The president of the Liberal Democrats has admitted that her party needs to rebuild trust among disabled people, after five years of coalition government ended with a shattering defeat at last year’s general election.
Baroness [Sal] Brinton, herself a wheelchair-user, said she understood that many people, particularly those on the left, found the idea of the coalition “difficult”.
But she told Disability News Service (DNS) that she had “no idea” how long it would take before the party could win back that trust with disabled voters.
The depth of anger was demonstrated by the reaction to last week’s DNS story in which a leading disabled Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, Kelly-Marie Blundell, discussed the party’s proposed new social security policy.
But Baroness Brinton (pictured) insisted that, since the Conservatives assumed total control after the 2015 election, many disabled people had told her: “‘Now I understand what you guys were trying to do, you were trying to stop them making things worse.’
“Whilst we may not be forgiven, we are on the road to it.”
Speaking to DNS at the party’s annual conference in Brighton this week, Baroness Brinton said that one of the areas the party had led the way on was mental health, with its health spokesman Norman Lamb’s “absolute championing of that over the years”.
She said: “It’s been something the party has talked about for a long time.
“It’s quite unusual for a health spokesperson, a shadow secretary of state for health, to spend so much time on mental health, but he does it because he believes it is absolutely so important.
“I think that by continuing with that we will start to build up that trust again.”
She said that many people had forgotten the state the country was in in 2010 after the banking crash “and all of the things that the country faced”, while Labour had not wanted to go into coalition with the Lib Dems, while the public probably “wouldn’t have wanted them to either”.
She said that there were things the party did well in coalition, and it was only now becoming clear what kind of policies the Conservatives would have introduced if they had been governing alone.
Among those areas where the government’s policy appears to have hardened since the Liberal Democrats left government has been around equality.
She points to the Access to Elected Office fund, which Liberal Democrat ministers ensured was introduced, but which has now “gone into the long grass since we left the coalition”.
She said: “We were the ones who insisted on it being there.”
The fund offered grants to disabled people to pay for their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election as a councillor or MP, but has been lying dormant since the 2015 general election.
It means that possible parliamentary candidates like David Buxton, who relies on British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters, can no longer secure the government funding to pay for that support.
Baroness Brinton said: “They are not even being honest and saying they are going to kill it.
“They have literally said it is in the in-tray waiting for a decision, and it’s been like that since this time last year.”
“[David Buxton] couldn’t afford to go for a top seat because he couldn’t afford the BSL interpreters’ bills for the amount of public meetings he would have to do.
“We are a small party, we are not rich. If he wants to go for a seat I am going to have to help him fundraise, and I think that’s wrong. I think that’s something the state should be doing.”
Baroness Brinton was one of the members of the House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee that reported in March on how the act had affected disabled people.
Peers debated the report earlier this month, and members of the committee demanded that Theresa May’s government rip up the “frustrating” and “clichéd” response that had been provided when the government was led by David Cameron.
But Baroness Brinton told DNS that peers who spoke in that debate had now received a letter from Home Office minister Baroness Williams, in which she answers questions raised in the debate.
Baroness Brinton said committee members were “furious” with the response, which she said failed to address the issues raised during the debate.
She said: “It is very rare for a select committee to be completely unanimous in its response to the government’s response [to a report].
“To say we were all angry is an understatement and we are determined to continue the fight on all of those recommendations.
“Theresa May talks about inclusion but the recommendations and the lack of a very small amount of money to deliver those recommendations – it really is very small, many of them at no cost at all – demonstrates that they are not prepared to follow through.”