Left Unity founding conference – an incredible birth but an accessibility nightmare

Yesterday, the founding conference for a new left wing political party was held in London. And yet again, I was strongly reminded of Saul Alinsky, who once famously said ‘Young protagonists … have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change the world’. It was an exciting and empowering day, with a hopeful sense that another way really is possible. On the other hand, the phrase ‘couldn’t organize a piss up in a brewery’ comes to mind. Inclusion was given a high visibility in some way – in some uncomfortable ways that seemed quite strained – and yet, the event was far from inclusive, and resulted in significant exclusion of groups of people, including disabled people and parents with young children, and was as notably white as a tired old cynic like myself would predict in advance. None of this surprised me. I saw no new exclusion at the Left Unity conference. Everything that happened there has happened just as much, or more so, at the People’s Assemblies, at the Benefit Justice summits, and a host of other places. But none of it is necessary. It all originates from small groups of power holders, who must cling to their power at all costs, and a refusal to consider any alternative way of working.

The day

So, what was it actually like on the day? Bearing in mind here, please, I am describing one conference. NOTHING was actually unusual about any of this, it is not specific to Left Unity as a new party. I am describing this here purely as an example of any such event. This is not about bashing Left Unity, I still carry much hope and commitment for the party. I just would really love to see a radical shift in the way they organize conferences for future events to occur. Because I am silly and naive and think that might actually happen. It is about raising issues about how the way the left is currently operating is so exclusionary.

First of all, it started at 9am. To travel across London on public transport in a wheelchair, this means 3 hours, and therefore to make it on time, I would have had to have left my house at 6am, rising at 5am. After a long exhausting week at work, there was just no way that was going to happen. As it was, I managed to get up at seven, out the door at eight, and arrive at 11am, two hours after the start. I will also mention, of course, that if TFL was actually accessible, I could make it from my house to the venue in one hour.

We roll up, and know we are in the right place, due to the large number of people outside smoking, all holding ‘left unity’ voting cards. Based on this visual evidence, one could be forgiven for assuming that we had coincidentally managed to make it for a break time, and that it would, at least, be a good time to slot in and figure out what we had missed. A slight kafuffle at the desk, as they didn’t have any record of us registering or paying. (Note to self: check bank records and see if that check was ever cashed).

The building

And then, to take stock of the building… it was, in a strictly technical sense, ‘accessible’ in that it met the very basic minimum requirement. However, it did nothing to promote the independence of disabled people. The doors were all heavy double doors, with one side kept bolted closed, and just too narrow for a chair. There were no electronic buttons. Which meant that the only way a person in a wheelchair could get through any door was with staff help. There was only one accessible toilet, with two other sets of toilets. Not only were these not properly wheelchair accessible, but they were also up flights of stairs, with no lift access. Therefore the numbers needing to use the one ground floor wheelchair equipped loo were significantly increased, as they now included a large number of people who could have used a ‘standard’ loo, but couldn’t climb stairs with ease. This toilet was also kept locked, but not with a radar key, so on the rare occasion there was no que, the person needing the accessible toilet had to find a member of staff to ask permission to have a pee, like a six year old in school.

Inside the man hall there was an induction loop, but apparently it only covered the first two rows of seats. There was no signage to indicate that this was the case, and no request of any sort for delegates in general to leave the first two rows for those that needed them. There was no palintypist. There was no sign language interpreter.

The lunch facilities were very poor. There was one pizzeria that served coffees and sandwiches, and it had a que that took over three quarters of an hour during the main lunch break. No information was given to delegates in any format about how they could source refreshments to get through the day.


The conference

Events on the day consisted of voting for amendments to the new constitution. According to the published agenda there were supposed to be several other items, but from 11am when we arrived, the constitution was already under discussion. Election of tellers had presumably happened in that first hour we missed, and it’s possible that the agenda item ‘safe spaces policy’ had also been addressed – we will never know. Any discussion of ‘priority campaigns’ despite having been allocated an hour and a half, was simply dropped, as was ‘election strategy’.

