Disability Activists Challenging Labour
Last week the Labour Party had one of its most successful national conferences. Large numbers of delegates came from all over the UK to share ideas and take part in debates. Many fringe events were over subscribed. The World Transformed ran a parallel event. A festival of politics, art, music and culture, it attracted many who were new to politics. All their events were sold out and many had long queues to gain entry. The young labour people I spoke with were enthused to become more involved.
For the first time in a several years there was a separate one day Women’s Conference. I was very fortunate to be delegated by my constituency to attend. I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to over 2000 women delegates. Speaking of my 8 year wait to find a suitably adapted flat, I told of the difficulties I experienced getting my care package transferred from one London borough to another, less than 5 miles away. I pointed out the failures of the 2014 Care Act and the need for services for disabled people to be fully integrated. But despite all the good things, one practical issue dominated conference. Access for disabled delegates and visitors. There were enablers on hand at the main venues , but they were not always fully trained.
The Women’s Conference was at the Metropole Hotel on Brighton seafront. The main hall was great once I got inside but the route to get there was tortuous! The access for able bodied people was up a sweeping staircase. The disability access was via a very small lift accommodating a wheelchair & one other person only. Then it was a shlep through back corridors, with narrow corners and fire doors to negotiate. For anyone who could not manage stairs, but could walk with assistance of aids, the walk would have been almost impossible. Whilst there were mobility scooters available to borrow, none would have managed that route. There must have been a level access from another part of the hotel, or from a side road, but no information about this was given to disabled delegates. This may have been for security reasons. But my guess is that arrangements were made without input from someone with a physical disability.
Often it was minor stuff that was a problem. The ramp into the Metropole ended in a door which opened into the hotel, with a press button opener. Getting out again was impossible without assistance as there was no button on the inside! I was told that the disabled toilets didn’t allow for sufficient space to manoeuvre a wheelchair, a common problem. I will never leave my chair outside a loo unless I have someone guarding it. All of these things reduce one’s independence.
There were difficulties for delegates who needed passes for their own helpers. If there were last minute changes to personnel, that meant lengthy queues to get passes sorted. My own delegate pass was not cleared when I arrived and even after it had been sorted when I got into Conference I was told that I only had visitor rights! There was a flurry of phone calls to enable me to be called to speak.
Brighton is not the easiest of places for wheelchair users. Cobbled streets and narrow pavements require careful navigation. But all of the entrances for the Conference venue itself involved passing through safety gates, some of which were both narrow and steep. Others were on the edge of pavements covering dipped curbs, making crossing the road hazardous. Several of the venues for fringe meetings were not accessible at all. One that I attended had no signage and involved a temporary ramp. My helper had to go inside the hotel to find out how I could reach the venue room, then alert me as to where to wait for the ramp. Again, this precludes independence.
One group of disabled people banded together to give out 5000 leaflets raising issues about access and involvement within local Labour Party organisations. Party Participation and Disabled People have been raising concerns throughout the Party. A letter to the General Secretary elicited a reply quoting legislation (The Disability Discrimination Act) that has been superseded. A lamentable level of ignorance. The group is seeking formal recognition of Disability Officers at all levels of the party with elected officers on the NEC and Conference Arrangement Committees.
A second group of disabled people lead by Jonathan Fletcher an activist from Ashton Under Lyne, have come together to form Project 125. At least 20% of people in the UK have a disability. The Labour Party has all women short lists for council and parliamentary elections. There are requirements for constituencies and committees to have BAEM (Black and Ethic Minority) places. No such arrangements are in place for disabled candidates. The group is seeking to ensure at least 125 people with disabilities have the opportunity to stand as parliamentary candidates. With 650 seats in parliament, 125 represents the 20% of disabled people. Both groups are getting backing from MPs. The issue of participation will be raised within the upcoming review of democracy within the party, which will be lead by Katy Clarke, who is currently Jeremy Corbyn’s political secretary.
Disabled people are making sure their voices and viewpoints are heard. There is no excuse for lack of accessibility and a failure to consult. Disabled people must advise on conference planning. I am involved in both groups, we are working together. Our activism and solidarity will enable us to succeed.
This post first appeared on my Huffington Post blog
My previous post was about the formation of two new campaigning groups within the Labour Party. However it did not give the back story as to why Project 125 and Party Participation and Disabled People were formed. This post explains why.
The “official” Disability group within the Labour Party is called Disability Labour (DL). It has a constitution and is recognised by the NEC, Labour’s governing body.
The way the group works, however, is bizarre. Whilst there is a committee consisting of a Chair, 2 Vice Chairs, a Secretary and Treasurer the people elected to these posts at the last AGM were not elected by the membership of Disability Labour as a whole. The electorate consisted of a small group of people who could afford to travel to Manchester to a venue that was not fully accessible. They elected members to an Executive Committee. The EC then agreed officer posts within themselves. Hardly democratic. There were requests for the meeting to be streamed to allow others members such as myself to participate. This was refused by the Chair. There were also calls to allow officers to be directly elected by the entire membership. This was also refused, despite it being allowed within the constitution.
Many members, including myself did not receive the calling notice for the AGM until 2 weeks before. This is a breach of the 28 day rule for calling a DIsability Labour AGM. The irony of the AGM being held on 1st April was not lost on us!
There is another absurd issue. All correspondence to members of Disability Labour can only be sent out via Labour HQ. The Officers do not have membership information and are reliant on others to send out mailings. I cannot fathom any reason for this. I’m a membership officer for a ward in my local Party. I receive the full membership list for that ward together with regular updates. Of course, I have to sign a confidentiality and proper use agreement. Why can the same system not operate within Disability Labour?
I cannot ascertain the number of members DL has. There are 97 members in their Facebook group. The majority of this group are vociferous in their dissatisfaction of the way the organisation is currently run.
The committee does not appear to meet at regular intervals. Members of DL are rarely given details of these meetings and in two years I and other members have never had sight of any minutes or decisions taken. There do not appear to be any audited accounts either.
Two of the current officers tell members that they have tried to resolve the issue of the membership list. However when some members have offered to assist with this process they have not received any response from the officers.
A recent thread on the DL Facebook page has asked if members are happy with the way DL is run. Not one person responding to that post is satisfied with the current arrangements.
I am also a member of LGBT Labour. Their membership system is totally different. No data is held by Labour HQ. Members who are eligible to join the group apply directly to the group and membership records are kept securely by the Secretary and Membership Secretary. There is absolutely no reason why the same system cannot apply to DL membership keeping. Nothing in the constitution of DL prohibits membership data being held by DL officers.
If membership data were to be transferred to DL officers, all that would be required is to inform members of the change and given them the opportunity to decline to have their personal information transferred.
There is nothing in the DL constitution that prohibits members from attending an EC meeting as observers. Previously members have not been given any information about when or where the EC is meeting. This week is the first time I’ve seen the date of an EC meeting. One officer broke ranks and chose to disclose it. As yet we do not know where the EC will meet. I have asked for details, I hope I will be given them, but I’m not holding my breath.
All of this bureaucratic nightmare has a major consequence. DL is not able to represent disabled people within the Labour Party. Many of us experience discrimination and side-lining. This is not acceptable. All sections of the party must comply with the Equality Act 2010.
Party Participation and Disabled People and Project 125, have been launched as a direct consequence of DL’s failure to advocate for its members. We wanted to bring these changes through DL, but that doesn’t seem possible at the moment.
DL should also be supporting the new Labour Shadow Secretary for Disabled People Marsha de Cordova in her role of challenging Tory policies thst cause misery to disabled people.
250 Labour Party members have joined Party Participation and Disabled People and Project 125 has 275 Labour members, both groups more than doubling the DL Facebook group membership.
The two new groups are buzzing with ideas and have committed volunteers wanting to contribute. The skills we have are welcomed and the collaborative working is a joy to be part of. Websites are under design and campaigning materials are being produced.
The Labour Party seeks to be ‘For the many and not the few’, but within its own ranks disabled people are often marginalised or ignored. Many people with disabilities cannot attend ward or constituency meetings. Venues are inaccessible to wheelchair users, there is no loop system or microphones to enable deaf people to participate. This breaches the Equality Act 2010. As yet, no one has sued their local Party. Some are entitled to, as the EA 2010 applies to any organisation with over 25 members. Thus it applies to the vast majority of Labour Party Constituency Organisations.
The current situation is a disgrace. As a Labour Party member I’m ashamed that DL is so badly run, and that it seems impossible for ordinary members to have any meaningful involvement. Change is needed. Change will happen, either within DL itself or by involvement from MPs and the leadership.
The question is when and by whom? It can’t come soon enough for me.