New partially sighted MP Marsha De Cordova

After a ten year career holding various roles in national blindness charities, in 2014 Marsha De Cordova entered the world of politics when she became a councillor in Lambeth, south-east London. Last Thursday evening, she unexpectedly won the seat of Battersea from the Conservative minister Jane Ellison with a 10% swing. Born with nystagmus, a condition which makes it difficult for the eyes to focus, she is planning to champion disability rights as she takes her seat in Parliament later this week.

We bring you this exclusive interview from Central Lobby in the Palace of Westminster.

Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Lee Kumutat.

Release date:

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20 minutes

Last on

Tue 13 Jun 2017 20:40

IN TOUCH - TRANSCRIPT - 13.06,2017


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IN TOUCH – New partially sighted MP Marsha De Cordova

 

TX:  13.06.2017  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:           PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:             LEE KUMUTAT

 

 

White

Good evening.

 

Election declaration

And I do hereby declare that Masha Chantol De Cordova is duly elected to serve as the MP for Battersea. [Cheers and applause]

 

White

Last Thursday, Election night, was full of surprises, few bigger than Marsha de Cordova’s capture of the London constituency of Battersea for Labour.  Only weeks ago the bookies had her at 12:1 to overturn an almost 8,000 Conservative majority.  With a 10% swing her own majority is now more than 2,000.  But more significantly for In Touch she’s one of five new disabled MPs taking their seats in the Commons.  Marsha is likely to be sworn in on Thursday.

 

She was born with a visual impairment of nystagmus, she’s worked both for Action for Blind People and the charity the Thomas Pocklington Trust.  And immediately before the Election was councillor in the Borough of Lambeth, which she still is.

 

She’s giving us her first full length interview which she said she wanted to give specifically to In Touch.

 

Marsha de Cordova, we’re now in the central lobby of what we like to call the Mother of Parliaments.  This was in fact the original chamber where MPs sat, it’s now a central point where the public can come and meet with their constituency MP and people – you can hear people in the background who are just being shown around.  How do you feel about where you are – are you as surprised as everyone else?

 

De Cordova

It is awe inspiring and also quite – I’m not surprised in the sense that I believed I could do this and by running a really good campaign but to actually come into this place and know that I’m going to be part of making a difference and making a change is pretty amazing.  I’m still smiling actually.

 

White

You can kind of hear the smile in your voice.  How long has this been an ambition?  I mean have you always been a kind of political kind of person?

 

De Cordova

I’ve always been a campaigner and I’ve always been quite active around campaigns particularly around disability rights.  And whilst I’ve always said I want to make a difference in life and always wanting to improve the lives of disabled people and also other marginalised groups as well, to do that you need to be part of that decision making process.  So whether that’s through local government which is why I was elected in 2014 in the London Borough of Lambeth to be a councillor but also to get to this place as a disabled woman is a pretty impressive achievement, I would say actually.  And I mean I think in life you can’t complain about things and not do anything about it.  I always say when you complain you’re sat on the side-lines and I’m the kind of person I need to be on court, as they say, where I am actually going to be making a difference and bringing about some change in whatever way possible.

 

White

Tell us a bit more about you.

 

De Cordova

I’ve been living in London for a number of years.  I studied here, I’ve worked here…

 

White

Where were you from originally?

 

De Cordova

Bristol, so I was born and bred in Bristol and I came to London a very long time ago, I’m a Londoner now.

 

White

So what did you study?

 

De Cordova

I studied law and European policy.

 

White

Right, and had you got something in mind then in terms of choosing it as a study area?

 

De Cordova

Well obviously…

 

White

Where was it going to take you?

 

De Cordova

I suppose initially studying law was going to take me to being a lawyer, so – but I immediately, once I’d graduated, kind of got into doing advice work and welfare rights work and so my career path started from there.

 

White

You have nystagmus…

 

De Cordova

I have indeed.

 

White

And you’ve talked, since your election, and no doubt before it, about the barriers disabled people face.  What kind of barriers have you faced?

 

De Cordova

Education was a barrier in that my mother fought to keep me in mainstream education and I’m so grateful that she did because I’m not sure that I would be sat here today because I’ve been given the same opportunities as sighted people, which is really important.  Whereas with jobs growing up and applying for different jobs and so forth you face so much discrimination and we know that even today, the gap between disabled people and non-disabled people is huge and that needs to be reduced because its current state is just unacceptable.

 

White

A lot of In Touch listeners will know but some won’t that nystagmus is about difficulty in focusing and items – sort of objects appearing to move about and that can make you look different.  Did you have reactions from other kids for example?

