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Tories want to paint disabled people as 'benefit cheats'. Is Labour really any better?

There's little difference between the Tories and Labour on disability rights, argues Disability Rights UK campaigner Mikey Erhardt. It's why disabled people must come together to demand dignity and respect

Labour or Tory? Images: Alamy

There are at least 14 million disabled people in the UK – and we make up a fifth of the population. That’s five times as many disabled people as small business owners, six times as many disabled people as landlords, and thousands of times more disabled people than investment bankers.

Yet, in the last 20 years, it’s obvious that disabled people have been ignored, and our needs have not been treated as seriously by our political and media classes as those that I listed. We are not a homogenous group: we have different impairments, are different genders and sexual orientations, come from different backgrounds, and live different lives. 

But no matter our background, no one should be left without a financial safety net, meaning we can live independent lives. The social security system is something we should all be proud of, a piece of social infrastructure that 22 million people across the UK draw on to live the lives we all have a right to. We can expect that number to increase as the crisis in our public services (NHS, social care, education and housing – to name a few!) continues to spiral.

Yet, going into a general election in July, no leading party has made offering real change to our social security system part of their platform, despite us needing this social infrastructure more than ever. 

With ever more of us needing the social security system, why is it in such a torrid state? Disabled people have lost average benefit payments of around £1,200 yearly because of these government “reforms”. We all want the right support when needed, but since 2008, systemic vandalism of the benefits system has led to this safety net failing, causing people to feel abandoned by a cruel and unfair system

Maintaining this status quo in service of the goal of what some would call stability for our welfare system will only perpetuate its harm on to more and more people. This year, the coroner warned work and pensions secretary Mel Stride that the social security system could worsen symptoms of mental illness after a man whose “anxiety was exacerbated by his application for universal credit” died by suicide. In fact, on the day the election was announced, the Equality and Human Rights Commission opened an investigation into DWP policies. Nothing but a radical overhaul will keep us safe.

So what is being offered to fix this crisis at this election? Despite polling suggesting that the general public is much more pro-social security than they have been for a very long time, with researchers finding that “pro-welfare policies are therefore likely to land much more positively”, we’ve seen the biggest political parties fail to take even principled stances, let alone offer the radical policies we need.

As members of the public await the respective manifestos from across the political spectrum, the direction of travel is clear. The Conservatives are offering more conditionality, more sanctions and painting our community as “benefit cheats”. If their recent green paper consultations were anything to go by, we might see their dangerous rhetoric become even more cruel and punishing policy offerings in the next few weeks. 

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It might surprise many that despite such a clear demand for substantive transformation, the largest opposition party, Labour, is offering very little. So far, their leader has refused to end the punishing two-child benefit cap, which has already plunged 490,000 children directly into poverty. In January, the then-shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, announced that there would be “conditionality” in any welfare system the party oversees. 

That both of the biggest parties are unable to do anything other than to threaten more sanctions or more conditionality makes it clear that our system is in desperate need of repair, which is why Geoff Fimister, policy co-chair at the Disability Benefits Consortium, told me late last year: “Ministers have so little confidence in what is on offer,” he explained, “that they feel they need to resort to threats to promote uptake.”

With such little real difference right now, our movement of disabled people must come together to fight back. We can learn from the successes of radical disabled resistance of the past 40 years. We are following this radical tradition as part of the DPO Forum England, a collective of disabled people’s organisations in England; we want to join the work we’re doing nationwide and unify our demands.

That’s why we came together to create the Disabled People’s Manifesto, which contains radical policy demands for systemic overhaul and transformation. Now, we as disabled people need to come together and demand our politicians take up the manifesto by committing to creating a system underpinned by a new ethos of dignity, respect, trust, and support. This system should focus on supporting disabled people to live the lives we want – with no sanctions, conditionality, or caps. It’s the least we deserve.

Mikey Erhardt is a campaigns and policy officer at Disability Rights UK.

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