So many major news stories emerged from this year’s local and European elections – from Ukip’s European triumphs to the woes of the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg – that one local controversy went relatively unnoticed. This was the allegation – made by local Labour MP Kate Green – that an unnamed councillor in Trafford had been heard to say in a polling station that a person with a learning disability “shouldn’t be voting”. To her credit, returning officer Theresa Grant immediately launched an investigation into the matter. We don’t yet know exactly what happened in that incident, but if such a remark was uttered it would be deplorable, but not as shocking as it should be. Sadly, many people still believe that people with learning disabilities or mental health needs shouldn’t have the right to vote, which is one of the many factors why they vote in far lower numbers than the rest of the population.
Nor is it just electoral officials who express such opinions, though their positions of authority make their attitudes particularly worrying. During the last general election, United Response spoke to one woman in east London with a mild learning disability who was hugely interested in politics, and able to discuss the intricacies of the rivalry between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in the kind of detail that would put most of the country to shame. Yet when asked whether she voted she said no: “My mother always said that wasn’t for me.”
Such entrenched attitudes – which linger among some electoral officials, families, social care workers and people with learning disabilities themselves – need to be confronted. Everyone who works with people with learning disabilities, particularly local authorities and those involved in elections, should ensure they are familiar with the 2006 Electoral Administration Act and the 2005 Mental Capacity Act. The former finally stripped out the ugly archaism that barred people described as “idiots and lunatics” from voting. The latter made it clear that if a person can indicate a preference for an electoral candidate in any way then they are likely to “pass the test” to vote.