My time at Labour conference
Friday 26th September 2014
In Wednesday’s paper we reported how disabled delegates were forced to give up their seats for ‘party suits’ minutes before Miliband’s speech. Star columnist BERNADETTE HORTON was one of them. Here she explains what happened – and why she was so disappointed to have her story cynically hijacked by the right-wing press
Being working poor with a large family, I could not afford the cost of Labour conference.
The pass was £63 for the low paid or unwaged and £109 for everyone else.
Even budget accommodation was, quite frankly, extortionate — £120 per night plus on average.
Desperately wanting to go, I crowdfunded my way there and I am eternally grateful to the many people — including MPs — who put their hands in their pockets and paid for me to attend.
I then began a campaign which I will continue to take up with Labour general secretary Iain McNicol entitled #ForTheManyNotTheMoneyed.
The campaign was to give a voice to every person who simply could not afford the best part of £1,000 to attend conference week. The campaign continues for 2015 as McNicol looks into it.
Attending Labour conference is an experience like no other. Every member, rich or poor, should be given the opportunity for a “seat at the table,” a chance to engage with their party, meet people, smell the politics and, in my case, most importantly learn from the event and come out wiser than when I went in.
Of course it is useful to sit in the main conference hall and listen to the speeches by the party leader and shadow cabinet, but the fringe events on a wide variety of topics from “What makes a working-class MP?” to the Cuba and Venezuela solidarity campaigns are where you have to be to learn the most. I was like a political kid in a sweet shop.
Scouring the day’s events in my conference book and making a list of MPs and other speakers I wanted to hear from most made the entire conference all the more enriched.
The conference centre foyer was packed full of stalls ranging from unions to the Campaign for Real Ale — popular with delegates for samples — and all had stacks of information, leaflets, free pens and fridge magnets and so on.
I have much to read in the coming weeks. The sheer volume of stalls and causes made me swivel headed but, again, it all enriched the experience for me.
While I was there I had my own article appearing in the Morning Star, announcing my intention to stand for Parliament in 2020 and that it was truly a time for working-class MPs who have compassion and the human touch to be elected to change the make-up of the current Establishment.
I had a terrific response to my Morning Star piece, with one lady rushing to the Morning Star stand to subscribe to the paper having read the article.
People make conference. A wide variety of people, though, not just suits who can afford to be there.
I met some grandmothers in their eighties who told me of their experiences after the war when the welfare state was being set up, I met a young man whose mum was being hounded by the DWP and faced sanctions because her mental health problems meant she couldn’t understand the letters being sent to her demanding her repeated appearance at assessment centres, I met a whole array of feisty disabled people demanding change from the Labour Party and fighting to mould disability policy within the party.
These experiences were my education. I also met the general secretary of my own union Unite, Len McCluskey, for the first time and was delighted to meet the MPs I admire most — Ian Lavery, Grahame Morris and Ian Mearns.
These four men have something in common more priceless than diamonds — the ability to connect, engage and care about what you are saying.
No-one feels the hurt of austerity on their people and constituents more than these guys, believe me.
And they are not just empty words. They act immediately. When you have heard Lavery deliver a hell-raising speech on how children at a school in his constituency are stealing bread from the school kitchens as they are hungry and how there is simply no need for austerity in one of the richest countries on Earth, you can be damned sure that speech will be seared in your brain forever.
I saw Christine Blower from the NUT telling delegates that teachers are hoarding cereal snack bars and the like to feed hungry pupils in school, that newly qualified young teachers were coming to realise that teaching was only part of their job — and that social worker and feeding children was also part of their remit. It wrenches your insides.
I saw Kevin Macguire of the Daily Mirror sitting alongside 91-year-old Harry Smith at a fringe event when he wept as he told of his sister dying from TB aged 10 because there was no NHS.
These speakers told the real stories of conference. The stories that were happening to ordinary people. To me these were far more important than any policy announcements taking place in the main hall as they told the real story of what is going on in Britain under David Cameron’s watch.
I was also involved in an incident concerning myself and other disabled people prior to the leader’s speech taking place.
Huge queues had formed and all disabled people were allowed in first, but the queuing system was pretty haphazard as there were people on mobility scooters and in wheelchairs as well as people who were deaf or blind.
On the front row of the floor-level balcony seating, stewards had reserved seats for the disabled who couldn’t climb the balcony. I was among them.
However, when stewards showed us to this front row, two party officials insisted we could not sit there as they were reserved for other party members.
Despite vehement protests from the stewards and also myself, I was told to move up to the balcony seating.
However by this time a lot of the upper seats were occupied so there were quite a few stairs to climb.
The stewards did their best to assist, but I lost my footing with my crutch and fell. Thank you to the steward who picked me up and saved me.
On seeing the scene, the party officials quickly urged stewards to fetch chairs from outside the hall and put us seated next to the wheelchair-users in the main part of the hall.
I and a few others who had attempted the balcony climb were very angry and shaken and in disbelief that this was happening to us at Labour conference.
Frankly, we felt like second-class citizens — a bit of a nuisance to the female party suits desperate to avoid a scene and get their people seated in the reserved disabled seats.
At the end of conference all became apparent as Ed Miliband and his wife Justine walked to the back of the hall and shook hands with the long line of party members sitting in the reserved seats.
Of course Miliband himself would have been oblivious to the fact we had been ousted from this area, and the feeling of somehow not being good enough or photogenic enough for the cameras following him pervaded our thoughts.
I was very angry on leaving the hall and gave my account of what had taken place to a Morning Star reporter.
While Luke James reported the facts, a Tory paper copied the story and added its own right-wing twist for public gain.
Not what was intended.
Labour got it wrong for disabled people, but it was a time for bringing this to the attention of shadow minister for the disabled Kate Green and not for Tory rags to gain politically from it.
Both Green and John McDonnell MP are raising the issue seriously with Miliband and looking into the behaviour of party officials.
For the record, it is up to disabled people like me to speak out and ensure that at future events this is never repeated.
With the arrival of Disability Labour as a new group, I will work with them as a voice to improve procedures for disabled people at conference. It is not enough to moan. Change must come by fighting for it personally.
Finally I would like to thank the cleaners, the stewards, the workers providing us with food and drinks, the centre receptionists and the centre guides. These were the unsung heroes — people like us perhaps on the minimum wage and a short-term contract, all working to 200 per cent to ensure conference was enjoyable to all.
Tory minister told conference fringe meeting that disabled people are only worth £2 an hour. LABOUR demanded David Cameron sack Tory minister Lord Freud yesterday after the PM’s welfare adviser argued disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage: here.