 

De Cordova

Oh gosh yeah, my goodness of course.  So my eyes wobble, right, and I do call it my wobble because they bounce around all over the place and that causes me to be short sighted, so I am registered blind and severely sight impaired.  But the thing with me my objects aren’t moving around for me, all objects are stationary.  My main concern is just not being able to see things that aren’t really close to me, so I can’t see distance at all.  Growing up kids were – some of the names people call you because you’re different weren’t very nice but you know what I think it’s made me stronger and it has contributed to making me the woman that I am today.  All the setbacks and all the barriers that I’ve had to overcome has made me a stronger person and I know that even being in this great place I’m going to continue to experience barriers and challenges but I’m hoping that I can break down some of those barriers, so anyone coming behind me won’t have to face what I faced.

 

White

But how did you react to that kind of thing, did you fight back, did you have a go at them, did you – were you a bit tempted to hide away.  I’m curious to know how you coped with it.

 

De Cordova

It’s a combination of many things actually because yes it was quite upsetting and I do remember going home and crying and telling my mum about what happened to me.  The words of wisdom and the words of encouragement that was always sewed into me by my mum and my family that I am no different.  So growing up at home, as a family, we all grew up – all cousins – we all grew up together and I wasn’t stopped from doing anything, it just meant that I was more clumsy than everyone else, so I would be the one that always fell down or I would be the one that always walked into things but it didn’t stop me from doing it.  I was taught to ride a bike, although I constantly fell off it but at least I had the chance to do it, nothing was too difficult, my mum would never say you can’t do that.  Other than driving, which was a really – I mean I don’t know if you experienced it yourself Peter but that was a really tough one for me because being able to drive was about having that independence to do what you wanted.

 

White

Driving was never an option for me either.

 

De Cordova

Yeah exactly but it wasn’t an option but for me I didn’t realise it wasn’t going to be an option because everything was okay for me to try and do, so driving was like – well no you can’t do that.

 

White

Did you have any kind of reaction as far as your vision was concerned, any of the reaction that people might expect because you have to engage enormously as a politician, the kind of reaction which kind of said well you look a bit odd or how can you do this job if you’ve got sight problems?

 

De Cordova

There is always going to be a little bit of that but I mean for me I’m always very upfront about my visual impairment, even when I applied to be selected as an MP or a candidate I disclose on my forms about my visual impairment and I’m very clear about the support that I will need to be an effective campaigner.  And because I’ve kind of done it – I did a campaign in 2014 leading up to the local elections, that was almost a good test run of the support needs that I would have and how I would overcome some of those challenges.  And also I’m now hoping through all the support that I’ve got and at Lambeth Council, who have been really – really good, I can get that same support in this place which I’m certain I will.

 

White

As a candidate you didn’t have available to you and it’s something called the Access to Elected Office fund which for people who don’t know for a brief time was a fund designed to help disabled candidates establish themselves.  What difference would that have made to you?

 

De Cordova

Well you see in 2014 that was the fund that I relied on actually and the Access to Elected Office fund.  During this campaign, no that wasn’t an option but my – the Labour Party were quite happy to make sure my support needs were met.

 

White

Now in your victory speech you said:  “As a visually-impaired person myself…

 

De Cordova (Victory speech)

…myself, I feel passionately about the rights of disabled people.  Accessibility in our public places and on public transport still fall short of what is reasonable.  I will use my time in Parliament to lobby for improvements in these areas.  In the fifth richest country in the world there can be no excuses…

 

White

…excuses for leaving behind a large number of our citizens.”  Now many disabled people would naturally agree with that but what does it actually mean, what substantive improvements would you want to make and how would you go about getting them?

 

De Cordova

Okay, so let’s talk about transport very briefly, so that was one of my pledges because in the constituency of Battersea we have a number of train stations, only one of which has step free access.  Now for me I would like to see our transport network, I mean in London we are quite blessed in the sense that we’ve got fairly okay transport networks but there are still some flaws that need to be changed, i.e. you can’t just turn up and go and get assistance.  Why not?  Does that sound – does that sound okay to you that you can’t just rock up to a mainline train station and somebody’s there to assist you?  There should be somebody there to assist you.  Wouldn’t you agree?

 

White

I’m not going to answer that question.  You’re here to answer the questions.  But I mean there is much more legislation than there was, are you saying that this ought to be incorporated into legislation?

 

De Cordova

I think we need to start looking, I mean one of the things that Labour have said and that we committed to in our manifesto, obviously we’re not in power, but we want to look at how we can bring about more improvements to ensure that our transport networks are more accessible and people are more accountable for the services that they are providing.  If we take some of the south London rail services they’ve gotten rid of so many station staff and you have to make sure you book assistance in advance, I think that goes beyond unreasonable.

 

White

So really you’re looking to put pressure on the bodies themselves to make changes or to do things which you would say were certainly implied in the legislation if it’s not absolutely spelt out?

