Labour party conference: Miliband upsets party volunteer with disablist 'joke'

The Labour leader Ed Miliband has shocked and upset disabled activists within his own party by making a disablist “joke” about being taken away “by the men in white coats”.

They said they feared that such a “graphic” image would only add to the stigma faced by people with mental health conditions.

Miliband was speaking to an audience of grassroots activists from the east of England on Saturday, when he said: “Four years ago in Manchester I said it would be a one-term opposition.

“People looked at me as if the men in white coats were about to arrive and take me away…”

But one of the party’s young members, who has been volunteering as a steward at this week’s party conference in Manchester and has a mental health condition himself, witnessed the remarks, and told a fringe meeting later that such comments added to the stigma around mental health.

He told the Disability Labour fringe meeting that he was “really upset” that his party’s leader was helping to create that kind of stigma.

After the meeting, Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, told Disability News Service (DNS) that Miliband’s “men in white coats” remark was “an unfortunate phrase”.

He said: “That should have been thought about because it is graphic and comes with a mental image that people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties are violent and dangerous. That is what goes into the public consciousness.”

Sir Bert pointed out that such groups are “more likely to be the victims of attacks than to do the attacking”.

Kate Green, Labour’s own shadow minister for disabled people, also criticised Miliband.

She said: “It’s not right, whether intentionally or unintentionally, for anyone in any position to be using language that hurts or offends.

“Of course, Ed himself would be the first to say that and to regret any pain it has caused.”

Emily Brothers, Labour’s disabled prospective parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam, added: “We need to be careful not to be over-sensitive about some language but it is really about the images some of these phrases can conjure up.

“I think it could have been said in a better way.”

DNS asked the Labour party to comment. A statement about Miliband’s views on discrimination was finally emailed three days later, but DNS has chosen not to reproduce it as it makes no reference to his “men in white coats” line.

News provided by John Pring at

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