Tragedy is never personal when you're in the glare of the public eye

In the light of the latest allegations against Jared O’Mara, I am unable, because of sub judice to comment meaningfully on what this may or may not add up to. Nevertheless I am going to reflect on the wider issues and lessons to be learnt from this case study.

Wednesday, 14th August 2019, 15:13 pm
Updated Wednesday, 11th September 2019, 13:19 pm
Jared O-Mara’s election was a shock to all

With the backcloth of the last two weeks in Parliament, it was understandable that there might be confusion about Jared O’Mara’s position but I hope by the time this column is published that he has clarified once and for all that he is standing down at the member for Hallam.

Some 15 years ago, I had a major personal trauma which spilled over into the public arena. I was very fortunate. I had the most incredible close family and circle of friends and, crucially, after years representing part of this great city, both in the Town Hall and at Westminster, I had the understanding of a substantial part of the electorate, friend or foe.

I have been reflecting on this in the light of the commitment by the MP for Hallam, during the summer, to stand aside. Everyone of us is different. Our circumstances, the state of our health, and experiences we have already traversed in life offer a unique backcloth as to how we face the challenges which beset us. It is with that in mind I decided that I would use this column to reflect on lessons to be learned and improvements to be made.

The unforeseen and unexpected General Election of 2017 resulted in normal processes of Party selection being set aside. This is important because usually there is a rigorous procedure for all major political parties which endeavours to ensure that the individual who is selected to represent their cause has undergone a thorough vetting process. Those of us who have been through this, know how testing it can be. Sometimes it will lead to individuals realising that this level of scrutiny is not for them. It is not unknown for individuals who put themselves forward and when they fail to be selected, to recognise that they need much greater experience before trying again.

In 2017, none of this was the case. Having run the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg very close indeed in the previous 2015 GE, Labour's candidate Oliver Coppard was no longer available. Names were thrown into the ring, interviews and scrutiny undertaken in a hurry and the wider membership by practical necessity was excluded from the selection process. No one could have been more surprised than I was when for the first time ever, the Labour candidate, Jared O’Mara emerged victorious. At this point things went drastically wrong, both for Jared and for the people he sought to serve.

In a different world where Parliamentary support systems and understanding both mental and physical health was greater and when a period of induction was a practical possibility, things might have been very different. But that is not the world we live in. You are literally thrown in at the deep end and adjustment, both physical and otherwise, has to be immediate. I know because I experienced it myself in very different circumstances back in 1987. The margin of swimming or sinking is a tiny one. Help has to be offered and accepted. There must be recognition of the challenges faced by the individual. In politics, the world is very unforgiving. So, as all others look back on the last two years, ally or opponent, are we circumspect about the part we played? Would things have been different if Jared O'Mara had remained a member of Labour?

I think not. Those who had been offering help, in Sheffield and in Parliament, would not have been able to prevent the failure of Jared to recognise the enormity and importance of dealing with his private challenges whilst in the spotlight of public life and political scrutiny. Two things now strike me in looking to the future.

The first: political parties have a duty of care both to the individuals we select to go forward on our behalf, and in taking action to protect the electorate when it is clear that they are receiving less than an acceptable representation. The second, which is very close to my heart, is not to believe that those with substantial disabilities cannot represent at local and national level, their fellow men and women. If I have done anything in my political life that has changed minds, and improved the chances of equality, I believe it has been by demonstrating that someone with a defined disability can do the job on equal terms. The sad lesson of Jared O'Mara’s selection and election is not that disability excludes you from public life, but that public life needs to be much more inclusive, supportive and welcoming of those able and willing to face the same rigour, demands, and rebuffs of frontline politics.