If one wider image has been left from the Scottish independence campaign, it is an electorate that emerged engaged, passionate, and with faith in politics as a force for change. Can you imagine it? We have become almost used to power that has bastardised what politics should be. An elite working for their own end instead of a collective fight for the society we want to live in.
It is easy to become disengaged with a rich, white, male political class. Particularly when their very purpose appears to be to erode basic standards of living from people who are already disadvantaged. Inequality is not the point of government. And as we are unlucky enough to have a party in office that seems to believe otherwise, the point of the opposition is to challenge it.
The Labour party has just launched Disability Labour: an affiliate of the party designed to support the interests of disabled people. It’s run by a newly elected executive committee – all disabled themselves – and, for £15, disabled Labour party members are being asked to join. I will. Go to the website – this is a pre-election call to arms. David Cameron is putting the rights of disabled people “under threat”, it says. Labour, meanwhile, would scrap the bedroom tax – which is disproportionately hitting disabled people with a “spare” room where they store vital equipment or a carer can stay the night. It also plans to tackle hate crime, disability poverty and the “demeaning” rhetoric around disabled people.
It is rare to see a mainstream political party build its own disability wing. It sits in stark contrast to this coalition government, which is practically defined by its disregard for disabled people’s lives.
As Disability Labour launched, the Department for Work and Pensions was in the middle of its latest disaster – admitting that barely 40% of personal independence payment (PIP) cases had been cleared in the 16 months since the welfare benefit was introduced to replace disability living allowance (DLA).
Will the Tories proudly list their disability record at next week’s annual conference? It is an ongoing calamity: from the discredited fit-for-work tests that determine eligibility for employment and support allowance, the Work Programme that is failing to get significant numbers of disabled people into paid jobs, benefit sanctions, and the closure of theindependent living fund to the bedroom tax. Disabled people have been thrown to the wolves by this government. Some £28bn worth of support is being taken from us – the multiple impact of being hit by up to six different cuts. It stinks of a political elite lost in rightwing myths, of leaders not just without experience of choosing between heating or eating but also, more important, without the basic empathy to imagine it.
There are more than 11 million people in the UK with a disability or long-term illness. This is not an insignificant demographic. It is also one more likely to be in poverty and in need of state support. Is this shameful? The only shame is on a government that fails to help. We are waiting for a political movement to come out on the side of the people who have been abandoned and demonised.
This is Labour’s time to deliver, and it is no time for timidity. Their support for disabled people cannot come without rejecting the wider dominant political message we’ve been drowned in. The threat is not the phantom workshy or the faking disabled, but low wages and a social security system that has been left in tatters.
Some may question whether Labour’s move is simply a cynical ploy to win the “disabled vote”. This is a party not quite sure how to handle disability. It is caught between delivering on fairness and equality while wanting to look “tough on welfare” and supporting “hard-working families”. The problem is that this dominant narrative abandons millions of disabled people. I’m hoping that Disability Labour marks a change that will make the party more confident in its support of a financial safety net and will help to increase the number of disabled politicians across the UK.
Disability issues have been on the agenda at Labour’s annual conference, with Kate Green, the shadow minister for disabilities, and Ann Begg, chair of the work and pensions select committee, speaking at meetings.
This is the time for politics to work in the favour of people who need it: the parents skipping meals to keep a roof over their children’s heads, the disabled adults in one of the world’s richest countries left without the support to wash, eat or leave the house. Disabled people, bruised by four years of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, need leaders to listen and then represent them. They deserve better.