It can hardly have escaped the notice of disability campaigning types that it is party political conference season once more. Last week the Lib Dem's were in Brighton and Shana Pezaro was there busy asking awkward questions and giving a superb speech. This week Sue Marsh and Pat's Petition are lobbying hard at Labour and I'm off to Birmingham for the Conservative conference which starts on Sunday.
Conference seems to be the one time politicians abandon their usual games of sitting around in a circle whining that "he's got a bigger willy than me" an unusual game, unique to politics as the possession of a willy is not required to participate, and instead all out compete to show to the media who's definitely got the biggest todger. On the upside that means that at least politicians start looking outside of their Westminster bubble...but on the downside its still a willy waving contest which all normal people look upon with a healthy degree of scorn.
It is quite different from conference season last year where we had no money for expenses, even having to persuade a lovely car park attendant that he wanted to support our cause by giving us free parking for the day and pulled every trick in the book to try and be heard. When life is as difficult for a group of people as it is currently for sick and disabled people we tend to go into 'bunker' mentality, we hunker down and concentrate on just getting things done without really looking up to see whats happening elsewhere. A bit like politicians but with less willy waving really... So, this year we decided to be a bit more sensible and split up the conference lobbying into (hopefully) spoon sized chunks, the intent being to only have to go to bed for a few weeks at most afterwards, not go on to start a government challenging report and be ill for a year as a consequence.
The charity Leonard Cheshire ran a competition earlier this year to sponsor one delegate to each party conference so that is how I'm being funded to go to Birmingham (just a pass for Conservative conference is incredibly expensive) and how Pat is going to Manchester.
The other big difference is that unlike last year when disability and welfare weren't even on the agenda, this year we are being listened to...albeit in a slightly distracted "do you think my willy looks nice like this" lack of focus listening kind of way. Labour have just announced their policy consultation on disability and as part of that called for a "fast and fundamental" review of the WCA. Many people are understandably disappointed that this did not come with a full apology and admission of responsibility...but apologising isn't part of the political game. Generally too few opportunities to shout "look, did you see how fab my willy is?!" when apologising you see! Acknowledging that WCA is not working is hugely significant in political terms as it means finally we have broken the 'scrounger consensus' and once one party start talking about things differently it means its much easier to put pressure on the other parties to do the same. That's why Labour stopping the scrounger rhetoric as they promised to do last year has been so important.
But, these are tiny successes on the way to the ultimate goal, which is a fair assessment of sickness/disability benefits and tailored personal support for those who do feel able to seek employment. Many people will be disappointed not to hear apologies and not to see the WCA scrapped, which though vital to aim for are not necessarily achievable political goals....but much has changed in the past 12 months, so by the time conference season 2013 comes around they may well have become so.
So, the welfare warriors are ready to go into battle again. For some this means more direct action, for others it means having to smile nicely and above all remain calm when making our reasoned points, for others its continuing to write to constituency MP's as the pressure of complaints about WCA in their caseloads is one of the most important weapons we have. Pat is due to meet with key, senior Labour politicians and knowing Sue she'll have taken over the party by wednesday. I am due to meet with Esther McVey who is the new Disability Minister, Charlotte Lewis who is the Big Society Tsar, key people such as Neil O'Brien and Mark Littlewood who are usually to be seen on Newsnight talking up the position of the right leaning think tanks on welfare and with any luck Mark Hoban who is the new minister for Employment as well as someone from A4E. I can also tell you that I will be meeting with Iain Duncan Smith, but due to scheduling this may not be at conference, but something I'll need to go down to London separately for.
All any of us can promise when lobbying like this is that we will do our utmost to explain, persuade and bring about change. It is definitely the cumulative impact of so many different groups of sick and disabled people all campaigning to their strengths whether that be by direct action or the more subtle charm and disarm which are pushing forward progress. If we stop to look up we see our friends still suffering terribly at the hands of this cruel system, but if we turn to look back we can see just how far we have all travelled and look forward with hope to a time of change.