In short, therefore, the entire day consisted only of documentary amendments. Some of them were for ‘platforms’ and the rest were for the constitution. (Do not ask me to explain what the ‘platforms’ were about. I have, quite literally, not a notion). The rest of it followed a 58 page booklet (with addition amendment sheet attached). In point ten font, single line spaced. At least it was a sans serif font they used. Thank heavens for small mercies! But it didn’t follow this booklet in any order. So we would be on an amendment on page 37 one minute, and then be asked to switch to page 24. And each amendment was simply named by itself. So it might read something as bizarre as ‘delete the word elephant’ with no context whatsoever, and no clue in the information given where the word ‘elephant’ might have appeared in the original draft constitution. And then everyone had to hold up voting cards to say whether the word ‘elephant’ should be deleted, and then all the votes had to be manually counted. If, like myself, you can’t actually hold your hand in the air at all, never mind keep it there for several minutes while tellers counted, you were fucked. No votes for cripples here!

Despite this terrible structure, some interesting debates nonetheless got raised. There were moments I became, by turn, engrossed and enraged. The debate over whether there should be a requirement that the gender division must be 50/50 for representatives produced some excellent speakers (and some that truly raised my ire as well, of course) and the debate as to whether Northern Ireland should be allowed to set up a Left Unity national section if people living there so wished had me wishing my dalek came with real laser attachments. These were issues that needed to be addressed in the constitution, and they were important to debate.

The problem was how they were debated. In other words, almost not at all. A few white men grandstanding, and being self-important, and that was it. Then on to the next issue, and the next one, and the one after that. The single biggest failing was that the time of the grandstanders was considered incredibly precious, the time of those sitting enduring their grandstanding, utterly worthless. No breaks were given. Far too few were built into the programme in advance, and as part of the running order, the mini 10 minute breaks were cancelled, leaving only the half hour lunch break in existence for a day that ran from nine to five.

Why it is so bad to structure it in this way?

Looking at what actually occurred, two inextricably interlinked issues arise. One is the overall issue of effectiveness and whether social change can be created. The other is the issue of access. From Paulo Freire, to Saul Alinsky, and all the way back to that great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, it has been being pointed out that the only way that social change can happen is through dialogue. And so it is deeply ironic that any hint of actual dialogue occurring is something the left seems phobic of, and willing to go to any lengths to avoid. Yes, we could discuss an issue, exchange views, educate ourselves, see through the hegemonic oppression by learning from each other, but no, we can’t do that. Its far more ‘lefty’ to allow white men to grandstand at everyone else’s cost. If white men grandstanding changed the world, we would have a revolution by noon on Tuesday every other week. But it’s all we know, so it’s all we do. What actually happens when white men grandstand?

This is what happens:

1.       Nobody listens.

Seriously. Nobody actually listens. The average university graduates attention span used to be calculated at 40 minutes. It is my personal belief, as a university lecturer, that has fallen dramatically as a result of various social changes. When I teach, I am well aware that, after half an hour on any particular topic, very considerably less than 50% of my class are taking in anything any more, and this is confirmed by any assessments I give out, and also by many structured research projects. After the half hour point, a significant change is required, so that people are clearly listening to something different. After an hour, a proper break is needed. If that doesn’t happen, the actual amount of information being taken in by anyone is abysmally low.

2.       People become confused

When people struggle to follow the conversation because their maximum attention span has been used up, they will become confused. This was very evident on the day. We had scenarios in the voting where the chair had to sternly tell people that their voting made no sense. If item number 57, on clause 134b, subsection ixxv requires the deletion of all references to zoo animals (humorous non-example, obviously) and that is passed, then later vote number 73 on clause 520a subsection vi can’t insert a mention to giraffes. But people were seriously not getting it, and voting for items, (of actual serious importance, not about zoo animals, obviously), but in just such contradictory ways. And once the chair pointed out ‘this makes no sense’ everyone changed their vote, but clearly no one had a clue what they were voting for, which makes a mockery of the entire process.

