Labour conference: Miliband’s welfare reference ‘was clumsy not offensive’


The Labour leader has again used his main conference speech – for the second year running – to suggest that many disabled benefits claimants were choosing a life on welfare rather than finding jobs.

Ed Miliband’s speech, in which he described his vision of a “One Nation Britain” in which “everyone has a stake” and “prosperity is fairly shared”, was widely praised, particularly for his presentational skills

But he told the Labour conference in Manchester: “We must show compassion and support for all those who cannot work, particularly the disabled men and women of this country. But in order to do so, those who can work have a responsibility to do so.”

He added: “We can’t leave people languishing out of work, for one year, two years, three years. We have a responsibility to help them and they have a responsibility to take the work that is on offer.”

Miliband also 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.

When asked why Miliband had suggested that many claimants were choosing a life on welfare, rather than focusing in his speech on the barriers to work and discrimination that they face, a Labour party spokeswoman said: “I would refer you to the speech.”

She declined to comment further.

Sue Marsh, a disabled party member who attended the conference and watched the speech, and a leading activist and blogger, said she believed Miliband’s comments had been “clumsy and certainly not intentionally offensive”.

She said: “For the Labour party at the moment to say ‘we need to support people who cannot work’ is quite strong. But we want them to go much further and say more. They realise it is an issue and I think that is the first step.”

Another disabled activist and blogger, Kaliya Franklin, said of Miliband’s comments: “Compared to where we were last year, it is a significant improvement, but compared to where we should be and were in 2010 it is terrible.”

Last year, Labour was accused of a similar marginalisation of disability, and of blocking attempts to discuss problems caused by the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA), with party managers refusing to allow Marsh to speak during a “prosperity and work” debate, and rejecting her bid for the subject to be voted on as a potential issue for debate.

Miliband referred last year to the need for the welfare system to reward “the right people with the right values” and said benefits were “too easy to come by for those who don’t deserve them and too low for those who do”, while calling for a system that “works for working people”.

Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, had mirrored some of the hostile, disablist language used by tabloid newspapers, telling the 2011 conference that voters at the election “felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers”.

4 October 2012