Was Andy Burnham right to call councillors the “foot soldiers” of the Labour Party?

Leadership contender’s remark highlights the lack of grass-roots activists.

At a recent Labour leadership hustings, Andy Burnham praised the hard work of councillors by saying they are the "foot soldiers" of the party. I found this an intriguing way to publicly describe Labour's elected local representatives.

Foot soldiers are the lowest rank of an army, the "grunts" who execute orders. To the political outsider, it might seem strange to refer to councillors -- elected officials who are selected by party members -- as being at the bottom of the chain of command. It might seem more appropriate to view councillors as ranking officers, leading platoons of soldiers on campaigns, rather than being the troops themselves.

Burnham's use of language points to how in some areas, Labour candidates win the house-to-house fight for votes almost alone. In a ward of 9,000 people, Labour can win with as small an effective fighting force as the three candidates themselves and a couple of volunteers. By placing the workload for campaigning on councillors, the party's electioneering machine has been able to compensate in part for the precipitous fall in active members.

While this may be effective in winning a tolerable number of seats, it is not a viable way to genuinely renew the Labour movement so that it can become a force for radical change once more.

To do this, Labour needs to follow Peter Mandelson's call to arms that the party fight back "as insurgents". A successful insurgency relies on a groundswell of volunteers. It must therefore be popular in its methods as well as its appeal.

The Labour Party's decision in Birmingham Edgbaston "to stop doing and start building" delivered an unexpected victory for Gisela Stuart, on the back of a newly recruited army of activists.

An increase in party volunteers would leave councillors freer to engage with their communities and provide a leadership role. They could be captains rather than privates. Interested and committed activists could act as lieutenants in the movement, encouraging and directing other volunteers where appropriate.

Building a successful insurgency is by no means easy. It cannot follow conventional, rigid hierarchies, but must still have enough structure and organisation to ensure the variety and breadth of its manpower remains an asset and not a drawback.

Supporters of a mass-participation Labour movement should back the proposal by Caroline Badley, architect of the Edgbaston victory, that the party help fund local organisers to work seriously towards building a movement.

To return to the military metaphor, career soldiers in professional armies who fight on behalf of the people can be a good defence in peacetime. But sometimes the nature of conflict dictates that they must take off their uniforms, return to the people and inspire them to fight -- or they can stay the course in a conventional battle they cannot win.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor in Lambeth and part of the Labour Values project.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.