“We like to say we are the one political party that doesn’t want to have to exist.”
Hardly the sly electioneering most politicians try to squeeze into interviews.
But then the things that set apart the WEP – its “political polyamory”, its representative diversity – are what attracted the Yorkshire-based trainee GP to the organisation at a time when she had given up on party politics.
Dr Barham-Brown believes her new position, which she took up this month, makes her the first visibly disabled deputy leader of a UK political party.
This is by the age of 33, but it comes with considerable life experience: years of medical training, the devastating loss of two younger brothers and her own diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the age of 27.
She never intended to become a politician, but then, she says: “I never thought I was going to grow up to be a doctor. I was always told I wasn’t particularly good at sciences. Obviously that’s not true.”
But her father, Peter, is a vicar and her mother, Julie, also a wheelchair user, is thought to be “the first disabled woman to read law at Cambridge”, so this meant she grew up in Suffolk around a sense of vocation.
Her studies began in Durham, where she took English and theology with Arabic at undergraduate.
Next it was paediatric nursing in Newcastle before medical school in London, followed by training (she actually did a couple of A&E shifts with Tooting’s Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan at the local St George’s Hospital).
She is now settled in South Milford, near Selby, and is practising in Leeds.
Early political experience came in the form of her involvement with the British Medical Association, for which she was deputy chair of the Junior Doctors Committee and sat on the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Advisory Group.
Then the ex-Labour member went to a WEP conference in Kettering to talk about women’s health.
“I went to the conference having kind of given up on party politics,” she said.
“I had quit my membership because I was so fed up with big issues of gender and disability not being included in the Labour Party.”
Asked to elaborate, she said: “I saw lots of amazing women in the Labour movement who were just not being supported as I would like as they progressed through politics.”
She is also disappointed that child care has not been a bigger policy issue, believing there to be a “massive economic benefit to providing universal childcare”.
But with the WEP, she “was transfixed” because it was “so different to the party politics I had seen before”.
The WEP’s role, as she sees it, is to force other parties into discussing and acting on issues they would not otherwise commit to. Manifestos with “nick-able policies” have been delivered to other parties.
She stood as a Leeds City Council candidate in Roundhay in May 2019 and for European Parliament in the same year.
But she is not surprised there are so few visibly disabled politicians.
“It’s knackering always being the first,” she said. While it is useful to see role models, she adds, “I don’t think we celebrate those people enough.”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rates of our disabled people are forgotten in our policy-making,” she said.
For one, MPs are not allowed to job-share.
Dr Barham-Brown was also angered by the decision to take back the choice of remote voting earlier this year after the pandemic struck.
“What about the MPs who are shielding? What about the MPs whose families are shielding? I got really upset and wrote to my local MP.” She remembers pictures of MPs waiting to vote, queuing on staircases. “If I was an MP today I wouldn’t have managed that system,” she said.
“It’s so inaccessible”
She continues: “My body is just a bit different – it’s the fact that society is designed without me in mind that’s the problem.
“That’s tenfold in politics.”
She was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of conditions that affect connective tissue, after taking part in the Great North Run in 2015 in memory of her brother Gareth, who died aged 24 in the early hours of Boxing Day 2014.
He had dilated cardiomyopathy – where the muscle walls of the heart become stretched and thin, so they cannot contract properly to pump blood around the body – and his death came after a life-saving transplant when he was 16.
While she took part in the race she had to keep popping joints back into place.
She now suffers with fatigue and joint problems, and uses a wheelchair for pain relief.
Gareth’s death had followed some years after that of another brother, Theo, who had Down’s syndrome and died at 22 months after developing pneumonia.
Dr Barham-Brown helped to nurse Theo, and the experience strengthened her resolve to study medicine.
Speaking about her disability campaigning as a doctor and politician, she said: “If I didn’t use that opportunity for people who are not able to represent themselves I don’t think I could quite live with myself.”