Friday 30 September 2011

Conference Season

We're two thirds of the way through conference season and it's fair to say the spoonie warriors are suffering badly from exhaustion. It all started with the Liberal Democrats in Birmingham, with stunning performances from speakers like Shana Pezaro, culminating in the Liberal Democrats passing a motion to challenge some of the most destructive parts of the Welfare Reform Bill, meaning that it is now official Liberal Democrat policy to oppose some of the government's plans. 

 I managed to attend the Disability Benefits Consortium event at the Liveral Democrat conference even though The Broken of Britain can't even afford stamps or cards because I happened to have a place to stay in Birmingham and a boyfriend good enough to push me to and from the event despite his personal discomfort at being so close to politicians. The Lib Dem DBC event was outside the secure zone so I could attend without a pass, but although the actual venue was very accessible, getting there was a problem. The hotel had been advised to expect disabled people, and parking in their car park made available to us...but it was impossible to drive to the hotel car park because the roads surrounding it were within the secure zone. If my boyfriend hadn't been prepared to give up his time to push me half a mile to and from the event it would not have been possible to get me there. Fortunately he stepped up and the event was well worth attending. 

Big credit to Steve Winyard from the RNIB who stood up at the end of the DBC event and called upon all the charities to focus on aggressive campaigning against the damaging parts of the Welfare Reform Bill as an immediate priority. Grassroots campaigners are now eagerly awaiting the rest of the big charities to follow RNIB's stance and remember their most important duty is to support those of us they purport to represent. 

Labour's conference was held in Liverpool which made it easier for our penniless campaigners to attend as I live close enough to drive to Liverpool and to provide the fabulous Sue Marsh with accomodation as she was there in her dual roles as campaigner for The Broken of Britain and as delegate for her local Labour party. 

Liverpool's a great city and Scousers are warm, welcoming people so we all owe our thanks to the nice car park man who I blagged free, all day parking from by explaining we were disability rights campaigners- it was supposed to be £12 a day which is far too expensive for us!

Sue had a conference pass in her Labour role, but as I am not a member of any political party it proved impossible for us to find, or afford a conference pass for me, even though Lord Prescott helpfully tweeted asking Labour to provide me with a pass. That meant I had to stay outside the secure zone until Wednesday's open day for non Labour members for which I had a pass. 

Still, we networked and campaigned as best we could. Short of both spoons and equipment Sue and I spent our time at conference sharing a mobility scooter - which unsurprisingly attracted an awful lot of attention. Thanks to Merseyside Police for smiling and waving at us rather than arresting us for inappropriate mobility scooting behaviour! 

Unfortunately, the event organised by Disability Benefits Consortium on the welfare reform bill had to be moved at the last minute inside the secure zone, meaning I couldn't attend and no-one from The Broken of Britain was able to be there to put your concerns across. It had been booked in the Albert Dock's Premier Inn - who insist they told conference organisers it wasn't fully accessible, but conference claimed of course that Premier Inn had told them it was fully accessible. None of this will surprise sick or disabled people but it did seem to come as a surprise to others. Having made up a bed to sleep in the back of my car so that I could manage to be at the event after a morning networking this was very frustrating news. 

Despite the lack of access and disappointments about welfare being whitewashed from the Conference we picked ourselves up and carried on. Monday finished me off completely and I spent Tuesday at home in a haze of pain, exhaustion and heavy medication while Sue bravely went back into battle on all our behalfs. In public Sue and I manage to hold it together and appear eloquent and in control, but my boyfriend and her husband get the uncensored version where we can't even string two words together because we're so exhausted. 

Wednesday morning in my flat was a scene to behold as Sue and I attempted to transform ourselves from pale, dark eyed, exhausted women into some sort of glamourous, publicly presentable version. Somehow we pulled it off and made it into the secure zone once again sharing the BendyBus. Fortunately there don't appear to be any photos either of Sue and I on the scooter together, or of Giles from the Daily Politics show scooting through conference with me sat on his knee! 

We met up with Dame Anne Begg for a drink to discuss welfare issues, hung out with bloggers and then went off for the main attraction of the day, the Labour open day question and answer session with Ed Miliband. 

Poor Ed. As my parent's commented, he just didn't know what he was taking on and the question Sue and I had so carefully crafted handbagged him good and proper. Being a spoonie I had to leave the Q&A session to go for a wee immediately after Ed Miliband responded to our question and poor Sue was left in the hall not knowing what had happened to me! I was followed to the toilet by camera crews from the BBC and ITN so it was a while before Sue found me and she was so worried I'd been kidnapped by the Labour party ;) 

Although Sue and I were both shaking with exhaustion at this point we couldn't hang around because I was booked to speak at Left Foot Forward's fringe event held in Baby Blue Bar....which turned out to be accessible only by a flight of concrete steps. Huge thanks go to Will Straw for his knight in shining armour role who carried me into the venue and the twitter follower who introduced himself to me and carried me back out of the venue** Sue and I both got back on to the BendyBus and arrived in style at the Labour tweet up...we were so exhausted we couldn't stay long but it was great to meet everyone and be written on by The Farm even if two days later I've still got black pen on my arm! 

So...that's two conferences attended, blagged, networked by The Broken of Britain and all without a penny of funding. Ed Miliband has been in touch to say he intends to honour his promise to meet with us and discuss sickness and/or disability issues in relation to welfare which we are all very much looking forward to. 

