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 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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.