First Time at Conference – York

As a new member, my first experience of a Liberal Democrat conference was by and large a positive one. I loved York, and the place I stayed was beautiful and, thanks to the Lib Dems, not at all costly. I am not at all well, having had recent serious health problems, but I hoped to get a few clues as to what the Lib Dems are about, and I did.

What I noticed most about my first experience was the under-representation of the country’s poorest and neediest and the abundance of the middle/upper middle classes. I wasn’t at all surprised – it’s a problem politics seems to have across the board. The people who should be making their voices heard the loudest, shouting and crying about deprivation and poverty, were not. They’re not anywhere, not present in the public discourse, not present on TV or only in passing. Its a deafening absence.

It`s an absence that’s been hitting me particularly hard since I started watching all Charlie Chaplin`s films. The tramp character he portrays represents the current state of the working classes better than any public figure in or out of politics. With his ragged clothes, tiredness, hunger and constant way of searching all his pockets for money in hope rather than expectation.

I often feel I may well be watching the future rather than a Britain of the past. For example when Chaplin needs a doctor but can only afford the “horse doctor”: the scorn, disregard and complacency of the moneyed for his impoverished state. The outsider status of people falling off the map through no fault of there own. It`s all very, very familiar, and most of these films were made in 1914.

What people want and what I want from the political classes is representation, and it doesn’t feel forthcoming. In one fringe meeting, I discovered the cost of running a campaign for election is capped at five hundred pounds so that those on benefits can afford it. OMG. Not many I should think! The ALDC which is sent up to help candidates is not free either, I think it may cost about eighty pounds a year. A wonderful service no doubt but so out of reach if you are struggling to pay for food, heating and rent.

In light of these findings, I wondered how I even made it to the conference. It was because I had the time, the need and the interest to search out the grants, the workarounds, the need to ask for discounted accommodation and the need to ask for help. I didn’t expect support, but it is to the credit of the Liberal Democrats that I got it.

I hope as Vince Cable said in his departing speech that these values are not “in retreat” because it is not just me that needs them now more than ever.

 

* Sarah Chadwick is a member of the Shipley and Keighley local party. She is a cancer patient surviving on benefits.

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14 Comments

  • Several interesting and significant points raised here, notably the lack of individuals from less privileged backgrounds. Two observations : a number of studies have suggested that most of the civic involvement in society comes from 30% of the population and they tend to be the better off and better educated. That applies not just to politics but to community involvement generally. Not good, but seems to be a broader issue.
    Secondly (and deliberately trailing my coat here), a fair amount of well meant effort has gone into improving the representation of people from a broad range of demographic groups in our party, perhaps we just let the poor slip through the gaps.

  • David Warren 21st Mar '19 - 8:23pm

    Really thought provoking article that echoes some of the points I have been making in recent times.

    I was never well paid but my income took a massive drop ten years ago when I left full time work as a result of ill health and caring responsibilities.

    I got to conference in Autumn 2012 with the help of a carers grant and in Spring 2013 with financial support from my local party.

    When the person I was caring for went into nursing care in 2013 by income already low dropped again.

    You are right Sarah when you are at the bottom of the pile financially you do have to watch every penny and the party does look pretty middle class in composition.

    As a former blue collar worker and trade union officer I haven’t come across many others like me.

    That said the Liberal family are a great bunch and I am hoping to get along to at least part of the Autumn conference.

    In the meantime I will do whatever I can to campaign for and elect Lib Dems in the forthcoming local elections.

  • nigel hunter 21st Mar '19 - 8:59pm

    The Supporters Scheme could help here.It can keep people in touch,both ways.For example the” big boys ‘ ie PC or prospective councillors could have meeting s in their supporters homes if wished.Local funding schemes could be developed. It goes as far as peoples ideas can take it. for attending conferences etc., Bring and by sales to put on one side for campaigning .It can develop a sense of belonging If handled properly the rewards for all can be worth it

  • I don’t think anyone here will disagree with your sentiments Sarah. I’m really pleased you were able to go to York and I wish we could support more people to do the same. The problem is that the party in general is always short of money. It’s a cliché but it’s true: the Tories get billions from big business and Labour get billions from the Trade Unions. The LibDems are not beholden to those vested interests, which means we don’t get paid by them and are constantly scraping around for money. It’s not that we don’t want to offer to help people attend conference, it’s simply that we are constantly limited financially. Same with ALDC. They provide a fantastic service, but it costs money to do that, and the only way they can get that money is through membership fees.
    But, all of that said, the really great thing about this party is that if you want to change things you can. Get yourself elected to your local or regional committee, or to the federal Board. (I believe they pay expenses for travel and accommodation). We need more voices like yours where decisions are made.

  • David Evershed 22nd Mar '19 - 2:13am

    We should not confuse being better educated and well spoken with being well off – some are poor.

    Conversely, some poorly educated, poorly spoken and ignorant people are well off, through their own enterprise.

    However, analysis shows Lib Dems do attract a higher proportion of the better educated. There were three Ph.Ds on our local Executive last year.

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Mar '19 - 2:15pm

    I saw a very useful quote the other day but can’t remember who said it but the gist of it was: we aim to speak truth to power but the powerful already know the truth. We should be aiming to speak truth to the powerless. However, I believe we can’t do this unless we have people who have experienced what it is to be powerless to give voice to that truth.
    So thank you for your post, Sarah. You are obviously a good communicator and the party needs you. There are people in the party who are Councillors for deprived areas and who stand up for the communities they represent but they may not go to Conference. I think it’s about time the party rethinks the role of Conference and tries to get ordinary members involved in decision making. This would mean that those who can’t get to Conference because they are on a low income can have an effect on the way the party develops policy. Otherwise we are elitist just as Brexiters accuse us of being.

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Mar '19 - 2:29pm

    Also Sarah please see the great result in Durham in a later post.

  • I think the under-representation of people who are poor is not just down to lack of money, but down to lack of time: when I was less well off I spent every spare minute trying to better my situation; taking a weekend off to go to conference was a luxury that I permitted myself, but many people in my situation would not have taken the hit to their meagre wages from the time off, even with financial assistance for the actual cost of conference.

    Also, if you are poor, you have less time and mental bandwidth to pay attention to politics in the first place. The idea of leisure time is very much one that applies to the middle and upper classes, and when (for example, and an example I lived) as a single mother you have to prioritise your time around work, caring for children/other relatives, cooking and other housework, etc. etc. etc., the idea of getting involved in politics just seems like an impossible amount of effort.

    Now I am better off I always put money into the access fund when I buy my pass, and hope that does some good.

  • Jayne Mansfield 22nd Mar '19 - 7:51pm

    @ Sarah Chadwick,

    A thoughtful post Sarah.

    Some of the reasons for under-representation have already been mentioned, but I would like to add another, confidence. It takes a great deal of confidence to enter a new world, meet new people, articulate one’s views. Sometimes, for various reasons, people who are poor or vulnerable are lacking in this, and therefore it is important to be pro-active and actively befriend and invite would- be participants. Simple measures like entering a room or meeting with someone who is already part of the group can allay anxiety and help to embed an individual as part of the group.

    I find it extraordinary that despite ill health you have been able to engage in politics. Your desire to make a difference and improve the lives of those who are struggling is commendable.

    I agree, it is not good enough that the poorest and neediest are represented by those who are not. They deserve the right to represent themselves and others in similar situations. This means challenging the way that political parties, like the rest of society , must find ways to make such activity inclusive.

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