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There is a new but rather unwieldy political buzzword: "differentiation". This is the process by which the Liberal Democrats are attempting to distance themselves from their Coalition partners prior to the next General Election. It is a delicate business, as Nick Clegg tries to highlight the differences in values and priorities between his party and the Conservatives, whilst avoiding an outright split in the Coalition
His latest attempt to do this was a response to George Osborne’s proposal for another £12 billion in welfare cuts, to which Mr Clegg reacted strongly, saying:
"There is a very interesting debate emerging... driven by two very clear ideological impulses, one is to remorselessly cut back the state and secondly, and I think they're making a monumental mistake in doing so, but they've said that the only section of society who will bear the burden of further fiscal consolidation will be the working age poor, those dependent on welfare."
"The Conservative Party, it seems to me, is now out on an ideological limb, almost unique in developed economies in saying 'we are not going to ask people of very great wealth, of very high incomes to make any additional contributions to the tax system, we are going to ask people with narrower shoulder to make sacrifices to finish the job'."
"It's worth stressing what an extreme position they are taking saying that all the shortfall should come from welfare cuts."
Mr Clegg’s new concern for the least privileged members of society is welcome, but it will appear rather superficial if he does not concede that for the least powerful in society, ‘welfare reform’ and the cuts and changes associated with it have already been a disaster, with a mounting death toll. There have been a number of suicides due to people losing their disability benefits or fearing losing their home because of the Bedroom Tax. No doubt the government would say any mention of this fact is scaremongering and hyperbole. For anyone who doubts it is a real problem, simply do an internet search for ‘Coroner rules suicide due to benefit cuts’ and absorb the results. Or read about a young man sanctioned because he missed a Jobcentre appointment due to having cancer treatment Or the 58 year old Grandad who could not face a Work Capability Assessment, and shot himself. The list of such tragedies is long and growing.
The fact is that the people who have been targeted for the biggest cuts are the sick, disabled, poor, mentally ill, and all those generally least able to bear them. It is a kind of economic bullying, dishing out the most punishment to the weakest, and it has all been facilitated by the Conservative Party’s Coalition partners.
If the Liberal Democrats now seriously want to differentiate themselves from such a callous approach, they need to try to make amends. The perfect opportunity to do this is a forthcoming debate in Parliament (date to be announced) which was secured by sick and disabled people and carers through the WOW petition (supported by Ekklesia). The motion will call for a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reform as it affects sick and disabled people, and an end to the Work Capability Assessment, as called for by the British Medical Association. http://wowpetition.blogspot.co.uk/
This debate presents Liberal Democrats with the perfect differentiation opportunity. They can vote for a rational and compassionate reconsideration of welfare reform, or they can blindly defend policies which have caused anguish, poverty, and death. It would seem a simple choice.
* News of the forthcoming debate and how you can help, follow @WOWpetition and #WOWdebate2014 on Twitter, or https://www.facebook.com/WoWpetition on Facebook.
* Further information on the Work Capability Assessment http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19625
* More on the WOW petition: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19557
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet