by Janine Booth, co-Chair, TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee
For several years, disability rights has seemed the most intractable of issues to fight on.
A population soaked in Daily Mail outrage and Jeremy Kyle cartoon characters seemed determined to believe that most people who claimed to be disabled were not and that the few who were deserved pity not resources. Even the Paralympics led less to increased respect for disabled people and more to an unrealistic superhero stereotype used to bash people who were never going to win wheelchair marathons or run faster on blades than others do on legs.
Disabled people became more frequently abused in public, lost benefits and dignity, some even lost their lives – often shortly after being pronounced ‘fit for work’ by the latest private inquisitors contracted to drive them off benefits.
The Tories could remain confident that no matter how inhumane their treatment of disabled people, they would get away with it. After all, disabled people are too weak to fight back, right? And for the first five years at least, the ‘opposition’ in the House consisted of cheerleading and support from the LibDems and equivocation at best from the Labour Party. And the trade unions? They were narrowly focused on their own members, who by definition were employees not benefit claimants, right?
That was the plan, and the Tories were entitled to expect that it would continue to work. But the plan is finally coming undone, with the Tories forced to withdraw George Osborne’s Budget cut to disability benefits. How has this come about?
Certainly not because Iain Duncan Smith has discovered the conscience that he kept hidden so well for so long. I am yet to meet anyone who believes for a second that he resigned due to genuine compassion for the disabled people he has made a career of attacking, rather than as a manoeuvre to secure his place in the post-EU-referendum Conservative Party leadership.
No. The credit belong not to IDS but with those sections of the working-class movement which have fought this particular corner with dogged determination.
Those disabled people snootily written off as too weak to fight have been protesting, occupying and stopping traffic, unrestrained by bureaucracy or by having anything much to lose. They may have been swimming against the tide, but now the tide is switching directions to swim with them.
Last week, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) activist Paula Peters was recognised on a Tube train by a Times reader from a photograph of a protest in Parliament. Fearing another earful of verbal, she nonetheless admitted that she was the protester in the photo with the banner demanding an end to attacks on disabled people. To her pleasant surprise, the enquirer and then the whole carriage cheered and congratulated her, many asking how they could support DPAC. The Times readers, they are a-changing.
DPAC does not just fight its own corner. It turns out to defend the NHS, to support the junior doctors, to oppose the Trade Union Bill, to picket alongside London Underground workers.
Not for them the small-minded tabloid-fodder Twitterati snideyness moaning about people who have half-decent pay and conditions – and therefore have more than them – fighting for better, nor about demonstrations or strikes inconveniencing them. They prefer the solidarity that recognises both that disabled people have an interest in such things as well-staffed transport and a public NHS, and that the working class is stronger when we stand together.
And the Labour Party now looks more like an Opposition. A key point in last year’s leadership election was when of all the candidates, only Jeremy Corbyn voted against the draconian Welfare Reform Bill, the others content to follow orders and abstain. The labour movement’s rank and file had had enough of its leaders’ dereliction of their duty to oppose, and propelled into leadership Corbyn, who, along with his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, already had a long and robust record of actively supporting and defending disability rights.
And that narrow-minded trade union movement? Its rank-and-file reps and activists were building links with DPAC and other campaigners; representing, defending and organising their disabled members; and pulling the great lumbering machine of union officialdom onside.
So that is how we got here. And it shows us how we can go further. For we have so much further to travel – to undo more of the Tories’ dismantling of disabled people’s rights, to replace this government with one that supports and represents us. The Tories will recover from this setback if we let them, so let’s not let them.
As our oppressors set about us economically, politically and ideologically, let us fight back on the same three terrains:
- keep up, and step up, campaigning against austerity cuts, with protests, direct action, and strikes, both locally and drawn together nationally (and internationally);
- mobilise support for clear political demands such as those set out in the TUC Manifesto for Disability Equality; endorse the Manifesto and press the Labour Party to do so too;
- keep fighting the Tories’ and the right-wing tabloids’ lies with facts; educate ourselves and our movement to understand disability under capitalism, using the social model of disability to subvert longstanding prejudiced attitudes that patronise at best and at worst, put disabled people in the frontline of attacks.
That way, we can make a bad week for the Tories into a better future for disabled people.