Grassroots movement fortifies learning disability vote. Could it swing the election?
In a unique cross-party vote of support, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have today made a personal pledge to listen to the voices of the 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK ahead of the General Election in May.
There are almost 5 million people of voting age in the UK who either have a learning disability or who have someone with a learning disability in their immediate family, accounting for 10% of all people who are eligible to vote in the UK. With experts deeming the outcome of this year’s General Election “impossible to call”1, the learning disability vote could decide who will be in power come May.
David Cameron, Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, said:
“My son Ivan was born with a profound disability and I still remember how helpless Sam and I felt when he was born. It was like beginning a journey we never planned to take without a map, and we only coped thanks to the love and support of our friends and family as well as some incredible NHS and social services. It is really important that as well as providing the support that people with learning disabilities and their families need, MPs of all parties listen to the challenges that they face. That is why I am backing the Royal Mencap Society campaign to support people with a learning disability and allow them to share their stories.”
Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, attended a Q&A event with people with a learning disability organised by Mencap in his constituency on Friday 16 January. Mr Clegg said:
“I want to build a fairer society so that everyone has the opportunity to get on in life. I have had the opportunity of attending an event in my own constituency where I heard from people with a learning disability about what changes would make a real difference to them. Because the only way to truly understand what shapes the lives of people who have a learning disability, is to listen to what they have to say.”
Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party, said:
“Disabled people make up one in six UK citizens, and play a vital and valued role in our society. Their views and ideas about what matters in their lives and in our communities are crucial. I hope many people will be involved in Mencap’s Hear My voice campaign, so the views and opinions of disabled people are heard loud and clear in the run up to the general election. I assure you Labour will be listening.”
The party leaders’ timely pledges come in support of Mencap’s Hear my voice campaign, which aims to ensure the next government addresses the key issues facing people with a learning disability and their families, by making it easier for them to speak out and make their voices heard.
Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, says:
“The learning disability vote could decide the election. People with a learning disability and their families are an increasingly political force who politicians would be foolish to ignore. They are engaged and want their voice to be heard on a range of issues including health, education, benefits, social care and hate crime.
“The political power of people with a learning disability and their families cannot be underestimated. If politicians ignore this, they could lose the election. Today’s welcome announcement from the political party leaders indicates they are not willing to take this risk and are committed to listening to this group.”
Jenni from Derbyshire is in her sixties and has a learning disability. When her local day centre closed, she wrote to the Prime Minister to ask why. Jenni says:
“I used to love going to my local day centre. I met lots of friends there and I felt part of my community. When it closed, I was really upset. I didn’t understand why it had closed until I found out more about what was happening with cuts. I wanted to learn more about politics and find out what other big decisions would impact me. I wrote to the Prime Minister and went to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I found out how laws are made. I will definitely be voting in May. I will vote for the party that will look after the important services that I rely on.”
Jenni’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unprecedented levels of exclusion and discrimination that people with a learning disability face in Britain today2. Indeed, a quarter of adults with a learning disability spend less than one hour outside their home each day. Three people with a learning disability die avoidably in the NHS every single day. And eight in ten family carers of a loved one with a learning disability have reached crisis point.
Learning disability issues matter to the general public too. A poll of public opinion by Mencap saw 90% of the British public urging action from the next government to tackle learning disability discrimination and exclusion3. This feeling spans all of the electorate ahead of the 2015 General Election, no matter which party they intend to vote for or which part of the country they are from.
194 marginal seats in Britain will make the difference between who is in government this May4. The learning disability vote could swing those seats. For example, Hendon currently has a majority of 106 and 90 local people with a learning disability, their families and carers have already engaged with Mencap through Q&A events and voting workshops in the area. People with a learning disability could alone therefore account for the votes needed to swing the seat.
To date, over 6,000 people with a learning disability have taken part in Mencap’s hustings events and voting workshops throughout the country, with a further 2,000 people estimated to attend events planned over the coming months.
Today’s announcement is a clear indication that politicians are starting to take learning disability issues – and the power of the learning disability vote – seriously. What’s more, through Mencap’s Hear my voice campaign, almost 250 MPs and candidates across all political parties have joined the party leaders in promising to listen to the voices of local people with a learning disability5.
Mencap’s Hear my voice campaign is one of a number of grassroots movements giving rise to the voice of people with a learning disability throughout the UK. Not only are other charitable organisations such as People First England working to make sure people’s voices are heard, but parent campaigners and people with a learning disability are making a real difference in their local area.
A respite scheme for disabled children in Braintree, Essex, was threatened with closure by the local authority in 2012. Fearing the impact the closure would have on their children and wider families, parents started a petition and organised local events to raise funds to keep the scheme open. The parents managed to engage with Brooks Newmark MP, who supported the campaign by chairing a meeting between the campaign group and the local authority. The campaign was a success and the scheme continues to support disabled children today.
Mavourneen, one of the parents who led the campaign, said:
“When we thought we were going to have to close the respite scheme everyone was very worried. We worked very hard campaigning to save it. Our MP took time to listen to us and supported us and that made a huge difference.”
To date, Mencap’s Hear my voice campaign has engaged with 70,000 people with a learning disability, their families, friends and carers through voter registration workshops, hustings events, e-actions and sharing their stories directly with their local MPs and candidates6.
Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, concludes:
“Given the critical nature of the issues that people with a learning disability and their families face in the UK every day, it is shocking they aren’t already at heart of all political parties’ policies. Hopefully today marks a commitment to changing this.
“We are at a crossroads. It is true that over the past 20 years, there has been real progress for people with a learning disability and their families, including moves away from institutionalisation and segregation. But one wrong move from those in government could see these significant gains for people with a learning disability undone – for example, deepening cuts to welfare could leave people with a learning disability in crisis and the further tightening of eligibility criteria for social care could leave people stuck at home, isolated from their communities.
“We still have a mountain to climb if we are to make sure that all people with a learning disability and their families are treated equally in society.”
There are 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK. Mencap works to support people with a learning disability, their families and carers by fighting to change laws, improve services and access to education, employment and leisure facilities. Mencap supports thousands of people with a learning disability to live their lives the way they want. www.mencap.org.uk
For advice and information about learning disability and Mencap services in your area, contact Mencap Direct on 0808 808 1111 (9am-5pm, Monday-Friday) or email firstname.lastname@example.org