Disabled activists have greeted the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour party’s new leader with huge optimism, and as an opportunity to fight back against government austerity.
Many campaigners recognised his past commitment to disability rights, and his record of speaking out on austerity policies.
They also noted that he made his first speech as party leader at a mental health event in his constituency, and reportedly said that he had done so “to send out a message that all of us together have got to work on issues of mental health, mental health policy and mental health spending within our national health service”.
He added: “Stop the jokes, stop the cheap jibes, stop the unpleasant language to describe people who are going through a crisis in their lives and recognise that we could all be in that place.”
There was also delight among many disabled activists at Corbyn’s decision to appoint John McDonnell – the MP who has done more than any other to support the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement – as his shadow chancellor.
Corbyn (pictured) was elected on Saturday in an overwhelming victory, securing nearly 60 per cent of the overall vote.
Kirsten Hearn, a leading disabled activist and Labour councillor in London, said she had voted for Corbyn herself, and was “delighted” by his election and his “resounding mandate”.
She said: “He has been well-schooled in disability rights by disabled people across the years.
“I totally trust him with furthering our rights. I think he gets it, therefore I am hopeful that this will have an impact.
“I am pleased to see the Labour leadership has moved into a clear anti-austerity [position]. That only bodes well for disabled people.”
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said in a blog that Corbyn was a “decent, honest man who will stand by his principles of fairness and decency for all” and will be “not just a good, but a great Labour party leader”.
DPAC supported Corbyn in the leadership contest as a “once-only break from our usual position [of] not being supporters of any party or grouping”, and now had returned to its previous position of not being aligned to any political party.
Michelle Maher, of the WOWpetition, said Corbyn’s “overwhelming” victory, in which he had argued against an austerity agenda, had given disabled people “hope that our voices will be listened to, and more importantly heard”, despite what appeared to be the “bleak” future offered by the current government.
She said: “Corbyn has always backed WOWpetition, along with John McDonnell and others. They have both raised issues and attended demonstrations supporting disabled people.”
Jane Bence, of New Approach, which campaigns to scrap and replace the “abusive” work capability assessment (WCA), said: “Jeremy Corbyn is offering sick and disabled people hope for the first time in many years.
“Hope was a key word throughout his leadership campaign and hope will carry us on.”
John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish-based Black Triangle campaign, said: “We are ecstatic because both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been long-standing friends of our campaign from its inception and we have full confidence in them that they will provide a fightback against Tory welfare reform that has been so sorely missing before this wonderful victory.”
There was also support for Corbyn’s decision to appoint a shadow minister for mental health – Luciana Berger – to his first shadow cabinet.
Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network, said: “We are very happy that she has been appointed.
“There are loads and loads of issues relating to mental health that are virtually never addressed and we are hoping that this is someone who will now raise these issues in parliament.”
Hearn also welcomed the decision, but said she would like to see the shadow minister for disabled people given similar shadow cabinet status.
Mike Smith, former disability commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was another to welcome Corbyn’s decision to appoint a shadow minister for mental health.
He said the decision was “sending out the right messages about addressing disability-related issues in the right way and at the right level and I look forward to seeing Labour party policy enforcing commitments to genuine independent living and in particular undoing the injustice of closing the Independent Living Fund”.
Other appointments by Corbyn so far include Owen Smith as the new shadow work and pensions secretary, and Kate Green, formerly shadow minister for disabled people, as shadow minister for women and equalities.
McArdle said he was “not impressed” that, in Smith’s first statement as shadow work and pensions secretary, in which he discussed the failure of the government’s Work Programme to secure work for disabled people, he failed to point out that disabled people were “still being found wrongly fit for work in their hundreds of thousands through the flawed WCA”.
There was also concern at the appointment of Lord Falconer as shadow justice secretary, just days after a bill to legalise assisted suicide was overwhelmingly thrown out of the Commons.
The issue is a key one for the disabled people’s movement, and many were horrified that a politician who they see as leading the fight in parliament to legalise assisted suicide will also be leading Labour’s justice team.
Appointments of MPs to other shadow ministerial posts have not yet been made, including to the disability and social care briefs.