What's in it for the disabled?

Capability Scotland's Abigail Bremner reports on what it's like to be a disabled voter, barriers peo

I’ve been perusing the manifestos of the main political parties in the run up to the Scottish Elections to see what they’ll be promising disabled voters. In terms of column inches, the Lib Dems do best, and they also come nearest to offering a commitment to independent living. The Scottish National Party are a close second, with some good policy content as well. The Labour Party ‘will promote civil rights for disabled people’ – which, in fairness, isn’t a position one could object to, but it’s a little short on the detail. The Conservatives want to ensure that ‘special’ schools maintain their role alongside mainstream education for disabled children. So they’re not afraid of controversy then!.

Capability Scotland is one of Scotland’s leading disability organisations working for a just Scotland. We’ve been campaigning on voting issues for disabled people since 1999, including regular surveys on the accessibility of voting processes. The results of our latest voting intentions survey are just in. It shows that disabled people and carers are more likely to vote than the rest of the population, with 94% of respondents stating that they will definitely be voting in the upcoming election. Twenty-eight percent also state that they are undecided as to which party they will be voting for, meaning that there is everything to play for in terms of winning disabled votes. Yet – as the analysis above shows – political parties are hardly going out of their way to court their disabled constituents.

It seems strange that disabled people are not treated by political analysts as a ‘lobby’ in the same way as, for example, the pensioners’ lobby to which so much attention is devoted (especially as both groups are roughly equivalent in size in terms of their representation in the general population). However, the flip side to this is that disabled people can and do choose to define themselves by characteristics other than their disability.

The main focus of Capability Scotland’s campaigning activity is on the barriers disabled people face when trying to exercise their right to vote. Our research shows that things are (generally) improving. In 1997, 43% of polling stations had major accessibility issues. This compares with 40% in 2001 and 17% in 2003, although the figure increased to 24% in 2005. I’ve been asked before why more disabled people don’t just vote by post – and I’m always keen to point out that voting by post means that you can lose out on the opportunity to follow the political debate right up until polling day before making a final decision. However, voting by post does remain the preferred option for some disabled people, out of necessity in some cases and out of choice in others.

The access issues faced by disabled people in the voting process aren’t just physical. We have been working to highlight the problems faced by people with learning difficulties, who can struggle to get access to information about voting and – crucially – about the policies of the parties they might want to vote for, in an easy to understand format. Our research shows that people with learning disabilities are more likely to report negative voting experiences than disabled people as a whole.

Our www.vote.org.uk website is a key plank of our activity. This aims to support disabled people in exercising their right to vote by providing information on the voting experience and on the sorts of additional support – such as low level polling booths and tactile voting devices – that they can expect to find at their local polling place.

And finally, Capability Scotland will also be practising what we preach this year, by volunteering our head office to our local council for use as a fully accessible polling station.

Abigail Bremner is the Campaigns Manager at Capability Scotland. Capability Scotland works with children, adults and families living with disability to support them in their everyday lives.
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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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