3.       People get manipulated into views they do not actually hold.

It’s just as effective as any other form of torture. If you are sitting there, with a nasty pain in your back because you have been stuck in this hellish chair for three hours now, with your legs tightly crossed because you need the loo, and are ready to rip someone’s head off for want of a cigarette, then you will vote for coco the clown to be elected party mascot, whether you think it’s a good idea or not. Torture is effective. Canvas views after any meeting, in a political or a business setting, and you find that you can manipulate anyone into agreeing to anything, by trapping them in a meeting for long enough. This is not democracy. However, the manipulation works deeper than that. People will also become progressively more and more swayed by novelty and by charisma instead of by logic the longer this goes on. There was one very clear example at the conference yesterday. The entire floor voted very clearly one way. There was a temper tantrum from a group. Everyone changed their vote. The point that was passed, I believe personally, was ideologically abhorrent, and has the potential to kill the party before it ever takes off. And it wasn’t democracy. It was manipulation. And it was done so skillfully. Because the white, male grandstanders are very skilled at this. And they know exactly what they are doing.

4.       People physically hurt

Pain is part of the torture. It is part of the torture for everyone. It can be greatly intensified for specific individuals. If you have a bad back. A weak bladder. Are just a heavy smoker. If you are pregnant. This is not only a disability issue, actually it’s an everyone issue, but it is an issue that the disability group made very clear to the organisers in advance, and they chose to ignore. It is an issue that is often greatly intensified if you have a disability of any sort. And that’s why it’s so important to remember that men are less likely to develop disabilities and long term health complains than women. White, British born less likely than black or ethnic minorities. Straight are less likely than gay. Middle class less likely than working class. Women without children less likely than women with children. So ‘just’ deciding that some white man really, really needs five minutes more floor time and everyone else must sacrifice their hourly 5 minute comfort break for him, is a very highly effective way of ensuring that, three hours in, it is only some (not even all) white, cis-gendered, straight men who have not experienced poverty can have any real participation, and everyone else is effectively annihilated from the proceedings. Because all the rest of us are so busy twisting in our chairs waiting for the torture to end that we really can’t follow what’s happening at all.

5.       People experience high stress levels

Stress is a nasty thing. It raises your blood pressure. It raises your pulse rate. It slows down your digestive system. It does all kinds of things to your body. Sitting for three hours in a meeting will stress anyone. If you are not neuro-typical this is magnified manifold. For myself personally, consistent noise and bright lights both cause a very physical stress reaction in me that has nothing to do with my emotional state, and most of the time I am 100% in control of. But after a 3 hour meeting with no break, I’m not. I’m letting the world see my quirks, and need to get to a bathroom and flap about to calm myself like other people need air to breathe. It genuinely makes me feel like I am suffocating. One in twenty people have some aspect of neuro-diversity in their make-up. The majority of these it is just a few mild quirks, which most of the time would not be a disability. But put them in a three hour meeting with no break… and they might not even understand why they just become so much more stressed than others around them. That’s one in twenty people. So, in a conference hall of 500 people, that’s twenty five people that you are actually hurting in a very real, intense physical and psychological way by cancelling the comfort break. And then of course there are all the other reasons other people will be hurt, not just neuro-diversity issues. Worth bearing in mind.

6.       People actually leave.

Remember all those people smoking outside when we arrived? Even though it wasn’t actually a break time, and the conference was still in session? Yeah, that’s what happens. People can’t actually manage, so they vote with their feet. I see this all the time at all kinds of meetings, and it always amazes me the way the speakers and organisers don’t seem to notice. As a lecturer, if my students aren’t coming to class, or are getting bored and leaving half way through, I’m in trouble. So if it ever happened, I would find the problem fast, and fix it. But that’s the problem with grandstanding. It’s not about anyone actually listening, it’s about feeling self-important. So the grandstanders grandstand even as everyone literally walks away, and they do not appear to even notice, so unimportant is any actual dialogue to them.

7.       Existing power structures in society become reinforced, and no opportunity to transform them can be created.

A picture tells a thousand words. I have spent today on facebook telling people not to be overly swayed by the photos littering facebook, twitter and elsewhere in the cyber sphere today. People who were thinking of engaging, and have now seen the pictures of 100% white and 95% male attendees in the front few rows, and assumes, well obviously Left Unity isn’t a party for ‘people like us’ after all. I have been telling people, seriously, there were many black and ethnic minority people present. There really were, pinky swear. And they are replying ‘but I’ve seen the pictures, I know that’s not true.