 

De Cordova

Precisely.  I mean absolutely, I think that’s where we have to start.  But I also feel that with more of us, as you say, you mentioned in your intro, that there are five newly elected disabled MPs, so we have a greater voice in this place now.  And I think again that should be a celebrated achievement because with a greater voice who knows what we could do and who knows what differences we can make.  I mean we’ve come a long way already, as you know, Peter, when it comes to access and disability rights, we’ve come a very long way but we still have some way to go.

 

White

David Blunkett often said, when he was asked about the extent to which he would champion disabled people or disability causes, he used to say it’s the responsibility of all MPs to represent all their constituents and the implication in that was he was saying he didn’t want to be seen as just a campaigner on disability or visual impairment.  What’s your take on that?

 

De Cordova

Well I think that he’s absolutely right, it is the responsibility of all us as MPs but also where I can be a voice for visually-impaired people, disabled people I will also see that as a responsibility that I would want to do.  But it certainly is the expectation and belief that all MPs should be championing the rights of all their constituents and not leaving anyone behind.

 

White

But could it be a danger for you that you’re seen as representing one part of the community?

 

De Cordova

Well I certainly hope it won’t be because when the work that I do in this place you will – people will identify and see that it won’t just be around disability issues, it will be around all other issues and all other aspects.  But – and I certainly won’t allow anyone to pigeon hole me or box me in to being that disabled MP because that certainly isn’t what this is about.

 

White

Forgive me for saying it this way but you do tick a lot of boxes in terms of groups who most people accept have been under-represented – you’re a woman to start with, you’re black – is there for you the danger of being stereotyped as a representative of all the minorities?

 

De Cordova

Well it’s – I really hope that I think we’ve moved – we’ve come a long way and I hope that that is not going to be the case.  I’m here to be a voice for everybody but I have knowledge, experience and expertise in say disability issues because as you’ve already alluded to my career spans over 10 years in the voluntary sector working for disability organisations, so I can bring something to the table in this area.  But I’m certainly going to be an MP here for everybody and you know looking at all issues but people have special interests and one of mine will be disability.

 

White

What about the practicalities of doing the job in terms of your visual impairment?  Backbenchers are not noticeably over supported in the Commons, I’m just wondering what your plans are for coping and what your methods are.

 

De Cordova

Okay, so I’ve not done this before but what I am hoping and what we have been discussing with the staff here is – are my support needs and thus far they have been really accommodating.  And you know it’s a learning process, right, so we’re going to try different approaches and see how we get along.  But one of the keys for me will be having a sighted assistant because this place is huge and I’m telling you – and I run on familiarity and I don’t know when I’m going to get familiar with this place and how long it’s going to take.  But that’s one of the things – making sure all my papers are going to be in the right format and that’s already happening.  So I feel that – I mean the great thing is somebody like David Blunkett came before me so it’s not a whole new thing for them, just that my support needs are going to be slightly different.

 

White

And just out of interest for you what does being in the right format mean, what do you need?

 

De Cordova

So I read large print, preferably on yellow paper with black text and that’s good for me, so large print, anything 20 plus above style Ariel’s kind of my preferred.  So, for example, I’m taking my oath of office this week now the font size for that has to be really big to ensure that I can stand and read it properly, so 20 point, it won’t be suitable, it’s going to have to be much bigger.  So we’re currently looking at best font sizes and practising to see what’s going to be the best approach for me.

 

White

I guess anyone, visually-impaired or not, finds this a pretty daunting place.  What about – you’ve only been here a couple of days how’s it going, have you got lost yet?

 

De Cordova

Well I have kind of got lost this morning, I was a little bit lost, but what they do here is they assign you a buddy, so on my first day you meet with your buddy and they’re part of the Parliamentary staff and this person kind of helps you get around and stuff.  So it helps to settle you in which is really, really good because otherwise I would still be looking for a coffee.

 

White

What about political ambition?  You’ve explained about many of your preoccupations but would you say you were an ambitious politician?

 

De Cordova

I would say I’m an ambitious person, as opposed to a politician.  Politics is just the pathway or where I am right now to make a difference and being a voice for those that need to be represented.  So that could be in any sphere but I’m now a politician and I am an MP and so this is where I am, but I will always be an ambitious person and I encourage everybody I meet to be ambitious and strive to be the best person they can be.

 

White

Are you striving for promotion and preferment, would you think in terms later on – I get the sense in a way you shy away from the term politician but that’s what you are now isn’t it?

 

De Cordova

I certainly am.  You know what I’ve been elected as an MP, I was only elected last week, it’s not even been a week yet, my first and most important priority are my constituents in Battersea and in my constituency and that will be my priority and that will be my focus for many years to come.

 

White

Marsha de Cordova, thank you very much indeed.

 

And that’s it for today.  You can call our action line for 24 hours after tonight’s programme, that’s 0800 044 044.  Email intouch@bbc.co.uk or you can go to our website for more information and to download tonight’s and other In Touch podcasts.  So from Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament, from me Peter White, producer Lee Kumutat and the team, goodbye.

 

 

 

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