Many disabled people and particularly those reliant upon out of work disability benefits to survive have felt largely abandoned by a political class that has spent the last decade increasingly locking horns over ‘welfare reform.’ Whatever the differences in policy, the narrative employed by both sides painted unemployment as a pathology, to be resolved only by making life ‘tougher’ for those receiving benefits. This has led to tighter eligibility criteria, arbitrary and intrusive testing, a sanctions regime that can leave people literally facing destitution. It has been coupled with widespread stigmatization, gradually turning those receiving or seeking disability benefits into a ‘suspect community’. Labour’s strong record on disability rights after 1997 has to a large extent been overshadowed by it being seen as both an architect of reforms such as the Work Capability Assessment and as being weak in opposing the worse excesses of the government’s since 2010. While ‘getting tough on welfare’ can lead to very different policy solutions, this rhetoric was sufficient to alienate and lose the support of many disabled people as Rachel Reeves found to her cost. This was especially so when any wider narrative of rights and equality seemed to be have been forgotten while at the same time eye-watering spending cuts and reforms in areas such as social care, the Independent Living Fund, housing benefit and Disability Living Allowance meant the world was beginning to close in on people from all sides.
It was around this time that disability activists, finding common cause with other anti austerity campaigners, acting in new networks such as the Wow petition, Spartacus campaign or Disabled People Against the Cuts, began to find themselves courted by the likes of John McDonnell MP, Michael Meacher MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP. Here were backbench politicians of the left who stood against austerity and who stood up for disabled people, who would attend memorials for ‘10000’ who had allegedly lost their lives through welfare reform and who called for the holy grail: a cumulative impact assessment. It’s perhaps no surprise then that following the 2015 general election many of these same campaigners swung behind Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. Nor is it a surprise that – with no other politicians evidently courting their votes – many of these campaigners appear to be opposed to the actions of 172 MPs in seeking to dethrone Corbyn today.
But Corbyn and the few supporters he has left among the Parliamentary Labour Party are never going to resolve the dire situation already faced by many disabled people and which, post the EU Referendum looks set only to get worse.
Jeremy Corbyn is not a leader. He lacks the qualities a modern political leader requires: to unite his own party, to frame debates, to reach beyond your own base and speak to the country, to build new constituencies of support, to draw in swing voters, to negotiate and to be pragmatic. For these reasons and because of his politics he cannot and will not command support in a general election sufficient for his principles to make a scrap of real difference to people’s lives. And because he cannot do so, he also cannot lead a viable, effective opposition, for opposition only counts when a viable, popular alternative is on offer.
Corbyn might sometimes speak out about disabled people’s plight, but in doing so the effect is only to reinforce his own sense of righteousness and that of his supporters, not to reshape policy or opinion. As leader, his effect on disability rights in Parliament has been no greater than that of a backbench MP. The one substantial shift in disability related government policy during Corbyn’s time as leader – the government’s u-turn on further cuts to Disability Living Allowance – was a product of a Conservative backbench revolt. The only proactive initiative launched under his leadership (led by Debbie Abrahams) has been a listening exercise, exactly in the vein of that launched by Liam Byrne in 2012.
But it is not just Corbyn’s inadequacy as a political leader that I find so concerning. Despite his public statements I think it’s clear that Corbyn was lukewarm at best about staying in the EU. His past voting records confirms him as a Eurosceptic and his appearance on the Sky News debate before the referendum revealed his capacity to find fault with the EU far more easily than he could make the case for the UK staying in. Firmly in the ‘Lexit’ camp – the fantasy of building a socialist nirvana outside the ‘neoliberal’ straightjacket of the EU – he was the opposite side of the Boris Johnson ‘leave but really want to remain’ coin, the only problem being that Boris proved himself capable of winning an argument he didn’t believe in. The extraordinary statement from Corbyn’s team in the immediate aftermath of the result that ‘It shows Jeremy is in tune with the British people’ spoke volumes. Stories emerging from inside Labour HQ suggest strongly that his team refused to cooperate with the Labour In campaign.
No-one could surely have imagined that the UK leaving the EU would prove positive for the poorest and most marginalized in our society, including a great many disabled people. The UK is set, for as long as it now exists, to be governed by a government to the right of David Cameron’s. Rights will be dismantled. Jobs lost. Public services cut to the bone. Welfare benefits slashed. The planned EU wide steps forward in accessibility may never benefit disabled people in the UK. £billions of EU social, structural and research funding will no longer come to the benefit of UK disabled people. How can a man who claims to be concerned about human rights and inequality have done so little to challenge an outcome so singularly calamitous for human rights and inequality?
The wider political class may have appeared to have abandoned disabled people – and particularly those who require financial and practical support to live their lives. But Corbyn’s embrace was, is and continues to be a self-serving one amounting to little more than virtue signaling. He has neither the policies nor the leadership skills to bring meaningful change to disabled people’s lives. What’s more, having helped the UK walk away from social democratic Europe, he and his allies seem prepared to destroy the only other viable domestic political vehicle for advancing disabled people’s rights – the Labour Party – in their thirst for power.
There is much to be done to rebuild a progressive disability rights agenda. It requires alternatives to welfare reform and austerity. It demands politicians engage and listen and rethink. But it also requires good policies, political leadership, public support, effective opposition and electoral success. Corbyn offers none of this. He should stand aside for somebody who does.