By Rosy Matheson
It’s easy to forget the man on the street when the Westminster bigwigs roll into town during conference season.
But thanks to a BBC Radio 5 Live debate, people from Brighton have been given a chance to have their say.
And they gave their reaction to government policies, recent coalition changes and Liberal Democrat stories that have been making the news.
“The difference between syphilis and the pox,” was how one member of the audience described the difference between the Lib Dems and the Tories.
“And you wouldn’t want either of them,” another said.
It’s fair to say that the crowd who went along for the Victoria Derbyshire Show at the Lib Dem Conference yesterday (Monday 24 September) weren’t entirely sympathetic to the Lib Dem cause as they sat around waiting for recording to begin on a wet Monday morning in a seafront night club in Brighton.
About 250 participants had struggled through lashing rain to make it, only to sit in a cramped circle under a glittering disco ball, surrounded by BBC staff and their recording equipment.
Maybe they were desperate to have their say or perhaps it was the promise of free coffee that lured them along.
But there was no aroma of fresh beans here, only the faint smell of beer: apparently there had been a foam party the night before.
Victoria Derbyshire, the presenter, said that she hoped this event wouldn’t be quite as messy but some people who were feeling the pinch were threatening to draw blood.
There were disability rights campaigners who were worried about cuts, students who had taken on loans, disillusioned NHS workers and apprentices who would have been “better off on the dole.”
Derbyshire explained exactly what she expected from the audience. No swearing, no sudden gear changes and remember to give it “some welly”.
A panel of four would kick off the debate starting with Shana Pezaro, a 33-year-old woman who had multiple sclerosis and who was a member of the Lib Dem Party.
Then it was the turn of student, Ewan Atkinson, who was attending a local college.
Next up was Susie Maxwell Stuart, a carer who was looking for work.
And finally it was Mathew Hulbert an outspoken Lib Dem councillor who wanted to see a change in the Lib Dem leadership.
As everyone practised their lines, two twinkly Rottingdean ladies could be heard saying that they were only here because they were “Question Time rejects” – the debate, a consolation prize. One was a Lib Dem supporter, the other an anarchist.
By the time the programme went live, party president Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott, and Burnley MP Gordon Birtwistle were sitting in a tight-knit huddle in the middle of the dance floor.
Simon Doyle, the vice-chairman of the Brighton and Hove party, began by saying that he was delighted by what the party had achieved so far, namely tax cuts for the less well-off.
In response, Frank Teague, a part-time mental health nurse, said that the tax credit system was being systematically eroded by the Lib Dems.
He said that he had relied on tax credits to help him look after his child with disabilities.
Then a 22-year-old charity worker said that he was horrified by the food banks and the fact that homelessness had increased by 50 per cent.
He said that a measure of a society was how well it treated its most vulnerable.
Tim Farron shared his horror at these circumstances, agreeing that it was an appalling situation for anyone to be in.
He blamed “international financial meltdown” for the troubles and said that the Lib Dems were left picking up the pieces.
This was a mantra that was repeated throughout the debate although he pledged to oppose further cuts.
Disability rights campaigners added that they were worried about losing their disability living allowance.
Tim Farron said that he was also concerned but promised: “If there’s a problem I will fix it.”
Lord Oakeshott, sensing increasing gloom, said: “We’ve done a lot of good things.”
As an example he cited the amendment to push for a mansion tax. But a student from the Sussex University Conservatives took exception to the proposed tax, describing it as “anti-aspirational and anti-meritocratic”.
And a disabled Brighton resident with thick sideburns and a flamboyant Peruvian hat pointed out that he didn’t give a stuff about this tax as he lived in a council flat. He said that he “wasn’t going anywhere near a mansion!”
Chris Kift did care about his independence though and said that he paid £100 a week to lease his powered wheelchair and to pay for his care.
He said that if he didn’t have his chair he would be imprisoned in his 13th floor flat.
The discussion then moved on to the party leader Nick Clegg’s autotuned apology.
Former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris said that Nick Clegg was right to apologise. This was not a view shared by the audience. When asked if his apology had made any difference, there was a resounding “no”.
Next up was Joseph Harris, another student. He wanted to know about proposals to use parental pensions to purchase flats. He wondered who had these lump sums nowadays.
He asked whether the coalition really expected him to use his parents as pawnbrokers and demanded to know how he was going to buy a house and where his money was.
Another student quipped: “Yeah and we can’t even squat any more!”
Straight-talking MP, Gordon Birtwistle, who didn’t go to university, said that he didn’t think it unreasonable that students should pay back £9 a week for their education.
He said that they only had to pay back the money when they were earning £21,000 a year.
Former policeman and mayoral candidate Brian Paddick entered the fray, declaring that the party was failing to get the message across about student loans.
He said that there was a principle here about “politicians making promises and appearing to renege”.
He said: “An emotional appeal would need to be made to the electorate.”
Around this time, Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the party, took his seat along with Norwich MP Simon Wright, who won with a slim majority of 310.
They were in time to hear a discussion about Andrew Mitchell and whether he should resign over his remarks to the police but no one was prepared to call for him to be sacked.
Just then an apprentice plumber stood up say he would be “better off on the dole”.
Simon Hughes defended the Lib Dem record on apprenticeships but the downcast plumber insisted that government cuts had made him worse off.
In what sounded like a brush-off, Mr Hughes said that he would look into the matter.
In a few minutes the debate was over.
What had the Rottingdean ladies made of it all? One thought that the party ought to be helping people in a more personal way.
The other said that she was disappointed because she had hoped to hear “real thoughts” but found that the politicians weren’t very coherent.
As the crowd politely made their way to the exits, they walked straight past two men who were locked in deep conversation. One even had a notepad and was earnestly taking notes.
On closer inspection it turned out to be the deputy leader and the disheartened plumber who’d been “better off on the dole”.
It seemed that Simon Hughes really did care and wanted to help after all. And it doesn’t get much more personal than that.
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