[Image description: Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and official Opposition to the UK ConDem Government, addressing a room of two hundred Mancunians.]
What was weird about seeing members of the Media in the flesh was just how many of them are short, white men. Familiar faces from the BBC, Channel 4 News and newspapers, etc.; generally with satchels (not man-bags) and trench-coats. Completely stereotypical of the hack image. Interestingly, for the most part, they did not mix with we hoi polloi but steadfastly remained with their ilk. Oddly, the only member of the Press who came to speak to me worked for the Mail group. Cynically perhaps; but I suspect he was attempting to confirm his papers’ pre-conceptions of the Labour Party or perhaps the nature of spin. All he wanted to determine was whether I am or have ever been a member of a political party. Ed Miliband, in his opening address, said that he wanted to get to meet real people and find out what concerned us. What a shame that Britain’s Media did not want to become equally sullied! They spent fifty minutes just chatting and milling amongst themselves. A wasted opportunity surely! Channel 4 News’ Gary Gibbon even departed after approximately a quarter of an hour, just one sixth of the session, i.e. he heard Ed Miliband’s introductory comments, but exited before the plebeians got deep into their input. All in all, I am led to assume that all the Media was interested in was re-confirming their own agendas.
On arriving at East Manchester Academy (a stone's throw from Manchester City FC's stadium) it was satisfying to encounter plenty of disabled parking spots. Unfortunately, the camber of the pathway from the car-park to the buildings went off in two different directions, making it difficult to self-propel my wheelchair. Thankfully, I had my trusty assistant at hand. The main entrance was permanently open due to the large numbers of people coming and going: so, I cannot say how accessible the entrance is on a normal day. All floor surfaces were covered in a man-made product that had some give in it (according to my trusty assistant) and so was a delight (his word) to walk upon. For me too it was a delight, for the surfaces throughout were even and smooth: just perfect for a wheelie! I was relieved I had overcome my stubborn independent mind as I should never have managed to open most of the internal doors: none operated either automatically or via a disabled push-button, so all had to be opened for me. Well, except the door to the disabled w.c. This I managed by myself, including un/locking it, although some canny manœuvring was required which resulted in my pulling a back muscle! In the refectory I was able to tuck myself, still in my chair, under the table - the first time ever (see photograph below). So all in all, a high score for the edifice, its environs and its fittings.
My treatment by Labour staffers was not quite so good and did not create a good first impression. The chappy who greeted me upon arrival was chirpy and enunciated clearly. Unfortunately the lass who called me over, cutting across the former’s conversation, went unheard to a certain degree as I am hard-of-hearing in one ear. I suggested it is best not do so to the young lady; but she just glowered at the constructive criticism. Then she proceeded to try to communicate directions, but turned away from me so that I could not see her mouth nor hear what she was uttering. She certainly did not take kindly to being asked to look at me when speaking. Apart from being a common courtesy, it is also essential to many hearing-impaired individuals.
Despite making it quite clear that I would be in a wheelchair, there was no allotted space. At first I settled in an aisle; but it soon became clear I was going to be blocking photographers’ access and so on. My assistant had taken a single seat at the back of the room. I suggested he pulled me back and position me next to him. Out of everybody’s way or so I thought: three staffers, one photographer, one technician and several of the questioners walked into me. Only two apologised: one of the staffers (a microphone runner) and the photographer. The technician must have had magnets in his legs, because he walked into me five times. I am not sure non-wheelies understand that one’s chair becomes part of one’s body. Banging the chair is like stepping on someone’s foot or such like. If one accidentally contacted an able-bodied person, one would apologise; so why do able-bodied folk generally not apologise when accidentally coming into contact with wheelies? I wonder whether it is the same for blind folk? Or other types of visibly disabled people?
Developing my Open Letter and Question
As soon as Manchester Evening News offered the opportunity to put a question to Ed Miliband, I knew I had to apply. A few weeks ago I had written to Sonia Poulton who was collecting (in the end some six thousand) signatures for an open letter to Ed Miliband. I had said that Mr Miliband was at liberty to call in if he was ever passing. I live in the suburbs of Manchester, but whilst this kind of trip meant using a lot of energy and spoons, I felt morally obligated and spiritually motivated to make the attempt in order to iterate the deaths, the suicides, the attempted suicides, the despair, the excessive stress, the aggravated ill-health of disabled and/or chronically sick Brits that has only recently been openly discussed by some parts of the Media.
Morale support was what I needed, so I contacted the veteran disability rights campaigner and über-blogger, Kaliya Franklin aka BendyGirl. She very generously gave of her time and spoon reserves to help devise a question. However events moved quickly and the points became moot after new announcements by the Labour Party. In the end I had so much I wanted to say that I put down my thoughts in the following open letter to Mr. Miliband.
OPEN LETTER TO ED MILIBAND, LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY
Dear Mr. Miliband,
Labour was responsible for the introduction of Employment & Support Allowance (ESA), the replacement for Incapacity Benefit, the out-of-work benefit paid to those who had become either physically and/or mentally impaired or had become chronically sick after a period of employment in which they had paid sufficient National Insurance contributions.
Labour was responsible for the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), that is supposedly meant to determine whether or not disabled and/or chronically sick folk are capable of any work never, in the long-term or in the short-term.
Labour was responsible for negotiating the original contract with ATOS, the international conglomerate now widely despised by disabled and chronically sick folk, for processing disabled/chronically sick folk.
Labour was responsible for the Freedom of Information legislation which means we, the public, are not entitled to see that contract due to alleged commercial sensitivity so it is impossible for the electorate, let alone Parliament, to judge whether or not the contract is flawed.
The ConDem coalition that followed the New Labour Government extended ATOS’ contract and has made matters much worse. It permits the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP), and even the ODI via for example the Minister for Disabled, to constantly and repeatedly feed inaccurate and misleading statistics and stories to the Media. The result has been the worst increase in hate crime towards disabled/chronically sick folk since records began.
Labour was responsible for the Equality Act (which incorporated some of the Disability Discrimination Act) but which does not include an offence of incitement to disability hate crime, unlike race, etc.
Is the Labour party therefore partially responsible for the hundreds of thousands of incorrect assessments, each affecting an individual, his/her family, carers and local community?
Is Labour in any way responsible for the hundreds of deaths that occur shortly after folk have been found fit for work?
Is Labour part responsible for the tens of thousands of folk who are too well to receive ESA but too ill to receive JSA, so effectively exist on no income?
Is Labour in any way responsible for the rise in disability hate crimes, in part due to its failure to ensure incitement to hate crime is itself a crime (which inter alia could act as a deterrent to some of the more extremist stories appearing in the Media)?
Is Labour responsible in part for any of the hundreds of actual and attempted suicides?
Is Labour responsible for any of the despair caused to hundreds of thousands of disabled/chronically sick people and their communities?
Does the Labour Party take any responsibility?
Do you Mr. Miliband?
If so, will you apologise to disabled citizens for flawed Labour policies?
And if not, who do you suggest the disabled vote for in future and why?
Colin-Roy Hunter aka criquaer
Obviously, the letter is far too long to have been read out in the limited time of a Q&A session. So I redacted the letter and amended until the question took less than a minute to read out. Here it is:
Labour was responsible:
for the introduction of ESA and accompanying WCAs;
for negotiating the original contract with ATOS for processing disabled/chronically sick folk;
for the Freedom of Information legislation which means the public are not entitled to see that contract;
for the Equality Act which does not include an offence of incitement to disability hate crime.
Is Labour therefore in any way responsible:
for the hundreds of thousands of incorrect assessments, each affecting an individual, their family, carers and local community;
for the hundreds of deaths that occur shortly after folk have been found fit for work;
for the thousands who are too well to receive ESA but too ill to receive JSA, so effectively exist on no income;
for the hundreds of actual and attempted suicides;
for the despair caused to hundreds of thousands of disabled/chronically sick people?
Does the Labour Party take any responsibility?
Do you Mr. Miliband?
Will you apologise to disabled citizens for flawed Labour policies?
Putting my Question
Throughout the session, I kept raising my hand, but Mr. Miliband never looked my way. Finally for the last round he wanted three questions and for the third he looked at me and said, “The man at the back in the...” And then he changed his mind and said he needed to ask a woman to redress the gender balance. My opportunity was about to be lost. I don’t know what came over me, as normally I would stammer and procrastinate, but I just blurted out, “I’m queer, if that makes a difference!” The room burst into uproarious laughter. Ed gallantly conceded that he would come back to me. And he did. I put my question - apparently one lady in the room clapped - and Mr Miliband responded without answering. I was surprisingly not downhearted as I had not really expected that he would. The area is far too contentious. But the question had to be put whilst the Media were there. Ed needs to know that it is his compassion that is needed, just as much as speedy actions.
Impressions of Ed Miliband
Mr. Miliband finished with a succinct précis. We all applauded as he had given us an extra thirty minutes of his time. Then he began to shake the hands of the individuals sitting on the end of the rows to my right which would lead him to his exit. I quite expected him to go. To my astonishment, he swivelled around and came back to me, shook my hand and thanked me for my question whilst holding my gaze. He also took care to thank my assistant too.
Certainly he looks more alien in real-life: such a svelte body with such a bobble head. (My tastes are for chunky.) He is however wholly human: full of compassion, sympathy, understanding and grounded pragmatism. Earlier in the day both my carer and I had discussed the relative merits of Ed and his brother David. Both of us had preferred the former as an example of the Northern European consensual style of politician. However we both thought that the Public would prefer David who fits more into the traditional rôle of strong but unfortunately dogmatic British political leaders. I have to say, like many others in attendance, I was open to being persuaded. And I am persuaded by Ed. Not so sure about many other leading members of his party though.
The Open Letter
And that open letter? Well, one of his affable staffers promised faithfully she would ensure it got to him and I believed her. So, I shall wait and see...
[Image description: Tory advertising hoarding on van stating, "LABOUR ISN'T LEARNING" parked outside the venue.]