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How the disabled were dehumanised: Laurie Penny on Jody McIntyre

The press coverage of Jody McIntyre suggests that “real” disabled people are not whole human beings.

It's official: disabled people aren't allowed to be independent. This week, amid rows about how this country treats people with disabilities, it was announced that the government will be phasing out the Independent Living Fund (ILF), a vital stipend that allows more than 21,000 "severely disabled people to pay for help so they can live independently". Such provisions, unlike bank bailouts and subsidies to arms dealers and millionaire tax-dodgers, are no longer a priority for this administration.

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but think of Jody McIntyre, a 20-year-old activist and journalist with cerebral palsy, who I saw batoned and dragged from his wheelchair at the demonstrations last Thursday, and who later delivered a series of epic discursive smackdowns to a senior BBC correspondent on prime-time television.

The press has been trying to imply that, because Jody is a revolutionary activist and ideologue who has travelled to Palestine and South America, he cannot be a "real" disabled person – he must, as Ben Brown suggested on the BBC, have somehow been "provoked". He must have deserved the beating and the humiliation of being pulled out of his chair and across the road; he must have asked for it.

Richard Littlejohn went so far as to compare McIntyre to Andy, a hilariously fraudulent and fatuous wheelchair-using character in the most disgusting pageant of blackface and grotesquerie ever to defile British television screens, Little Britain. Like Brown and others, Littlejohn seemed to imply that because he fought back and spoke up, because he attended a protest and because he is not afraid to make his voice heard, Jody McIntyre is not a real disabled person.

Others, including McIntyre himself, have written eloquently about how surprised we really shouldn't be that the police attacked a disabled protester, nearly killed another protester, and injured and traumatised hundreds more. That we live in a state where police officers attack women, minorities and the visibly vulnerable in what has been suggested are deliberate tactics to provoke protest crowds to riot is not something I see much need to debate. The truly fascinating aspect of McIntyre's story is what it reveals about how the British understand disability: namely, that real disabled people are not whole human beings.

The attitude is that there are two types of disabled person: there are real disabled people, who are quiet and grateful and utterly incapable of any sort of personal agency whatsoever, and fake disabled people – people like Jody McIntyre, who are disqualified from being truly disabled by virtue of having personality, ambition, outside interests and, in this case, the cojones to stand up to a corrupt and duplicitous government.

This remarkable Catch-22 clause, whereby the authorities can claim that any disabled person who criticises them on disability or any other issues must, ipso facto, not actually be disabled, does not only affect how individuals like McIntyre are treated. It directly influences policymaking in the most clinical and ruthless of ways. Bear in mind that, besides its highly publicised cuts to secondary and higher education funding, this government is also taking away benefits from disabled people: housing benefit, income support, the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance and other vital sources of funding are being cut back to the bone or removed entirely.

The withdrawal of the mobility component for people in residential care is a particularly nasty slash, as this benefit allows people with mobility difficulties a modicum of independence, something that, in the eyes of this government, real disabled people should neither want nor need. It pays for taxis, motorised scooters and wheelchairs – wheelchairs like the one the police damaged when they tipped Jody McIntyre right out of it.

On top of this, those claiming sickness benefits or Employment and Support Allowance will be obliged to take another round of punishing tests that are acknowledged to be designed specifically to prevent hundreds of thousands of benefit recipients from receiving any more money.

"Currently, nearly a third of all disabled people live below the official poverty line, with a quarter of families with disabled children unable to afford heating," said Eleanor, a spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) who protested in central London today about what the group sees as a direct assault on disability rights in the UK. "A tenth of all disabled women have incomes under £31 per week," she said. "And yet, the government intends to slash the number of claimants on Disability Living Allowance by 20 per cent, although the fraud rate is estimated to be a mere 0.5 per cent."

Six months ago, when I was helping my disabled partner, who has severe mobility issues and chronic pain, prepare to claim DLA, we realised that he would not be considered sufficiently disabled unless he was prepared actually to demonstrate to a partial outside observer that he could not walk 30 steps without falling on his face. It was humiliating and it was inhumane, and eventually, like many others, we gave up. The subsequent poverty and the stress of watching my partner struggle to cope with his disability with no support eventually ended the relationship and left me with a profound understanding of how successive administrations have used welfare reform to humiliate and terrorise the most vulnerable into abject complaisance.

All of this is justified by the assumption that most people claiming disability benefits are, to put it bluntly, faking it. That's right, hundreds of thousands of people with mental or physical health problems that prevent them from working have the audacity to want a scrap of agency, a life that is in any way full or useful, so they must be faking it all.

This government would prefer it if people with disabilities were not also people with opinions, desires and personalities. This government would prefer it if there were a clear demarcation line between people with the ability to stand up for themselves in any way whatsoever and people who are entirely reliant on the state, who ought to know their place: head bowed, hands outstretched, mouth shut, uncomplaining, accustomed to poverty and public derision. This government, with its utter contempt for the entire concept of social security, would prefer to be obliged to support only those who are prepared to sacrifice absolutely every bit of personal agency, to put up and shut up.

This is, of course, utter rubbish. This is not a Victorian melodrama, with the world neatly divided into people who are whole and hale and mawkish, abject cripples who are terminally grateful for any charity thrown to them and permanently followed around by a chorus of tiny violins. In the real world, the only difference between people with disabilities and everyone else is that people with disabilities sometimes need a little extra support to live the best lives that they can. They should get that support – and they should not have to ask nicely.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue