Monday 1 August 2011

Let's Do The TimeWarp Again...

"Coercion, tears, government rhetoric, employment gap and welfare reform" from Disability Now.

It sounds like a contemporary article doesn't it? All the ingredients are there, a desire to reduce the number of those claiming IB, disability groups outraged and a complicit media readily producing articles on benefit scroungers.

Except this was 2007* not 2011. Not of course that you'd know that unless you were well informed enough to know who Peter Hain is** and that his tenure of the DWP was in 2007 under New Labour.

**Winner of the "I've been Tango'd political award"

What have we Achieved

What have we Achieved?

Regular readers of my blog will be familiar with both the sense of crushing defeat and delighted success we regularly share.

We have one of the hardest battles of any group. We have no unqualified political support, we have to battle a hostile media, we have less physical ability to make our protest and we are dealing with Welfare. The most right-wing, hard-line department in politics - whoever is in power.

Perhaps most dauntingly of all we must try to counteract and disprove a set of perceived wisdoms in society treated as "fact" by most. We are "scroungers" "irresponsible" "invalid". They think sick and disabled people don't work - 60% of us do. They think we live a life of ease at taxpayers expense - we are in fact more likely to live in poverty than any other group.

Given all these disadvantages and barriers, it would seem likely that we would give up. It would seem fair to assume that we would not find a voice, that we could never make ourselves "visible". Politicians might assume we would achieve no sway over political outcomes or gain much traction with a sceptical public.

Today, 250,000 articles will have been read on this blog. A quarter of a million opportunities to make our case. Since last October, tens of thousands of people have shared it with their friends, sent it to their MPs and linked it to their social networking pages. I have found myself speaking to welfare ministers and journalists, radio shows and conferences.

Thanks to all of you, my blog went into the the top 50 political blogs within 4 months (Wikio) and has stayed there ever since, climbing to No. 31 today.

You support me daily both in small ways and by taking enormous personal risk. Together we've found a voice and it has gained power and strength. We've come together to fight and as we celebrate such a significant milestone I wanted to take a look at how far we've come as a movement in just a few short months.

I think the most significant achievement is the solidarity and commitment of all those involved. Charities have come together as never before, campaign groups and unions are united on the issues that matter the most. We have managed to distil our arguments down into a few vital points and from Scope to The Broken of Britain, from The Disability Alliance (an umbrella group of over 270 charities) to DPAC, from Carer Watch to MINDwe respond to challenges with a dazzling array of different voices, but they all carry the same message.

May saw the biggest protest of sick and disabled people in UK history. Over 8,000 people turned up to the Hardest Hit march, with hundreds staying to lobby their MPs in Westminster. The support of both traditional charities and social media gave the event a profile it probably wouldn't have had just a few months ago.

Other wonderful blogs achieve huge impact too - Benefit Scrounging ScumThe Tentacles of DoomDawn Willis, Where's the Benefit False EconomyFactCheck and many many more work despite great personal cost to reveal the mistruths and dangers of welfare reform.

Social Media is really where I feel we can be proudest. The speed and accessibility of social media has revolutionised the way sick and disabled people can engage with their own voices. This is vitally important. Unless we can speak for ourselves, we will never be able to explain how we are affected by random government policies. Never before have we been able to respond to a misleading newspaper story or government press release. Our articles are the most read and commented on and shared - not just in politics but often in the entire UK across any media. The internet has become one big forum accessible to sick and disabled people and we make the most of it every day.

Groups such as "The Armchair Army" have been set up specifically to support those who are a little more able physically to attend protests by arranging mass email events. These enable the less able to be heard and support the wider protest by raising awareness of our issues in the media. Quite apart from anything else, it's empowering. People who thought they were powerless can now make a real difference, every day.

The left wing bloggers could not have been more supportive or generous. They promoted my blog from day one and have always given me the space and encouragement to explain our cause - even when Labour came out of it like a stinky-pig. Left Foot ForwardLabour List and Liberal Conspiracy took up the call to stand "shoulder to wheel" with us and it has made a big difference.