Next week conference season finishes with the Conservative conference in Manchester. We don't have a conference pass, and don't anticipate being able to find one at such short notice, but we'd love to meet Iain Duncan Smith, Maria Miller or David Cameron there if they are willing to match Ed Miliband's promise to meet with sick/disabled people actually affected by their 'reforms'! Assuming the Disability Benefits Consortium welfare event remains outside the secure zone I'll be attending that at Conservative Party Conference and we'll keep you updated as to any developments. 

But for now, your two exhausted spoonie warriors just want to get through the rest of today and spend a wekend resting up, enjoying the weather and a complete holiday from welfare. 

*we're working on transcripts for people with hearing impairments and United Response are trying to put together an easy read version so please give us some time to get those out

'Harriet' 1. Ed Miliband 0 Q&A at #Lab11

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Love Labour's Lost

 By The Broken of Britain's own Melissa Smith
When it came to voting in an election for the very first time, I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, I would vote for Labour. Working class born and bred, nerdy Politics student who knew a Green vote would be wasted in our First Past the Post system, couldn’t bear the Tories, and saw the Lib Dems as an ‘also ran’. Yep, my X was definitely going in Labour’s box.
Much to my joy, Labour won the first election I voted in. I didn’t agree with all of their policies, or even like Blair all that much, but they represented my ideals and my background far more than any of the other parties. So I was happy; my little, wonky X had helped them to victory.
Fast forward to last year’s election. I’d spent all day at the hospital, but it was a close run campaign, and I was determined to vote. Dad had to wheel my chair right up to the booth, but I hauled myself up, read the papers repeatedly for the sake of my easily confused tired out brain, and then made another wonky X for Labour.
When the Tories made a coalition with the Lib Dems, I was achingly disappointed; the idea of spending at least four years under their supposedly joint government was almost painful. I knew all too well how the Conservatives treated the working class and those in need, like me, and it was plain to see, right from the start that Nick Clegg and co. just filled the benches. They soon came to be known as the ConDems, and along with my ill and disabled friends, I quickly realised just how apt that moniker was.
It wasn’t long before the ConDems started targeting the sections of society that they perceived to be the easiest: people with disabilities and illnesses, their carers, the elderly, and those who are vulnerable. Cuts in services provided by councils were happening at an alarming rate, the cost of services for those who need them rose dramatically, carers were being put under even greater strain. And then the vicious, painful rhetoric started.
Disabled and ill people have long been treated with contempt and even cruelty, particularly those with invisible illnesses or mental disabilities, but now the government seemed to be encouraging it, fanning the fire of distrust with words, and turning it into hatred.
Making those of us with disabilities and illnesses synonymous with ‘scroungers’, ‘benefit cheats’, the work shy and irresponsible lay-about, draining society with our greed and idleness actively increased disablist content in the media and actions in society: people have been verbally abused, vile notes have been left on cars where Blue Badges are displayed, carers have been spat at, and even worse.
As this situation worsened, Labour supporters like myself were certain Ed Miliband would speak out, defend us, and make clear the distinction between those of us who cannot work – however desperately we want to – and those who won’t work and have no desire to. We hoped that he would support us, and tell the world how we loathe those people who are making careers by faking the pain, trauma and misery we often live with, through no choice of our own.
But Mr Miliband stayed silent, ignoring our plight, and eschewing any hint of Socialism Labour had left – society sharing what it has to ensure everyone is supported.
Then the unthinkable happened; Ed Miliband began to use the same kind of language as the opposition. Truly, I could’ve cried. I, and many others, had been waiting for Labour to oppose what their opponents were saying: to show the discrepancy between the percentage of benefit fraud rates and the percentage of the government cuts; to state that the ATOS tests are ridiculous and give false results, as a man declared “fit for work” died just two weeks later, of the illness he was deemed to be exaggerating; to support carers and explain the millions they are saving the country by not leaving their loved ones to be looked after in care homes or hospitals; to tell the country that we are not scroungers, and that every single healthy person is just an illness or injury away from being in our position.
When Ed Miliband announced Q&A sessions on Twitter, many of us hoped they would be the way to engage him, to garner his support, or just get a 140 character statement that we’re being treated unjustly. Disability campaigners, individuals and on behalf of groups, sent tweet after tweet, hoping one would be seen, as did our Twitter friends with physical or mental health problems. Amongst untold tweets from our “community”, only one garnered a response, which could have come from any ConDem – all tiers of society have to be responsible, from the bottom to the top. The implication that we are at the bottom cut like a surgical scalpel.
Throughout each Q&A, we waited for more responses, thinking that surely we would be acknowledged? But no, favourite muffin flavours and other trivial nonsense was more important than Labour supporters who were desperate for his help.
When I think of the next election, I feel completely lost. The ConDems are marching ever closer to being my worst political nightmare come true, but for the first time ever, I truly do not know if I can bring myself to vote Labour. The party I’ve always supported has no support for me, or my friends. Ed Miliband spends his time parroting whatever David Cameron has said the day before, leaving voters like me to be spat at, to be deprived of our basic daily needs of food, cleanliness, human contact, and to be so fearful for our futures that some become suicidal, or actually take their lives.
I’ve always been adamant that those who have the vote should use it. Especially women, for whom the Suffragettes fought so hard for, and when women around the world are still be kept away from the voting booth, like an underclass.
Now we, who have disabilities and illnesses, are becoming an underclass, and so our ability to vote is a treasure.
But who on earth do we vote for? Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems have all merged together, creating a three-party system that strikes fear into anyone who cannot care for themselves or needs support. A vote for any other party is a wasted one. So do I not vote at all?
When I stand, wobbling, in the booth at the next election, I have no idea where my wonky X will go. Or if it will go anywhere at all.
Thanks to you, Mr Miliband, I’m another love Labour’s lost.