Today I attended a Parliamentary Hustings at the Clifonville Community Centre. The meeting was organised by East Kent Mencap. It was part of Mencap’s national campaign #hearmyvoice which aims to make politicians more aware of the second class treatment meted out to people with learning disabilities such as unfair exclusion from school; massively disproportionate unemployment; lack of support with daily living; low life expectancy; unfair benefits sanctions; poor care from the NHS; bad housing; abuse, bullying and hate crime. A lot of work went into organising the meeting and it was extremely well attended with about 70 learning disabled people in the audience.This was undoubtedly the best hustings meeting I have been to. It was lively with a lot of interjection and some of the most difficult questions I have been asked so far in the campaign many of which related to the unfair treatment faced by learning disabled people in Thanet. Sadly what would otherwise have been a very successful meeting was, in my opinion, spoiled by the antics of Thanet Council’s Labour Leader, Iris Johnston. Quite naturally being a political meeting with wannabe MPs from across the political spectrum, Thanet Council came in for a lot of criticism from the audience and speakers alike. This was entirely legitimate and has happened at all the hustings meetings I have been to.
Clearly people wanted to know what their prospective parliamentary candidates think about the local council.Johnston was quite clearly unhappy about some of the comments and questions about Thanet Council and became more and more agitated throughout the meeting. She also took copious notes about these exchanges and began to frantically attract the attention of the meeting's Chair. The Chair allowed her speak and she proceeded to give an incredibly defensive speech about her record as Thanet Council’s leader and a potted history of what she had done to help disabled people in Thanet over the past 20 years. Clearly she took the criticisms which had been made about the Council very personally. But Iris Johnston had not been invited to the meeting to defend the record as Leader of the Council. Nor is she standing as an MP. So her views and opinions were inconsequential and were not asked for. Thankfully the Chair of the meeting quickly realised that the ego-fuelled Johnston was trying to hijack the meeting and after a bit of a struggle was able to shut her up and get her to sit down. This was supposed to be a meeting which would empower learning disabled people in Thanet. This was supposed to be a meeting at which learning disabled people could let their prospective MPs know how they feel across a wide range of issues. Not at meeting at which Irtis Johnston could wax lyrical about how good she believes herself to be.
Through her insensitive actions, Iris Johnston demonstrated today that she wasn't listening to Thanet's learning disabled community. She didn't appear interested in listening to what some of the most discriminated and badly treated people in Thanet were trying to say to their prospective MPs. For Iris Johnston it was all about defending her fragile wounded ego.
Mencap launched the #hearmyvoice campaign to overcome the exclusion of learning disabled people from politics and decision making - and about time too say I. But sadly Iris Johnston’s actions today demonstrates that learning disabled people have a long way to go because the only voice Iris Johnston heard today was her own!