Disabled people and their organisations will “determine” and “implement” the disability policies of the next Labour government, the shadow chancellor has promised a national conference.
John McDonnell told the National Disabled People’s Summit that disabled people would “go into government just as much as we do when that election comes”.
He said: “You can also rest assured that when we go into government, whenever this government falls, it will be you that will be determining our policies, it will be you that will be involved in implementing them, because we believe that principle for disabled people of ‘nothing about us without us’.”
McDonnell (pictured) made a similar pledge last year, when he promised that organisations like Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) would be “at the heart of government, sitting alongside ministers and others, advising them on how to implement… policies”.
Up to 200 Deaf and disabled people attended the summit, which brought together disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), grassroots campaigns, individual activists and unions to “pool their knowledge and experience”, coordinate the fight against austerity and “reinvigorate” the disabled people’s movement.
The conference, at the headquarters of the National Education Union in central London, was funded by unions, and co-organised by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance.
McDonnell, whose speech was delivered through a video recording, also called on disabled people and others to continue to mobilise and demonstrate, and take direct action in protest at the government’s austerity cuts “whenever we possibly can”.
He said the government was “absolutely brutal” and had “made a specific decision that they would target disabled people for their cuts”.
He said: “They thought that disabled people were vulnerable and therefore would not fight back. We have got to show them that we are not going to take any more.”
McDonnell also paid tribute to those disabled people who had “thrown themselves into the campaign against austerity”, including DPAC and the TUC’s disabled workers’ committee.
He told the conference that it was vital to “explain in every aspect of life what this government has done to disabled people” and “expose all that is going on, all the reports, make sure they are published and publicised, make sure the research that we do is out there so that no-one should ever really say they don’t know what is happening to disabled people”.
Bob Williams-Findlay, a former chair of the British Council of Disabled People, told the conference that disabled people’s oppression “revolves around our relations with the rest of society”.
He said: “In simple terms, we want to be included in structures, systems, and practice which are managed by powers that have no desire whatsoever, unless pushed, to accommodate us, as this would threaten the status quo.
“Our movement is confronted by a huge contradiction: we want to end our oppression by entering a society created in ways that reject us at every turn.”
Williams-Findlay said this meant that the Disability Discrimination Act had to be viewed not as a victory for disabled people but as “a political defeat, because it wouldn’t deliver on our demands”.
He said the resistance struggle needed to focus not only on protesting against the cuts and reforms brought in through the period of austerity, but also on the necessity to challenge the nature of capitalist society itself.
And he said the disabled people’s movement needed to be far more radical in its approach.
He said the movement needed to be reminded that its roots were “in an emancipation struggle, and while organising, educating and campaigning are essential to this, our ultimate goal has to be social change.
“Personally, I would go further and say it requires a complete transformation of society.”
Ellen Clifford, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, told the summit that Deaf and disabled people’s work in the lead-up to this autumn’s report by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities had shown that they should “not be underestimated”.
She said the report the committee produced on the UK’s progress in implementing the convention had shamed the government and showed “how effective Deaf and disabled people can be when we work together”.
She said Deaf and disabled people, and their organisations, had worked “extremely hard” to provide a “united message” to the UN committee.
This work – and ensuring that Deaf and disabled people’s messages were not “watered down by people with other agendas” – meant the committee members were able to “see behind the smoke and mirrors that the government representatives were spinning”, with their repeated attempts to portray themselves as “world leaders in disability”.
Clifford said: “The outcome was a damning report and public statement from the UN disability committee that never in its history has it been so worried about a country as they were about the UK today.”
She told the conference that after seven years of austerity, the government’s cuts were “biting harder than ever”, and that it was “difficult not to drown in the level of unmet need that is increasingly swamping our communities”.
Clifford said: “Deaf and disabled people’s organisations are overwhelmed by demand for support that they are not funded to provide and with nowhere to signpost people because the support services that people need just don’t exist anymore.”
She said the rollout of the government’s new universal credit benefit system was “causing even more devastation”, and social care was “being cut to the bone, leaving individuals trapped at home without access to toilet, food or water for hours on end”.
Clifford said the government had tried to “divide and rule” disabled people by “scapegoating” benefit claimants and targeting different impairment groups through cuts to Access to Work, but the campaign by StopChanges2AtW had brought together Deaf and disabled people and BSL interpreters and shown that “we haven’t let ourselves be divided”.
And she said that one of the best ways to honour them was to “step up and escalate our campaigning”.
Although there had been an “unprecedented input” from Deaf and disabled campaigners into Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, she said, “the fact is we can’t wait until 2022 for a Labour government to be elected because there is simply too much at stake here and now, and now is the time we need to up the pressure while the Tories are as weak as they are”.
She said there was a need to “build alliances” and “bring more people into political activity because it is through collective organisation that we will win”.
But Clifford said that there was “no quick fix to the issues we face”, and that Deaf and disabled people’s oppression was “intrinsically linked to capitalism”.
And she said the only way to achieve an inclusive society “where each person is valued for their individual worth, rather than their ability to produce profit”, was to “take down” capitalism.