Senior Labour figures have sent strong signals that the party will now be more willing to stand up for benefit claimants and attack the government welfare reforms that have damaged the lives of disabled people.
The most high-profile example during this week’s party conference in Brighton (pictured) was from the party’s new shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who began his speech by talking about the death of Michael O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan, from north London, killed himself as a result of being found “fit for work”, a scandal that was uncovered last month by Disability News Service.
McDonnell told Labour delegates: “The coroner concluded his death was a direct result of the decision in his case. I don’t believe Michael’s case stands alone.”
McDonnell, the most prominent parliamentary supporter of the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement over the last five years, told delegates that a Labour government would “end this brutal treatment of disabled people”.
But there was also strong support from the new shadow work and pensions secretary, Owen Smith, who said Labour would rebuild the solidarity “shaken” by “divisive Tory talk of ‘strivers versus scroungers’”.
He said there was a need to “change the debate on social security in Britain”, and said: “We can’t let their divisive rhetoric of shirkers and workers stop us making the case for fair-minded reform of the system, with controls on costs, but compassion for all who need it.”
He said there were “no votes to be won” by “aping Tory language” and he pledged not to do so himself.
He added: “Britain’s social security system, like our NHS, should be something we are proud of, a national asset that is there for all of us if ever we need it.”
Smith accused the government of “calling themselves compassionate while driving disabled people to the brink”, and promised that he would be “up and after” work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith on issues such as the “scandalous impact of the work capability assessment”.
He said Duncan Smith “deserves to be hounded for the way he has treated so many disabled people in our communities, with his demeaning fit for work tests, his cuts to mobility allowances – lifelines for so many – and his desperate, awful bedroom tax”.
Smith won a standing ovation from delegates when he ended his speech by promising to oppose the government’s new welfare reform and work bill “line by cruel line”.
His message was mirrored by Debbie Abrahams, the new shadow minister for disabled people, who criticised the “absolutely appalling” language used by the government around welfare reform.
She told a fringe meeting that Labour would be “actively campaigning” on the issue, “taking it out to the country, describing why it is so important that we have a welfare system that enables and empowers people and the legislation that supports that”.