17 million untapped votes: disabled people and carers ignored in the general election

Kirstein Rummery explains how it's curious that the political parties are not making more of an effort to reach out to the 11m disabled adults and 6m carers eligible to vote. An edited version of this article appeared on The Conversation.

This week saw the launch of the UK party manifestos, as they try to reach out to voters in one of the closely fought elections in recent memory. With all the predictions of a hung parliament, and a minority or coalition government looking likely, it would seem that every vote should count.

So it is curious that the political parties are not making more of an effort to reach out to the 11m disabled adults and 6m carers eligible to vote: particularly when you consider that in the last general election, around 15m adults failed to turn up to the ballot box.

The austerity policies put in place since 2020 by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition have had a particularly devastating effect on the benefits and services received by disabled people and carers, with evidence demonstrating that work capability assessments, welfare sanctions, changes to housing benefits, the changes to disability allowances and cuts to social care having a cumulative impact on the most vulnerable disabled people. The Centre for Welfare Reform illustrate this graphically:

Centre for Welfare Reform

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos focus on continuing austerity measures, whilst protecting the NHS, rather than social care. All three parties favour increased health and social care integration, which benefits those with complex health and social care needs, although arguably the greatest benefits are for the professional staff rather than for the service users.

When it comes to welfare, the failure to address the key issues for disabled voters are even more telling. All three parties propose cuts or caps to welfare spending, with the Conservatives aiming to make £12bn welfare savings, including taxing carers allowances, and the Liberal Democrats proposing a modest £250pa carer’s bonus.

Of the smaller UK-wide parties, only the Greens have an explicitly anti-austerity focus and commitment to the social model of disability. This translates into a commitment includes a commitment to basic income, social housing, accessible transport, free social care, increased carers allowances and a commitment to deliver on international human rights commitments for disabled people.

Health and social care are devolved to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, so although the commitments from the SDLP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru and SNP all pledge greater funding for the NHS, they are by necessity not matched by specific funding pledges. Disabled voters in Scotland should probably note constitutional commitments by the SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats to further devolution of powers, including the promised devolution of disability and carers benefits to the Scottish Parliament. This would give Scottish policy makers the opportunity to reshape welfare benefits and social care for disabled people, which if they took a lead from the Green party and focused on basic income, transport, housing and social care (the last three are already devolved) could offer significant improvements in disabled people’s independence, health and social inclusion.

Although there has been little research done on the voting habits of disabled people in the last general election, the 2010 British Election survey found that carers were more likely than non-carers to vote for the Labour party:

Carers

This probably reflects the fact that the Labour party have traditionally been seen as the protectors of public services, backed by strong Union support from public sector unions. However, disabled people and family cares do not command union support, and it is telling that in 2015 the Labour party have sought to reposition themselves as the party that supporting *working* people, rather than encouraging a social justice approach towards equality and social inclusion of those excluded from the labour market due to illness, incapacity or caring commitments.

Most parties have launched disabled manifestoes or specific pledges for disabled people. The Conservatives’ promises are mostly negative, in that they will freeze or place a cap on working age benefits, maintain the Work Capability Assessment, protect homes and increase support for carers. Labour will reform the Work Capability Assessment (albeit setting up an independent scrutiny group of disabled people) set up a specialist support programme to assist disabled people into work. The Liberal Democrats, who in the 2015 general election were the only party to have a disability specific manifesto, have focussed on reforming Universal Credit and joining up health and social care, as well as providing a small sum of money to carers. Crucially, none of the three main Westminster parties pledge increases in funding, an end to welfare sanctions or to protect the Independent Living Fund, despite evidence that benefit cuts and welfare sanctions are causing declines in health and wellbeing of disabled people, including leading to premature death and having little or no effect on employment rates.

In contrast, the fringe parties offer changes to the established welfare system for disabled people. UKIP plan to end Work Capability Assessments being carried out by third party agencies and return the responsibility to GPs.  Health and social care are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and both currently offer different services to England (for example free personal care in Scotland). The SNP pledge to block cuts to Disability Living Allowance and increase carer’s allowances, and if the Smith Commission pledges are enacted they will have the full range of disability related benefits devolved after the election. Plaid Cymru have promised to push for further devolution of health and social care.

Only Greens have systematic pledges aimed at disabled people that involve increased funding, including a commitment to the social model of disability, retaining the Independent Living Allowance, increasing the budget for Disability Living Allowances and Carer’s Allowances, giving free personal care and integrating health and social care. It may be that other than the Greens (who in any case are unlikely to win enough seats to be able to dictate policies, but could form part of a Coalition or support a minority government on a case by case basis), none of the main UK parties see it in their interests to appeal specifically to disabled voters or carers. The Electoral Reform Society, Disability Alliance and other charities have criticised the current voting system as not being sufficiently accessible to allow disabled voters to exercise their democratic voice at the ballot box easily, with election manifestos, polling booths and voter registration processes all acting as significant barriers.

And yet there is significant frustration at the cumulative impact of welfare sanctions, cuts to social care, cuts to public services and changes to benefits from around 17 million disabled people and carers: significantly more than the numbers that voted for any of the major parties in the last general election. Moreover, integrating health and social care whilst ringfencing or increasing funding for the NHS is likely to divert funding away from social care and preventative services towards acute and community based services largely for older, rather than younger disabled people.

It would seem that disabled people and carers are not worth targeting, for the mainstream parties at least, and yet the needs of 17 million people in the UK going unheard would seem to be quite a significant challenge for democracy.

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Kirstein Rummery's picture
University of Stirling
28th April 2015

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