Decade of Defeat - Militancy and Self Organisation After the Disabled People's Movement

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


While no disabled militant saw the New Labour period as a golden age, the consensus in much of Britain’s Disabled People’s Movement (DPM) at the turn of the millennium was that their fortunes were on the up. While the anti-discrimination legislation of the 80s and 90s was unacceptably lax, DPM activists and theorists were confident it was a prelude to stronger legal protections - a belief buoyed by their success in securing legalisation of direct payments from government to disabled people to procure their own support services. For the first time, the movement was promised central government backing, with the Prime Minister’s Office committing to support movement organisations in every local authority area as part of Blair’s vision of a new social contract. But neither the legislation nor the support materialised, and subsequent decades saw the annihilation of the DPM as an independent social movement. National co-ordinating bodies evaporated or merged into the non-disabled led charities they’d once opposed. Local organisations were thrown into competition for scarce government resources, with the lucky few forced to accept whatever conditions funders imposed on them, and a greater number forced into closure.

The few attempts to learn from this seismic defeat have focussed on the ideological failings of movement activists (Barnes & Oliver: 2006, Finkelstein: 2007), or the political-economic situation in Britain after the capitalist crisis of the late 2000s (Clifford: 2020). While both accounts are valuable, I will argue that the movement’s defeats were equally determined by a failure to formulate an independent social movement strategy, either in the central organs of the DPM, or in its periphery (local DPOs and activist groups). Drawing on the critique of spontaneity developed early in the DPM – the idea that movement priorities are always transparent to activists – I argue that the heyday of the mid-90s entailed a drift away from the DPM’s commitment to collectively define its priorities for action and strategic goals. The fundamental question, I argue, is not merely what was done to disabled people and their movement after the year 2000, but how the movement could have strengthened itself to withstand attack. Finally, I pose the question of what would be required for an independent movement strategy today: in its form of analysis, organisation, and demands.
Period16 Nov 2022
Held atCentre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics


  • Disability politics
  • Social Movements
  • social policy