The purple vote: why disabled voters are getting behind Corbyn's Labour

Disability campaigners are trying to create a "purple vote" to fight back against the pressure of Tory cuts

June 02, 2017
Disabled voters could become a force to be reckoned with—a purple vote to match pensioners' "grey vote". Photo: Prospect composite
Disabled voters could become a force to be reckoned with—a purple vote to match pensioners' "grey vote". Photo: Prospect composite

If you want to see why disability matters in this election, just look online. On social media, some disabled people ask for assistance so that they go canvassing for Jeremy Corbyn. Others suggest phone banking and stuffing envelopes. Filmmaker Ken Loach makes a plea for voters to support Momentum, citing his research for the film, I, Daniel Blake, and the way which the "cruel" benefits sanction and assessment system is "forcing the sick back to work."

This thirst to defeat Conservative rule seems almost self-explanatory. The last seven years have seen a sustained attack, activists say, on the rights of disabled people to live independently. From the introduction of the unpopular fit-for-work tests to cuts in social care that may result in more disabled people being forced back into institutions, disabled activists argue that things have gone from bad to worse under two successive Conservative (led) administrations.

Research from the University of Hull, in conjunction with the Trussell Trust, suggests strongly that people in receipt of disability benefits now have to use food banks in increasing numbers. Others report difficulties in affording heating. Since 2010, physically disabled people and those with mental health conditions have also become much more likely to become homeless than non-disabled people, according to government figures released last December.

“Five more years of Tory rule will cause more pain for the groups I work with” —Activist Simon Green

The Conservative administration’s big idea was to get disabled people into work (albeit by using sanctions and the dreaded assessments).

However, the disability employment gap remains largely the same as when the Conservatives took office. The pledge has been quietly dropped in the manifesto, and there is little in it that will woo disabled voters apart from some limited promises on mental health and accessible housing.

A matter of survival

I am not surprised to see so many disabled people talking about this election in terms of survival. John Pring, an investigative journalist who runs the Disability News Service, says that although the Conservatives have not announced any more cuts to disability benefits, “We are deeper into the anger about the impact of austerity on disabled people, with no hint it is going to end. There is anger and desperation.”

Enter two key campaigns to get the disabled vote out: the first being #CripTheVote, inspired by the successful movement in the US. This non-party political campaign aims to raise the profile of disability issues during the election and to mobilise and energise disabled people and their allies.

Its longer-term vision is to demonstrate that the disability vote could become an organised block, in much the same way as older people are courted by politicians because they turn out in high numbers. Parties tempt the “grey vote” with tailored policies: this time around, Labour has pledged to retain the triple lock on pensions and the Conservatives have had to backtrack on their proposed plans on social care due to the impact on older voters.

Enter the purple vote

I suspect that disabled people will get the vote out this time around as never before. Some polling stations were shamefully inaccessible in 2010 but most, if not all, are now accessible. The disability charity, Scope, carried out recent polling of disabled people and found that 89% of those surveyed intended to vote, citing as their priorities protection of disability benefits, social care and extra costs for disabled people. Think the “purple vote”—although not the UKIP shade.

The second campaign, run by the highly political Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), which worked hard on voter registration up to the deadline, has urged disabled people this time around to vote tactically to ensure that the Conservatives are not returned to office.

Yet whilst Jeremy Corbyn is popular with disabled voters, whether or not the community will deliver a block vote is contestable.

Certainly, party caucus Disability Labour has done much to advance the rights of disabled people. Labour’s manifesto reads like an advertisement for the social model of disability—which argues that people are disabled by society, rather than their condition—and promises to scrap some of the Conservative administration’s most unpopular policies, including the bedroom tax and PIP work assessments.

It even suggests increasing financial aid for disabled people who are unable to work. The party is also running some excellent disabled candidates, including Pam Duncan-Glancy in Glasgow North and Marie Tidball in Oxford West and Abingdon.

Competition from other parties

Nevertheless, whilst around half of the 13 million disabled people in the UK are of working age, pensioners number heavily amongst the rest. According to government figures, 45% of adults over state pension age have a disability, with many being age-related. Support for the Conservatives tends generally to increase with voting age. Whether pensioners can be tempted by Labour’s stance on disability after the disastrous launch of the Conservative’s social care policy (which will affect both older and disabled people) remains to be seen.

There is also competition on the centre-left. Pring notes that all parties (apart from the Conservatives) have moved forward on disability rights. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens now make much more of their disability policies, as does the Women’s Equality Party. They are all fielding disabled candidates, with the Liberal Democrats fielding the highest proportion.

Support for Labour

Yet whilst some disabled activists have reservations about Corbyn and his front bench, many will vote Labour this time around.

Simon Green, chair of Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People, argued thus on Facebook: “Neither party is perfect… both have made mistakes, most notably Diane Abbott. Corbyn is far from perfect.

“But I speak to people daily who have lost mobility cars and therefore lost jobs, people who have lost direct payments... five more years of Tory rule will cause more pain for the groups I work with and I also fear for myself if my health got worse.”

This time around, for the first time, he is canvassing and door-knocking for Labour.

Another, Mo Stewart, author of Cash Not Care, a book about the effect of recent welfare cuts on disabled people, argues that “speaking personally, I can’t see how anyone who is knowledgeable about the on-going atrocities could be an activist and vote Conservative.”

A visually-impaired activist and Labour councillor, Kirsten Hearn, urges friends to help get the vote out. “You can assist a disabled person to canvass... canvassing assistants need to be able to climb up stairs with alacrity, tackle lovely steep hills, and be on their feet, taking notes at the same time as making sure I don't canvass five-year-olds, or the family dog.”

She concludes by urging friends to reject voting for anyone by Labour: “Disabled people beyond everyone else, have been demonised, punished and held to ridicule, bringing upon us real and present hate… Vote Labour, that's all.” 

This simmering anger and zeal for change are widespread. It may not swing the vote in any particular seat but emotions are running strong and have galvanised disabled people in unprecedented numbers. Stand by for the new purple vote. 

Read Scope's guide to accessible voting, including instructions on how you can make sure your polling station is accessible.