Labour’s leader has sparked anger and frustration among disabled activists after mentioning his party’s focus on “working people” 23 times in a high-profile speech.
Sir Keir Starmer repeatedly stressed that a Labour government would be “once again on the side of working people” and would “govern for working people” as “the party of working people”, while “stability” would be central to the party’s approach.
He said: “Restoring hope for working people – it’s a simple aim. But it’s what we’ve got to be about.”
There was no mention of disabled people in the 2,300-word speech sent out in advance of his appearance at the conference organised by Progressive Britain, a political organisation closely associated with the right of the Labour party and founded under its previous name Progress to support New Labour and Tony Blair.
It is just the latest attempt by Starmer (pictured) to use a high-profile speech to side-line the needs of those who are not able to work.
Last September, at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, he made similar comments and said he wanted to “make this country work for working people” and that he would “never be shy to use the power of government to help working people succeed”.
Six months earlier, he had angered disabled activists by declaring that Labour was “the party of working people” and “the party of work”.
Those comments reminded activists how the party’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said eight years ago that Labour did not want to be seen as “the party to represent those who are out of work”.
Ellen Morrison, Labour’s disabled members’ representative on its national executive committee, told Disability News Service (DNS) this week: “It’s disappointing that Keir Starmer has yet again chosen to lecture us on his limited ideas without once addressing the struggle of millions of disabled people in the UK who are unable to work.
“There are lots of reasons for not being in paid employment – and disabled people find themselves more likely to fall into this group – and ultimately I would hope any democratic socialist party wants a decent life for everyone, no matter their circumstance.
“Keir’s offer to provide mere stability will do nothing for those made desperate by the cost-of-living crisis, who see nothing to ‘conserve’ in a broken, cruel and vindictive social security system.
“We need concrete solutions and we need to be acknowledged rather than ignored.”
Bob Ellard, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “By its obsession with ‘working people’, Starmer and his party are excluding whole swathes of the population, disabled people who can’t work, stay at home parents, family carers, unemployed and homeless people, to name just a few.
“Labour clearly doesn’t want our votes, cos they ain’t gonna get them.
“If Labour in government continue to design policy only for ‘working people’, to the detriment of disabled people and others, we’ll fight them just as hard as we have done Tory governments over the last 13 years.”
Kathy Bole, chair of Disability Labour, welcomed the party’s success at this month’s local elections, but she said Starmer had again left out disabled people in his speech, a “whole group of people who don’t seem to matter to him”.
She said: “The message the party is sending to me is if you are not working, you don’t matter.”
She added: “I have been utterly dismayed by the fact Sir Keir has refused to speak with us after he was elected as leader.
“He was keen to make time for us when he wanted our vote, now we never feature in any of his speeches. As a disabled person, I am angry.
“I have been chair of Disability Labour for several years now. I have had a fantastic working relationship with Anneliese Dodds [chair of the Labour party].
“I would have liked Sir Keir to meet with us at least once to discuss the lack of progress in disability concerns.
“In all the speeches the leader has made, disabled people have had no mention.”
She added: “Disabled people have suffered at the hands of the government every year of the last 13.
“The government have refocused on the fraud aspect of benefits, and the Labour leader has yet again failed to pledge support for those too ill to work.
“Where is the pledge of support for those so often living in poverty?”
Morrison said there was no chance that Starmer’s choice of language in his speech was accidental.
She said: “Keir’s speeches are considered, there is no way that after raising this repeated omission publicly and privately, that this isn’t intentional.
“To win in the way Labour would need to, we need a boldness of ambition for the party.
“I believe that looks like a vision for everyone, even those groups it’s not politically expedient to demonstrate a commitment to.
“Whether people out of work are well-liked in focus groups is neither here nor there. We deserve decency, security and respect too.”
In response to these concerns, Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, told DNS that Starmer delivers “different speeches at different times”.
She said: “We are not wanting disabled people to be scared of a Labour government coming in, hopefully, because we are not going to be the party that is attacking people, we want to support people into work who want to and can work, we want to get them good jobs, but of course we know there are people who can’t work.
“They shouldn’t be forced into work; we have no intention of doing that.”
Asked if she understood the anger and frustration felt by many disabled people at Starmer’s speech, she said: “I don’t think they need to worry about a future Labour government coming in, I really don’t.”
She added: “Of course we want to support those who can work into work, but our focus isn’t on attacking and making the lives of people who can’t work more miserable than this government has; we want to make sure that we support them properly.
“Before I was an MP, I was a trade unionist for years and very much argued that the Labour party had to remember who formed it and it was trade unions and working people who were part of that.
“Of course, those who can’t work shouldn’t. You’ve got to have a benefits system that supports people when they need that support, but you also have to have a system that supports people who can and want to work into work and into good jobs that they want to do.”
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