Wednesday, 25 January 2012

38 Degrees: Part Way There

38 Degrees are finally asking people to throw their weight behind changes to the Welfare Reform Bill. That’s good, that’s really, really good, but that doesn’t mean that this series of blogs has completely achieved its purpose. Help fighting the Welfare Reform Bill is a huge part of what disabled people have been asking 38 Degrees for over the past year, that lack of support is what started me blogging on the subject, the call to arms to oppose the Welfare Reform Bill is what I set out to achieve, but asking for that help has thrown light on a problem at the heart of 38 Degrees itself.

An organisation that builds its identity around its democratic mechanisms needs those mechanisms to be accessible to all, but the truth is that they aren’t. The near insurmountable difficulties disabled people have faced in getting support in the 38 Degrees votes on where to campaign next are just one aspect of that problem; any demonised minority, Travellers for instance, is going to face the same issues. If disabled people are begging for support, with well beyond half a million of us facing losing our benefits, and we are losing the votes, yet badgers are winning*, then isn’t there a problem 38 Degrees need to address? That’s a major problem in itself, but the problem extends even further.

People in social housing don’t face quite the same problems in demonization that disabled people do, yet they are another disenfranchised minority when it comes to campaigning for support from 38 Degrees, Martha Lane Fox, in her role as web accessibility tsar, pointed out before Christmas that half of people in social housing have no way of getting online, and therefore no easy way to try and ask for support from 38 Degrees, no matter how worthy their cause. That's a feature they share with disabled adults, a very high proportion of whom have never been online and who, on top of the demonization, are similarly restricted in lack of Net access when trying to get help from 38 Degrees.

The two groups most comprehensively disenfranchised by lack of Net access were the same two groups most savagely targeted by the Welfare Reform Bill, and the same two groups worst placed to get the support they needed from 38 Degrees. Even badgers have better (if indirect) Net access. An organisation which prides itself on the democracy at the core of everything it does cannot ignore the fact that those who need its help most desperately can't even get into the polling booth….

The fight to get 38 Degrees into the battle over the Welfare Reform Bill has been won, but the need for change in 38 Degrees itelf remains. The principles at the core of 38 Degrees mean that it cannot afford to remain an organisation that disenfranchises those who cannot afford to be online, just as it cannot afford to disenfranchise those demonized by the media or society (particularly when that demonization extends into the beliefs of its supporters). 38 Degrees cannot afford to be seen as solely a tool of the trendy, web-enabled, chattering classes, but unless everyone can access its help on an equal basis, then isn’t that ultimately what it is?

* I signed the badger petition, I have nothing against badgers, the cull is bad science, but their cute, furry beeline to the heart of active, online 38 Degrees voters is the clearest example I know of the problem I’m trying to highlight.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Where is 38 Degrees? The World Wonders.

This week, disabled campaigners launched the SpartacusReport , demolishing the logic, and truthfulness, of the government case supporting the Welfare Reform Bill’s brutal assault on disability benefits. And on Wednesday night the government suffered 3 consecutive defeats in the House of Lords over amendments to the Bill, the biggest defeat of this parliament to date. Having spent two years studiously ignoring us the media didn’t seem to know how to handle that, the BBC seemed almost to imply that we were being irresponsible for daring to oppose cuts.

Getting access into the media, and to non-disabled people as a whole, is a very large part of the reason we have been appealing for a year or more for mainstream campaign groups such as 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and OccupyLSX to get behind our campaigns, even if only by drawing them to their members attention. But progress has been terribly slow, at a time when, with the Welfare Reform Bill almost law, a laggardly reaction is the last thing disabled people can afford. I’ve made some progress with getting 38 Degrees to admit there is an issue, as seen in blogs here and my guest blog on their own site,  and their campaign on Legal Aid is a start, but Legal Aid is a tiny skirmish on the fringes of the main battle, the Welfare Reform Bill which threatens to leave hundreds of thousands of disabled people without any government support whatsoever, even while the government admits that they are not fit to work, while gutting just about every other disability benefit in the name of party ideology.

Meanwhile a handful of disabled campaigners, with next to no resources, either physical or financial, have stood their ground and inflicted a major defeat on the government through nothing more than smart, net-savvy campaigning, supposedly the very strengths on which 38 Degrees prides itself. In christening their paper the Spartacus Report the team behind it tapped into the media image of Spartacus, the slave who refused to be cowed by the might of Rome and led a revolt that is still legendary two millennia later. On Monday, #SpartacusReport became the number one trending hashtag on Twitter. On Wednesday, Spartacus was triumphant in the Lords,  but the battle isn’t over and the Coalition is threatening to reverse our victories in the Commons.

This would have been the perfect moment for the mainstream groups to throw their weight behind us, to combine their media access and mass membership with our analysis and use the impetus of victory to save literally millions of disabled and other vulnerable people from the vicious, bullying attacks of the Welfare Reform Bill. 38 Degrees showed its ability to rapidly seize and exploit political opportunities with the ‘I am not a Zombie’ campaign, turning a ministerial attack on 38 Degrees members into a media-worthy demonstration of Coalition arrogance in the space of just a couple of days; but it’s Friday now, the Spartacus Report has been out there for five days, and we’re still waiting for 38 Degrees to declare ‘I’m Spartacus’ and urge their members to do the same.

The Spartacus Revolt is the obvious analogy for the Spartacus Report, but in considering the role of 38 Degrees in this I’m reminded more of the WWII Battle of Leyte Gulf. In the middle of the battle, with US forces fighting their way ashore in the Philippines, the US battlefleet, Task Force 34, was lured away, leaving the invasion beaches open to the Japanese battlefleet, including the mighty Yamato, the largest battleship ever built. A handful of US light ships, Taffy 3, with no hope of winning, threw themselves into the teeth of the Japanese guns, and earned themselves a place in history by driving the Japanese off. As they fought for their lives signals were sent pleading for the US battlefleet to turn around and involve itself in the only battle that mattered. One of those signals has become emblematic of plunging headlong in the opposite direction to the real fight: “Where is Task Force 34? The World Wonders.”

Legal Aid is important, vital even, but Legal Aid can only help disabled people to access those rights they are granted in law. The Welfare Reform Bill will destroy many of those rights for ever.  

Where is 38 Degrees? The World Wonders