So all those people who were thinking of joining, but needed a little time and to see how things unfolded as they were skeptical that any party structure would be non-sexist, non-racist and generally non-idiotic, all those who are not privileged, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied men – will they now join? No. So who will Left Unity end up representing? – Do I really need to spell it out?

‘What is to be Done?’

That age old question of the left – what is to be done? It’s not rocket science. You show some will to make your meetings more accessible and interactive. You have belief in people, and belief in dialogue. Trust the process.

From the very mind-numbingly simple to the slightly more complicated, here’s some things that can be done. And by doing any or all of these, real inclusion will be helped along, and future photos won’t only show white, able-bodied men in the front seats.

1.       Have comfort breaks hourly. No matter what.

It does not matter if the reincarnation of Karl Marx himself has just reached the central point of the one concept that will change the course of history. If it’s a full hour in, no one is listening anyway. Have a klaxon. Sound it. That’s break time.

This issue was raised over and over again, and what we got in response was a patronizing metaphorical pat on the head, accompanied by a verbal response of ‘we’ll try’. Pardon me for feeling massively patronized and silenced by that. Yoda said it best. Do. Or do not. There is no ‘try’. What the heck does ‘try’ mean in this kind of circumstance? We are not talking about climbing Mount Everest here.

2.       Sort out the seating.

People who cannot stand need seats. People who need to physically move around need to be on the end of rows so they can stand up and sort their back out every 20 minutes, and sit again. People who need to lip read need to be at the front. People who need induction loops need to be in the right part of the room. You put a reserved sign on the front three rows of seats, and a good selection of edge of row seats as well. And you do NOT tolerate people removing those signs and sitting there anyway. Which is exactly what happened. One specific caucus came and took up the first three rows, which is why all photos of the audience gave such a negative message of being white men only. You deal with those rude people. That’s patriarchal colonialism in action, and I don’t care if they call themselves communists. You call them on their privileged nonsense.

3.       Use technology wisely.

Electronic voting is not new. Nor is it expensive. The university right next door to where we were have it built into the desks in some of their larger lecture theaters. If everyone had an electronic voting device, the voting time would have been eliminated, and at least one third of the time would have been saved for real discussion – never mind the issue that I and several others had physically voting as it required holding our hands for prolonged periods in the air which we could not do.

4.       Consult in meaningful ways.

Ask people what works for them. Listen to what they say. Consult widely. No one would ever dream that one white man speaks for every white man, and just so, one disabled person does not speak for every disabled person, one mother does not speak for everyone with childcare needs. Do not ignore their answer, or patronize, and then use the fact that you technically ‘consulted’ as an opt-out clause for your bad behavior. That’s not consultation. Get some real dialogue and discussion going.

5.       Educate yourself on access and inclusion.

There are some tried and tested ways of doing things. Print materials of 12 font or above, double line spaced, sans serif font, are one small example. If it doesn’t meet that minimum requirement it’s not accessible at all. I’m not talking about the large print version here, that’s a separate issue. And here’s another lesson from the classroom. What’s good for a specific group is good for everyone. Whereas if you only teach to the majority you are excluding more people than you know. Not everyone has a label. Labels are for jam jars. Have you checked what’s good practice around key issues such as visual impairments, hearing impairments, neuro-diversity? If you haven’t, you should not be organizing any mass meetings yet. If you have, then you will not only be helping those people with those specific issues, but making an event that will somehow just seem easier to interact with for everybody.

6.       Get the best venue possible.

Of course this is a tricky one, as venue hire creates one of the biggest barriers to holding major events, and venues can be so terrible. Speaking for myself personally, I am often willing to tolerate a large amount of imperfection in a venue if it is obvious that everything else has been set up to make things as accessible as possible. We can’t wish buildings into existence at an affordable rent that don’t actually exist. However, on the other hand, there are some venues out there that are considerably better than others. And a venue telling you it is accessible doesn’t make it so, in reality. The people you consult with can also help you scout out venues. People with disabilities should be involved in the selection process, not some tokenistic view of an already confirmed booking the night before.

