I was personally heartbroken when Nick Clegg was left with no option but to publicly apologise for the party’s inability to uphold free tuition fees. As my career path requires further university study, I was going to be hit financially and immediately.
Initially I deferred and saved manically but I recognise I am disadvantaged and that my humble beginnings continues to snap at my heels. Every day requires personal strength and good friends to overcome the obstacles of privilege but every so often, I feel compelled to ‘spell out’ what and how ‘disadvantages’ continue.
My PhD begins on the weekend of the 9 March 2014 and hits the York Conference head on. Because my college timetable was only released on the 6th of February, the LibDem conference team said it was too late to cancel.
The rigidity in their reply ignited my desire for fairness and my fingers hit they keyboard – releasing a flurry of emails to them. Given my cancellation request was within days of the cut off point (31 January), ‘reasonable people’ would exercise judgement and allow the cancellation.
Having read the strap line: Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society, I could not believe that someone in our party would not have come up with a mitigation policy for students attending conference, especially given the party’s recent catastrophic history with this group of potential voters.
After numerous emails, I was directed to the Terms and Conditions of November 2013, which clearly stated there is no refund and that I had passed the day for cancellation and there is no appeal.
I wrote again and suggested the party offer my ticket to someone equally financially challenged. Either I could get paid or in the worse case scenario, I could gift my ticket. After all, it would be better to have a body on a chair rather than an empty seat at conference. This was declined. I then suggested that rather than refund or resell my ticket, the money could be put towards my attendance at the autumn conference. This too was declined.
No refund, no re-sell my ticket and no credit note. This will leave an empty seat in the York Conference. Furthermore, I will not be attending the autumn conference because my funds will be sitting in the March conference’s kitty; therefore, this will be another empty seat at conference.
This is more than simply a transaction gone wrong. This unfortunate experience is about a political party that aspires for equality and for the better inclusion of women – but fails to take on board their financial reality. Furthermore, this is a party that should mitigate wherever possible its impact upon the lives of students.
As a party we have to do better but to really achieve equality we need to understand how inequality flows and thrives under rigid policies. Diversity and social inclusion requires flexibility not rigidity. When we write Terms and Conditions, we should ensure we don’t unintentionally add to people’s history of exclusion.
In my view mitigating social exclusion is wholly achievable, especially if we apply professional judgement. In my younger years I had the fluidity of decent adults around me who were aware of how social challenges could impact upon future achievement. They saw my desire to work hard and they applied fluidity to get me into university – where I began to overcome many of my disadvantages.
In contrast the rigidity of the Conference Team and the Terms and Conditions ensures that I will not be attending either the March or the autumn conferences, and as a consequence of this experience they party re-creates another area of social exclusion.
* Teena Lashmore is Vice Chair of Hackney Liberal Democrats and is a member of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats