Conference missteps show Labour must do better for disabled members

Peter Apps

As Emily Pomeroy-Smith entered one of the rooms in Brighton on the Sunday of Labour conference, she realised something was wrong: the wheelchair ramp to access the speaker stage was absent minutes before a Disability Labour discussion on how the party could stop ableism.

By the time the other speakers including myself arrived, Emily – a wheelchair user, mother and 2019 Labour candidate in South West Wiltshire – had it fixed. It was the sort of challenge that disabled party members are used to facing and often overcoming, but are losing patience over.

In his introduction to the second of two Disability Labour conference events, Labour general secretary David Evans acknowledged that the party knows that it has work to do and committed it to doing so. So did shadow disability minister Vicky Foxcroft, who sat through both making extensive notes as disabled members shared experiences and hopes, pledging to take issues raised to deputy leader Angela Rayner and party chair Anneliese Dodds.

Stories of marginalisation, barriers and worse – both within the party and beyond – are ubiquitous. These include stories from Labour conference. Disability Labour received complaints from more than 50 individuals, ranging from access issues to locked disabled toilets, poor quality sign language translators in the hall to inadequate numbers of accessibility assistants.

“We were put in the position where we had to apologise for the party to those coming to the Disability Hub (housed in Disability Labour’s conference stand),” says Kathy Bole, chair of Disability Labour, adding that the party had gone backwards from previous conferences and failed to heed advice from the group. “We were good enough to be praised when Keir was seeking the leadership position, but have heard nothing since. All very disappointing.” Those issues were again raised in person in a robust conversation with David Evans on the final day of conference, she says, when he apologised once again.

“This has to be the last time we hold conference in Brighton,” says Ellen Morrison, disability representative on Labour’s national executive committee. On the first day, she tweeted that it took her half an hour to reach the NAC conference room from reception, leaving her little time to read in this on the busy, contentious and fast-changing schedule. “But while the party fails to take our participation seriously, we have come out of conference with some wins.”

These victories include the party voting overwhelmingly to enshrine the social model of disability in the constitution, as well as support to formally establish a party-backed structure for disabled members, the NEC rep says. How exactly that will work with the existing Disability Labour organisation – founded by disabled people due to the absence of such a structure within the party – remains unclear, but it is clearly a step forward.

Disability Labour has a number of priorities, including improving access and representation from Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and local council to parliamentary level and ensuring disabled people’s voices are better heard when it comes to policy-making. That doesn’t currently happen enough – and even when it does, the barriers put in place can be remarkable.

York councillor Katie Lomas detailed how she overcame efforts to ban her and two other councillors with disabled badges from speaking in a debate on disabled parking, claiming that it would have been a conflict of interest to do so. There were briefly efforts to ban Pam Duncan-Glancy from the Glasgow Scottish parliamentary election count, citing access issues – but she got in, got elected and has become the first wheelchair user in Holyrood.

During last year’s Labour leadership election, disabled party members welcomed a number of promises from Keir Starmer, including a commitment to free funding for independent living. With growing numbers of disabled people being threatened with institutionalisation by cash-strapped councils, such issues are becoming ever more important.

Shadow social care minister Liz Kendall refused four times to say at a fringe event whether she still supported free personal care for older people, a feature of the 2019 manifesto, or the National Independent Living Service favoured by Disability Labour and backed by Starmer during his leadership campaign. Disability was not mentioned once in Starmer’s Fabian Society pamphlet, and appeared only once in his speech at the close of conference.

That may further fuel worries that the party views supporting disabled people as a potential “vote loser”. These concerns were particularly deepened when MP Thangam Debbonaire told a Labour women’s event earlier this year that a commitment to free adult social care would cost “a hundred billion pounds” and “give the Tories a stick to beat Labour with”.

That risks once again presenting disabled people as a burden, a risk in some ways intensified by the leadership’s current focus on “working families”. As Emily Pomeroy-Smith said at the conclusion of the Disability Labour fringe event: “We need to also state that if you are not working and don’t have a family, you still have value.”

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