7.       Use Participatory Active methods.

We sat for an entire day having teeth grindingly tedious votes on individual wording issues for a constitution. It was important. The constitution has to be got right. But not necessarily in that way. Participatory Action methods work. They work well. They produce happier participants who feel happier with the outcome. And save very significant amounts of time. Which can then be used for real discourse on policy issues. The stuff that’s even more important to get right. What could be done here using participatory action methods? One simple solution (among many others) would be to put large print versions of the constitution on large boards along the wall, with all proposed amendments. Give every participant a set number of votes (pins). Say ten. One participant may feel so strongly about one proposed change they vote for that ten times, and nothing else. Another may vote once for ten different amendments. They put their pins on what they want amended. If you combine this by also having some pictorial representation of the key points under discussion for those with difficulty engaging with print text in that way, and several volunteers ready to verbally run through each issue on a particular board for those with visual impairments, and you would be surprised how, even for the steering committee preparing these materials, everything will become clearer and more accessible. Suddenly the constitution would feel like a living document and something that really reflects a set of hopes and dreams for the future, not a dry set of legalese. And the entire voting could be allocated an hour and a half, maybe 2, during which time people would also be milling around, talking with each other, networking and benefiting. And that session would be so different from preceding and following talk based discussion sessions that you can keep breaks short, because people are getting the breaks they need through change alone, and keeping focus and attention.

8.       Promote dialogue.

This is a tenant of faith for me, that I won’t go into here, or I would need another ten thousand words, and still not have finished. But people need to interact with each other. And people don’t. We have speakers, and none of them ever address what the other speakers said, and if we have ‘questions’ from the floor they are never questions, just floor speakers. Communication is a two way process. If dialogue, proper two way conversation, is not happening, no learning is happening. And if we are not learning from each other, we will change nothing. But managing this on a 500 person conference floor is frankly impossible. Which is why break out discussions, workshops and small group interaction with feedback to the main floor is needed.

9.       Be creative.

We had the man in the Dr. Who scarf propose a platform (or was it an amendment?) that Left Unity be a creative party that uses different ways of working. And the women who co-proposed with him read a poem as an example of how this can trigger debate and awareness of issues. And the seat snatchers rolled their eyes, and muttered protest, and sniggered. It was passed as a resolution, but just like the ‘we’ll try’ attitude to break times, from that moment on seemed totally ignored. Later, a contributor sang a verse of a song to make a key point in a way that worked for her. I actually disagreed with the point that she was making, but respected her delivery of it. But again the seat-snatchers mocked. I do not know why creative, interactive ways of working that genuinely promote dialogue and thought seem so threatening to some people (although I have my theories, and it all comes back to white male, privilege based power, and an attempt to cling to it at all costs). There are many ways of promoting dialogue. The more creative the better. It’s hard to do, and this is the appropriate place to use the phrase we’ll try. Try, and not be afraid to fail, and try something new. And in the process something wonderful and inclusive will happen.

Yesterday, the founding conference of Left Unity took place. I was wildly excited to feel like a true founding member of something that I have incredible hopes and aspirations for. The day itself was nothing short of a stressful, painful nightmare to endure. It was understandable teething pains in many ways, but strictly speaking unnecessary. Access could have been better. A lot better. For things to improve lip service to disability issues, or inclusion, will not be enough. The root causes of the pervasiveness of power divided by gender, race, class, sexuality, disability family and other issues will need to be addressed, and an honest, open dialogue about the nature of privilege. I still believe it’s possible.

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4 Responses to Left Unity founding conference – an incredible birth but an accessibility nightmare

  1. Merry Cross says:

    I found your comments difficult reading, for a number of reasons. The main one is that I feel you swept away all my and our efforts over the last year as if they had never happened. No of course it was all nowhere near good enough, but it was better than any other political party’s founding conference. The NCG actually have listened and have made very good efforts to ensure my and our inclusion in meetings: for example, making sure there was livestreaming so that people who could not attend could follow proceedings. And the website also stated we would pay for childcare at home. Please bear in mind that we have been in existence less than a year!