The media have started to listen. Oh so slowly, and sometimes with frustrating inaccuracy, but that's simply because we all know the issues so well ourselves. Forget the Mail and Express - we have the Guardian who couldn't be more supportive, but lately, there have been stories on the BBC, Channel 4 News, The Mirror LBC, Dale & Co, Radio 5 live and many more. It is inevitable that such a "pressure-cooker" issue on-line will eventually spill over into the mainstream and when it does, we'll be ready. I've been working on contacts in the right wing press with considerable success, I hope you'll start to see the fruits of that very soon.

And politicians. When George Osborne announced the CSR we had no-one. No-one at all. Labour had largely got us into this mess and the Tories were happy to hoover us up and throw us out with the deficit. Prominent Lib Dems who had opposed ESA before the coalition such as Danny Alexander suddenly went silent when we needed them most.

But politically, we've come the furthest of all. The brilliant Rhydian Fon-James from Broken of Britain achieved success close to alchemy with Plaid and the Welsh parliament, resulting in Early Day motions backed by Hywel Williams. He deconstructed DLA/PiP proposals forensically, I worked on every line of the Welfare Reform Bill relating to ESA until my head hurt. Within days of knowing exactly what we were up against, we were able to start publicising and opposing the elements of the WRB that we felt were most dangerous to our supporters.

The stunningly successful Broken of Britain campaigns to raise awareness of DLA and what it's for went viral, supported by thousands online. It led to over 5,000 submissions to the DLA consultation - thousands more than they usually receive. I ran an "ESA week" a little later that brought issues such as Time Limiting ESA to just one year to the forefront.

Today, we can be proud. Labour took on almost all of the issues we're fighting and tabled them as amendments to the bill. In some cases they argued for much less than we need, but it gave us a chance to be heard in parliament and oh my goodness how we are heard!! We have been directly quoted in the committees, our speeches have been read out in the House of Commons, and the pinnacle for me was the day Ed Miliband stood up in PMQs and devoted all 6 questions to my issue. Time Limiting ESA was suddenly the most important issue of the day and I practically exploded all over the telly!!

While I'm talking about PMQs, this is where every single one of you takes a bow. Most of my campaigning and that of Broken of Britain has focused on getting you all involved actively. You have responded with dazzlingly effective enthusiasm!! MPs mailbags are groaning under the weight of our letters - WCAs, ESA and the abolishing of DLA are absolutely at the forefront of issues raised around the country and there cannot be an MP who is not aware of the things that concern us about the WRB. You only have to keep a tally of the questions they raise at PMQs - on all sides of the house - to see the impact we've had. There are regularly 3 or 4 questions to the Prime Minister expressing concern.

But where has all of this got us? I read comments every day from supporters despairing at the slow progress of our politics and asking whether anyone is actually listening at all?

Well, in just the last few months, I believe things have changed and that we now have a real chance of making significant changes to the bill.

The coalition have made such little progress themselves in finalising the details of the bill that it had to be delayed by two months when it arrived in the Lords. There is real concern in the Lords over some of the issues and much more cross party support.

The Disability Alliance have mounted an unprecedented legal challenge supported by over 270 charities and we must do everything that we can to support them. Government will ensure that they are opposed every step of the way and we must keep reminding our own charities that we need them to do this. Whilst they must work with government, they must also speak for us, the people they represent and they are doing a fine job of doing so.

We are working on several documentaries for the BBC and other TV stations that should air in the Autumn, widening out the debate still further as the bill is debated in the Lords.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, we are now able to work with the grassroots of the LibDems who have seen the inequalities we are facing and have tabled a motion for their Autumn Conference opposing ESA assessments and the time limit. We finally have a chance to undermine the parliamentary majority that would ensure the WRB is pushed through despite enormous democratic opposition.

It's been a surreal year. Almost daily I have to pinch myself. But today, we can be enormously proud of what we've achieved, proud of our calm, evidence based responses to what are often vicious attacks. Proud of our strength and resilience, proud of our self confidence and intelligence.

If nothing else, we've proven beyond doubt that we do not in any way fit the insidious stereotypes designed to undermine us. We've found our voice and it can only grow in strength and dedication as we go on to achieve countless further successes.


What makes our campaigns work is you. Please keep doing what you do - tweet, link, email, send to  your MPs and don't let up on the pressure for a single day.