COMMENT: Ed wants One Nation… but not for disabled people


It’s lovely that the media enjoyed Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference. And his ability to memorise a script, wave his hands, and walk around a stage at the same time without needing to check his notes for directions.

“Spectacular”, a presentational “triumph”, “confident”, “fluent”, and “humorously conversational”. The “speech of his life”, according to another commentator.

But the danger of getting caught up in this drenching wave of adulation is that viewers and readers ignore his latest shameful – but oh-so-subtle – attack on disabled people.

And if that happens, he’ll just do it again. And again.

So the question is: just what does Ed Miliband have against disabled people? And why does Labour’s new One Nation not appear to have a place for disabled people?

The first hint was in Miliband’s casual – blink-and-you miss-it – failure to mention any Paralympians when he was paying tribute to our triumphant London 2012 athletes.

Only Zara Phillips and Mo Farah received a mention. No one could argue with Mo getting a name-check. But Zara Phillips? Really? Of all the Olympians and Paralympians to choose from, Miliband chose the one whose medal – probably more than any other member of ParalympicsGB and Team GB – was the product of privilege and entitlement. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe it.

How was she possibly more deserving of a mention than David Weir, Ellie Simmonds or Hannah Cockroft?

Remember, Miliband and his team have been crafting this speech and what he would say for months. It was a crucial moment in his bid to become our next prime minister, so his choice of Zara Phillips, and not David Weir or Ellie Simmonds, was a deliberate strategic decision, and one that demonstrated the messages he wanted to send to the British people.

And when it came to the social care section of Miliband’s speech, it was the same story.

He mentioned older people “not getting the care they need”, and called for “much greater dignity” for “our elderly population” because of the “care crisis”, but he made no mention of working-age disabled people, whose needs make up one third of the social care budget.

Did he just forget? Does he not care about working-age disabled people? Was it just a coincidence?

No. In set-piece conference speeches, there are no coincidences. Not with a party machine as efficient as Labour’s.

And so Miliband came to the section of his speech on welfare reform. “We must show compassion and support for all those who cannot work, particularly the disabled men and women of this country,” he said. “But in order to do so, those who can work have a responsibility to do so.”

It was a reminder of last year’s conference, in which the party blocked attempts to discuss the problems caused by Labour’s hideous, insurance industry-generated work capability assessment, and Miliband said that benefits were “too easy to come by for those who don’t deserve them and too low for those who do”, and called for a system that “works for working people”.

The suggestion in this week’s speech – without saying the actual words – that there is a hidden army of “shirkers” and “scroungers” claiming disability benefits who could work but choose not to leads naturally, according to growing research and anecdotal evidence, to disabled people being harassed, abused and assaulted in public.

A report by Disability Rights UK (DR UK) last month found more than nine in ten people surveyed linked the negative portrayal of disabled people in the press to rising hostility and hate crime towards disabled people.

One disabled person told DR UK how – after a headline about “free” Motability cars for disabled people – their car was vandalised. They have not displayed their blue parking badge since, and have been “yelled at, sworn at and insulted” and had their crutches kicked.

And after national newspaper articles that called disabled benefit claimants “scroungers”, another spoke of being followed by a group of youths and called “a scrounging disabled bastard”.

I have even been told of a person with a mental health condition who was afraid to walk in the park because they might be nabbed as a benefit fraud.

This is what happens when politicians and newspapers talk or write – or hint in their conference speeches – about “benefit scroungers”, “fakers” and “frauds”, and forget – conveniently, yet again – to talk about the real issues: the barriers in the benefits system, and in the workplace, and in public transport, and in the care and support system, that prevent them working.

Miliband, his shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, and their respective teams, have been told this repeatedly. But they choose not to listen. So excuse me if I don’t join in with the standing ovation.

3 October 2012