This year representatives from Learning Disability England attended Labour and Conservative party conferences. We wanted to go because we think that it's important for people with learning disabilities and their families to be involved in political discussions and decision-making. As a campaigning organisation, we wanted to get a feel for the conferences and work out how we can get the most out of them in the future.
We sent a self-advocate representative, a family representative and a member of staff to each conference. We also had two student volunteers with us which we found really exciting. Politics students are going to be the politicians of tomorrow and we think it's really important to get them engaged in learning disability rights activism.
We asked Sui-Ling, Paula and Ben to talk a bit about their experiences of Labour Conference. Here's what they said:
Sui-Ling Tang, self-advocate representative
How was the conference for you as a self-advocate?
“It was the first conference I have been to. It was really good but they were very long days with lots of meetings.”
What was the best bit?
“My chat with Debbie Abrahams.”
Were there any challenges or any bits you found frustrating?
“Going to different places to meet everyone. It was difficult to understand what people were talking about. I would like to see Easy Read information available, that would be really good.”
Would you encourage other self-advocates to go?
“ Yes, people have some great ideas they could share.”
Why do you think it's important for LDE to attend the conferences?
“It is important for people to speak up and for people with a learning disability to be heard.”
Paula Edmondson, family carer representative
Being the Family representative for LDE at the Labour Party Conference was such a great opportunity in so many ways: I was really pleased to have been asked and that I said yes!
As a group we worked out the best places and meetings for us to be and the most relevant questions and points that needed to be asked and made - then we set about doing just that.
Intriguingly, the thing that stands out for me the most, is how different it feels to raise issues of massive concern with politicians than it does to try doing the very same with paid people operating within our health and social care systems. With no apparent need to build walls of defence, I was able to enjoy, at the very least, feeling as though we had been listened to with some level of respect by people who may (or may not) at some point in the future, be able to participate in making a positive difference as a result of what they heard. One can hope eh?
Certainly none of us in the LDE group held back from joining in- we did ourselves very proud indeed! And we can definitely be assured that we made a memorable impression with some - for as I paid for my parking ticket Wednesday afternoon I was cheerfully greeted by Debbie Abrahams busy on her way to the closing speeches. But not too busy to stop and say ‘Hi Paula: it was really good to meet you, Suiling and the rest of the group and I hope all goes well for you!’
Ben Leonard, student volunteer
At the end of September, I attended the Labour Party conference with Learning Disability England as a student volunteer. The media coverage of the conference was almost entirely focussed on the faction fighting within the party. However, as an LDE volunteer attending fringe events with a focus on health and social care, what struck me was the number of hard-working, passionate and inspirational campaigners who have been fighting some of the most difficult struggles there is for decades, coming together to work out how to change society for the better.
For me, the best bits were the Disability Labour fringe, the Socialist Health Association fringe and the Autism and Neurodiversity Manifesto Launch. What was special about these was the emphasis placed on centering the experiences and ideas of those who are most affected by government policy: people with disabilities, their carers, and professionals in the sector. It was also pleasing how the Shadow Ministers seemed to care even when the cameras weren’t running. For example, John McDonnell took time out of his day to travel away from the conference centre to appear at the unglamorous Autism and Neurodiversity Manifesto Launch on the hectic last day of the conference, not long before the Leader’s speech. Debbie Abrahams is also worth a mention, for taking the time to meet LDE and then pledging the next day to scrap the Work Capability Assessments.
What was frustrating was the disconnect between the passionate and principled campaigners we were speaking with, and the suited and booted party machinery at the conference centre. One wonders how the energies and policies of the people at the grassroots can be translated into policy at the level of government, when many seemed more interested in networking and fighting internal battles than anything else.
I would encourage any Politics student to volunteer at a party conference with LDE if they get the chance. Not only do you get to be in the thick of it for a week, going with LDE means you go with a focus and a purpose. If I had gone as an individual, a party member or a journalist, I would have never got the in-depth insight into how a specific area of policy works in and around a party that I got by going with LDE.