What’s happened to democracy in the Liberal Democrats? Is it dead? Or is it just comatose?
The reason I ask this question comes from my own experience of our internal democracy.
When I joined the party at the age of 18, I was impressed by how, unlike any other major party, ordinary members had a real say. That I, as a member, had a voice equal to anyone else in the party, be it my local councillor or the party leader and that everyone’s vote was equal.
So, last year, when I learned about the shocking plans by the government to drastically cut support for the sick and disabled, purely to save money, I was glad that there was something I can do about it. I wrote a motion to our Autumn Conference on the subject and I managed to get Liberal Youth to sponsor it.
And then, last September, in Birmingham, the day after my 21st birthday, I was lucky enough to not only speak for the first time at conference but also see my motion passed overwhelmingly.
In addition to asking our parliamentarians to take certain specific actions, the motion restated what I think are fundamental liberal principles, that it is the duty of a compassionate society and government to provide the necessary support for those who are unable to support themselves.
But after Conference the motion was completely ignored by our leadership and, in the Lords, where the Welfare Reform Bill is currently going through its final stages, I and disabled people saw no sign of anything changing, of any damaging proposals being removed by the government’s own volition.
And now comes the part that’s shattered my faith in our party. In three crucial votes last Wednesday on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), our peers voted overwhelmingly against party policy and in favour of a one year arbitrary time limit by a margin of 51 to 2. They also voted to support damaging government proposals on two other issues which impacted disabled children and cancer patients.
One of these was specifically against party policy and the other two went completely against what I consider to be fundamental liberal values of humanity, decency and compassion.
Fortunately the Government was defeated on these issues, thanks to the help of crossbench peers who came out overwhelmingly in favour of the disabled.
But last night our peers again voted with the government to reject an amendment that would have required the government to pause £1.4 billion of cuts to Disability Living Allowance for six months to allow the replacement system to be properly trialled and consulted on. As a result, disabled people will now face no reprieve from 20% cuts to a benefit that many vulnerable people depend on just to survive.
So what’s happened to our party? Where do we stand when our leaders and parliamentarians apparently feel no qualms about ignoring party policy or the sovereignty of conference?
What should a young person like myself feel, or do, now that it’s become obvious that, no matter what we do, or how hard we work, we’ll be ignored by our party if they feel like it? How am I meant to have any faith in the party I’ve joined, been proud of and campaigned for? Above all, how exactly am I meant to explain what’s happened to the disabled people who have spent years viewing us as the only party which has ever really been on their side?
* George Potter is the Secretary of Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.