As the 2015 general election approaches, Peter Handley considers whether the main parties’ position on disability policy have done enough to warrant his vote.
I guess I should say right at the outset this piece is not an entreaty to those who may read it either to vote or not to vote. It is an entirely personal reflection about a dilemma I find myself in as the UK General Election draws closer. Here’s the thing. In the General Election of 2010 I did not vote. This was the first time in my life I had not voted in a General Election. My emotions before, during, and after the election were in some turmoil. I felt sadness, maybe a sense of loss, too. Yes: I’d say now I felt loss more than anything. What I did not feel was any sense of regret, not even the slightest hint of it. My father would have been surprised and, I suspect, rather disappointed in his first-born. I was brought up in a household where the importance of voting was made very clear to me and my brother. Neither of our parents ever told us whom to vote for: just to vote. People, we were told, had fought and died for that right. I could not ever see a time when I would not vote, so why the dilemma?
I have usually voted on the basis of principle: I believed in the party for whom I voted. For me, voting was about ideology. It was about making the world a better place. So, anyway, here’s the rub: I am no longer convinced any of our political parties are interested in this for people such as me. When is say, ‘people such as me’, I mean disabled people. This requires a little bit of background explanation. For now, though, let’s just say that as the Labour Party secured its first election victory in 1998, for me, the personal was becoming increasingly political. I have a genetic condition which is characterised by a progressive wasting of muscle tissue. And, as the first signs of deterioration set in and some of the future implications of this began to occur to me, I applied for the in-work benefit, Disability Living Allowance (soon to be replaced by Universal Credit).
The Labour government continued the process of reforming welfare, including disability benefits. As ‘reform’ progressed eligibility for benefits was tightened. I began to have my doubts about where things were heading. I remember I had to demonstrate before the expert gaze of a medic that I was ‘genuine’, that I was not trying to screw the system. Also, I remember vividly even now his looking slightly ashamed and embarrassed as I asked him, whilst looking him square in the face, if he would like me to demonstrate to him how I unsafe I could be when descending a flight of stairs. Sensibly, he informed me this would not be necessary.
All three major parties in the forthcoming election are committed to reducing the deficit and, as part of this, are committed to further reductions in welfare spending and a concomitant pledge to further tightening eligibility criteria for disability benefits so that it is allocated only to those deemed truly ‘deserving’. As I age, so my condition deteriorates. I shall become even more reliant on the benefit I receive. I will almost certainly also find myself reliant upon a swiftly and ever-diminishing system of social care as domestic tasks become trickier.
So, to return to my dilemma: what, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau asked, is to be done? Whom, exactly, am I to vote for if underpinning the ‘reforms’ each of the major parties shares Victorian-era ideas of people such as me which split between that of feckless, scrounging, undeserving, good-for-nothings or those deemed deserving (the being some refer to as ‘super-crip’). Such ideas look set to remain the default settings of the parties about disabled people. In a recent BBC TV documentary, John Humphries talked about the importance in politics of hope. I wonder; are turkeys capable of a sense of hope as Christmas approaches? If they are, would they vote for it? You see my dilemma, I’m sure. Sorry, mum and dad; it looks like May 7th will be spent at home, after all. Will I feel a sense of loss again? I don’t know. I know I do not feel marginalised: Yet. But I am beginning to understand more clearly than ever the anger and the disconnect felt by those who are thought of as ‘other’ – and you know who I mean, the usual suspects, immigrants, the poor. Why should one vote for any party which does little to hide the fact it doubts your honesty at best, and, at worst, which openly despises you?
Peter Handley is Lecturer, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies. His research focuses on developing a disability approach to political analysis. His areas of interest include the authoritarian aspects of contemporary liberalism, with particular reference to the politics of welfare reform in Britain and Australia. His published work appears in Politics, Australian Journal of Political Science, and Disability and Society.