    The website stated from the very beginning that anyone who wished to attend could state their access needs. Hardly anyone did that and with extremely limited funds still, we couldn’t do things ‘in case’.

    The second is that things have happened quite extraordinarily fast, because people feel desperate to change what is happening in this country. That has meant that our numbers (disabled people’s) have grown only slowly within it and our capacity to respond to the speed of demands has not yet been able to catch up with it. On top of that, since disabled people, including myself, have usually been excluded by political party practices, it has taken time to catch up with what is happening and what that means for what needs to be done. But the people who did know have been so busy responding to the demands of the first national conference to have the founding conference in May, that it has been difficult for them, too.

    This is both general and specific. So for example, in May, when LU had only a few hundred interested folk and no-one yet signed up as members, how could the organisers have started looking for a properly accessible venue, (which might have given us a little more choice) with no idea of how many people might become members and register to attend and therefore how much money we might have? Or on a specific point, I only learnt that we would have available at the conference, many large print copies (which were referred to frequently by the chair, by the way) a day or so before. Then in the rush for registration for such huge numbers of people we overlooked pointing out that they were available – I think only one person had specified this request. But believe me they were right next to me on the registration desk.

    I have already proposed we form an Access Committee now, so that the burden is shared by many and the caucus is likely to agree to put that to the next NCG.

    I don’t want to address all your comments because I realise this is very defensive – partly because I was as upset as you by the short-comings – but LU has learnt much (e.g. I never dreamed that the reserved seat papers would simply be ignored) and I truly believe we’ll make good progress. If you had been in on some of the earlier meetings, you would be impressed by how far we have already come.

    • Hi Merry, thanks for your comments. First of all, I totally understand why you would feel defensive, and want to stress that this was NOT an attack on you, or any other individual. I saw how hard you worked on the day, and it was beyond compare. I didn’t address that in the piece because I deliberately avoided addressing individual people, it wasn’t about that. I could have said ‘I saw Merry work really hard to try and keep the break times’ but that would have inevitably led to ‘and I saw such and such a person refuse her request’ – the people who were taking care of standing orders and making the event happen were not individually responsible for being caught between a rock and a hard place.
      The reason I wrote this piece is because we need to address these things – things have to improve. I think, I hope, that the tone of this article is one of long term ambition, one that says ‘this is what isn’t working currently, and this is how to move forward’, in the hopes of getting a few people talking about that and how it could be made to work. Its not about mindlessly criticizing or failing to appreciate the work in the background that many have put in so far. I had drafted something similar after both the benefit justice summit and the Peoples Assembly, and not posted, because all I had to say was too negative with no real way forward. The difference with Left Unity is that people really are trying, and there is plenty of scope to further this conversation with future events where all there is to say is ‘wow, that was fantastic’.
      We need to be able to de-brief, and do so honestly, to be able to move forward, but a debrief which looks at what didn’t work and how it could be put right is not the same, in any way, as a criticism. It is a conversation starter for future events…
      Meanwhile, the level of work you have put in so far is very obvious, and appreciated.

  2. oskarsdrum says:

    Thanks so much for this terrific post! It’s a real eye opener to the importance of trying to improve our practice in these ways, and the difficulty of doing so. I thought the tone was very fair too, we can’t let these things get brushed aside. Though I am sure we are benefiting greatly from the hard work you’ve evidently already put in Merry. All of us in LU and more widely need to take responsibility for getting up to date with accessibility as non-oppressive practice I think.

  3. Pddy Murphy says:

    hi. had a brief look at the docs up for discussion early last week , and was very disappointed by the language, and general understanding of disability politics in the docs. think you raise really important issues. ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its failings’, or something . anyway, youre right. its sad that something with potential is mired in the same old process’, same old approaches. im glad that you put up some suggestions. the solutions, are as always, simple, people based and found through creativity.

    great piece.

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