability onto university reading lists and the curriculum, and since starting out in late 2013, they have achieved and impressive amount. The campaign has led to the creation of a master’s scholarship at Wadham for students with disabilities, as well as an annual disability law moot and essay prize. Overall Marie has led her team to raise over £110,000 to make these projects happen. Marie has also integrated disability into her own academic study, having just completed a doctorate on the experiences of people with autism in the criminal justice system.

Recently, she was chosen to appear in a new set of portraits commissioned by the university to celebrate diversity. Upon finding out that she had been shortlisted in late 2016, Marie said she felt “very moved, particularly because it was students and staff who had nominated me. I felt very humbled by it.” Marie is passionate about representation, saying that “Symbols matter. I remember when I was in my mid-late teens seeing the statue of Alison Lapper pregnant on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, and that changed my life. I’d never seen the beauty of a disabled woman represented in public art. That made me think differently about my own body and it made me think differently about the place of disabled women in our society. It rendered us visible when for so long we had been invisible.” Marie hopes that her own portrait will inspire young disabled people today to aim high. “Representation… changes the conversation, and it says to that 15 year old who may have a disability: ‘I actually should apply to the university I want to go to I would be welcome working at the top organisations and institutions in our country – I should want that as much as the next person.’”

“It’s collaboration that actually makes campaigning the most effective.”

However, politics is one area where representation for people with disabilities is severely lacking. Despite the fact that there are about 13 million disabled people in the population, only about 1% of MPs have a disability. This underrepresentation is present at all levels of the political system, and many people with disabilities face barriers that make voting difficult. Marie explains how simple things like making sure there are manifestos in an easy read format are forgotten, meaning that political participation can be a real hurdle for those with, for example, learning disabilities. Moreover, while efforts are made to help those with learning disabilities register to vote, those same people are not helped with the actual process of voting. As the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote approaches, Marie argues that “disability suffrage is one of the biggest issues facing our representative democracy. We do need to make sure that people know how to register, but also that once they’ve registered they know how to vote.” Marie set up the Oxford Labour Disability Network to bring together talented people with disabilities, with the aim of increasing the number of disabled people standing for election. In order to raise disability up the agenda, she tells me that it’s vital to have more disabled people in public roles and the disabled community needs to have a voice at every level within the political system.

“Representation… changes the conversation, and it says to that 15 year old who may have a disability: “I actually should apply to the university I want to go to “”

Finally, I ask her what advice she would give to someone who wants to start campaigning. She says, “Ask yourself what’s the big change that you want to see? Look at what skills you have and look at what small steps you can take to use those skills to reach that bigger change.” Teamwork is also vital: “We can all achieve more together than we can alone. Find out who your allies are, contact them, ask them to work with you because everyone has an array of talents that they can offer and share with each other, and it’s that collaboration that actually makes campaigning the most effective.” Importantly, disability should not be a barrier to getting involved and making a difference. “People should really feel empowered to be the change that they want to see in the world, and I think that’s a really important message for people to take on board. Even if you suffer from fatigue and you have to spend a lot of time working from your room in your own house, you can still build a network of friends on the internet, you can still make phone calls, you can still research online to see what different policies you actually want to change. And you can do all of those things in your own home.”

On the day we meet, Marie tells me about some of her plans for the near future. “I want to organise an inter-divisional conference next year on disability law and policy in the university. And in politics I want to up-skill as many people with disabilities as possible so that they can be the future decision makers and leaders in our country. In 5 years time I hope we’re not talking about 1% of MPs having a disability, but reflecting the actual percentage of people in this country that have a disability themselves.” With the recent news that she’s running to be Oxford West and Abingdon’s MP, it looks like Marie will have a lot of work on her hands and will hopefully be making a very tangible contribution to the representation of people with disabilities in Parliament.