This is the fourth and final update on my meeting with Jenny Willott MP. In this last post I want to focus on the communication (or lack of it) with the public and party members over the Welfare Reform Bill.
To be fair, I think disability campaigners and myself may have misjudged Lib Dem MPs at times.
For example, one thing that really annoyed me was that Jenny Willott has said publicly, on multiple occasions, that the choice facing Lib Dem MPS was a choice between two arbitrary time limits. I and other campaigners have said that this was a completely false claim as MPs were voting to choose between the government’s one year time limit and the Lords’ amendment to raise it to “no less than 720 days”. I thought that meant that 720 days would be the minimum that the time limit would be.
But, according to Jenny, the original wording of the bill was “no less than 365 days”. I haven’t had a chance to check whether that’s correct but, assuming that Jenny was telling the truth (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), then it does sound like it really was a choice between two arbitrary limits where one was an arbitrary limit of one year and the other was an arbitrary limit of two years.
Of course, the thing is that even a time limit of two years is a bit better than the government’s original proposal – especially when the fact is that most of those affected by the one year time limit will take over a year to be able to return to work. So a time limit of two years would at least have made sure that slightly less people were caught out by this.
I also feel somewhat concerned that a lot of Lib Dem MPs seem to have spent so long working with the tories that they’ve forgotten what they’re really like. I mean, Jenny told me that Chris Grayling and Lord Freud and IDS are much nicer in private than they appear publicly and that they’re actually genuinely concerned about making the disability benefits system fairer and that they’ve even been asked by Lib Dems, and have agreed, to stop using “scrounger” rhetoric and misleading press releases (I’ll believe that one when I see it) - NOTE: since I wrote this, but before posting it, there's been a lovely article by Chris Grayling in the Sun which proves that any agreement or assurance the tories gave was absolutely worthless.
But what they seem to have forgotten is that tories are always perfectly nice people in private – they’re friendly and sociable and often quite charming. But when it comes to their political objectives they are utterly ruthless and without hesitation in doing whatever it takes to achieve them. Any Lib Dem council group in an area where the tories are active can tell you that. Tories are invariably pleasant people outside of political matters and are the kind of people who are happy to go to the pub with political opponents. But while they might be perfectly friendly in those kind of social settings they’ll stab you in the back and fight the dirtiest, nastier campaigns imaginable, without compunction, as soon as election season comes back round again. We’ve seen that first hand in this parliament with the AV campaign.
So I’m afraid that I can’t help that worry that our MPs have spent so long seeing the tories as work colleagues that they’ve forgotten that – though we might be forced to work together for the national interest – they are still, fundamentally, the enemy and are utterly opposed to everything we stand for.
I also think that this whole sorry saga over the Welfare Reform Bill illustrates perfectly how dire our party is at communication. Because there are things Lib Dems have achieved behind the scenes on this. I’m convinced that Jenny and co have actually won significant concessions on lots of disability benefit issues even if the headline, and awful, time limit is still going ahead. And I’m convinced that, reading between the lines, that they’d have done a lot, lot more if the tories hadn’t blocked them from doing so.
But party members and the public hear none of that. Over this entire saga the only communication we’ve received are three articles on LibDemVoice by Jenny Willott – an excellent website but one which has a relatively small and niche audience. Meanwhile, members have been left with no explanation for the way in which our MPs and peers were voting until well after the final and most significant vote in the Commons had taken place. That silence, that lack of engagement by the leadership is the reason that so many of us have felt let down and betrayed – especially when we went to the trouble of getting a motion passed at conference on the issue without anyone in the leadership apparently paying a blind bit of notice to it.
But we’re just the membership – we’re used to getting ignored and kept out of the loop over vitally important issues. Tuition fees, for example.
The public, on the other hand, are far more important. They’re not paid up members, they aren’t loyal party supporters who read every blog and website to find the justifications of what we’re doing. And what they’ve seen, especially the disabled community, is the Lib Dems -who many disabled people thought were the only party on their side – apparently unflinchingly backing to the hilt brutal and terrifying tory cuts to disability benefits. The fear that these changes have caused and the stress that they have inflicted on vulnerable people is immense. And at least part of that fear and stress might have been mitigated if Lib Dem parliamentarians had bothered to talk to people about this – to communicate properly, in a two-way fashion, with the public and with party members.
As it is, we will be absolutely hammered about this at the next election. Labour will be able to whitewash their own despicable past over welfare and be able to claim to be the great defender of the sick and disabled – even though most of their leadership have made it clear that they couldn’t care less. And we will lose votes. And we will be seen as no different from the tories on a fundamental issue of fairness which should have been one of our strongest areas. And every single tragic case caused by these cuts to disability benefits will be laid squarely at our door without our activists having a single argument at their disposal to say that our MPs do care and that they did try to make things better.
Yet our MPs really did do this but they did it in ridiculous secrecy and without giving any public sign of it. And, because they never gave any evidence of their achievements and mitigations publicly, no one will believe it when we tell them about it.
This was a glorious chance for the “differentiation” beloved by our leadership and yet it was completely wasted. If half the things Jenny told me in the meeting about what had been done, and how she would do things differently if the tories weren’t refusing to budge on certain issues, had been said in public or to party members then I’d have spent much of the past six months without being quite so uncertain or ashamed about our MPs. We could have done another NHS reforms on this and won a lot of credit for doing our best to mitigate proposals that the tories were determined to force through – even if we were unable to block them completely.
In fairness, when I told Jenny some of this she did agree that communication was poor and could have been handled a lot better. And it does sound like our MPs are getting better at this and will be doing things very differently following the budget when the policy programme for the rest of the parliament is up for negotiation – then we might actually get proper consultation and involvement of the grassroots of the party. But this should have been happening months ago.
We might be short on money and short on communication staff but that’s no excuse. Within the membership we have a vast pool of experienced, skilled and resourceful people – many of whom would have been happy to volunteer. Many of whom have, in fact, tried to volunteer but whose emailed offers of help have gone completely unanswered.
I really hope that our MPs get a lot of bad publicity over the Welfare Reform Bill and a rough conference over it as well – because it seems like it might be the only thing that will finally get through to them the vital urgency of getting communication right. Because, to put it bluntly, if things don’t improve drastically and quickly, then we might as well return to our constituencies and prepare for oblivion in every local election from here to 2015.