Leaflets, libel and livetweets: Gavin Barwell’s Welfare Meeting

By - Friday 22nd February, 2013

Gavin Barwell’s public meeting to discuss the changes in the welfare system on Tuesday was universally described as ‘lively’. Tom Black was there, and has a few ideas as to why

Photo by SouthEastern Star

The atmosphere as we entered Croydon Town Hall was mildly tense. Croydon and Bromley Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) had made their polite but firm presence known on the steps outside, offering leaflets to all who entered. Various figures from the angry left, furious right and irritated centre were clustered in the lobby, most of them holding said leaflets. Some seemed to have a mild interest in its content, while others looked as though English reserve was the only thing keeping them from throwing it in the bin in plain sight.

Fast forward two hours and the feeling in the air was very different. Left, centre and sensible right had been brought together in some solidarity-laden heckling of a National Front representative, the DPAC leaflet had been not-quite-accused of libeling Mr Barwell but its points nevertheless calmly and politely examined, and English reserve had largely dissipated into a volley of heckles thoughout the evening, some angry, some wry. What changed? Had Disraeli himself descended from the heavens to teach us all how to be good little participatory democrats? No, not quite. But a meeting that could have turned relatively nasty did avoid any serious altercations.

Barwell stopped short of saying whether he felt the answer to Atos lay in placing more pressure on them or stripping them of their contract

That’s not to say that everyone left hand-in-hand, skipping merrily down Katharine Street and alternating between choruses of ‘The Internationale’ and ‘Jerusalem’. What bad blood existed before the meeting was still there at the end. Speaking personally, I found it difficult to conclude that Barwell had satisfied the complaints of DPAC. He was quick to agree that Atos was not completely fit for purpose, even citing first-hand experiences with his constituents, but stopped short of saying whether he felt the answer lay in placing more pressure on Atos or stripping them of their contract. As for the leaflet, Barwell objected to the assertion that he had ever referred to people on benefits as ‘leeches’, and said anyone who says he had done so will hear from his lawyer.

The presentation Barwell gave was informative and slick (and is available here) but, like his off-notes soundbites, made a little too much use of the ‘Labour spent too much’ meme to be completely credible 33 months after the Conservatives took office. And quite apart from how the Tories feel responsibility should be apportioned for the cuts, what use is another round of ‘blame game politics’ to people with no interest in either political party, but a great deal of interest in their Disability Living Allowance?

‘Can we ship asylum seekers off somewhere not as rich as us, India or something?’
Like DPAC, there were other citizens in attendance who were similarly unimpressed with the answers on offer tonight or elsewhere. Andrew Fisher, referring to a long-standing Twitter feud with Barwell, informed him and the room that the ‘seven figure incomes’ that Barwell had once tweeted were available on benefits were, in Croydon at least, limited to one five figure income of £23,000 a year. Fisher pointed out that this was then divided between a family of 9.  The specifics of this question were ducked by Barwell himself, but a woman on the other side of the audience (one suspects metaphorically as well as literally) was quick to ask Fisher ‘what planet’ he was ‘living on’. She told the room she knew someone who was paid more from benefits than she and her family were, and all five of them had jobs. Her failure to provide actual figures or data didn’t seem to undermine her in the eyes of the room.


The root of all evil or simply ‘not fit for purpose’?

As I mentioned above, the discussion was not without its lively, or more surreal, moments. One man interrupted an example about a single mother by saying ‘it takes two to make a child’. The room seemed grateful for this rudimentary introduction to biology. Tony Martin, the local National Front representative, united the room in opposition when he suggested ‘shipping [asylum seekers] off somewhere not as rich as us, India or something’. This suggestion that we should start ‘outsourcing’ immigration, along with a proposal to make asylum seekers do unpaid work instead of Britons, led to a rare agreement between Barwell and the DPAC rep in the front row. She said ‘I think slavery was abolished by Wilberforce.’ To Tony Martin’s right sat a gentleman who had very strong views on the European Union, adding several times ‘and Atos is a French company!’ and engaging in a heated exchange with Barwell over the prospect of Turkey joining the EU.

More rational exchanges were commonplace. Christian Wilcox, Labour activist and local disability campaigner, distributed an informative pack of details as to the myths and realities of the benefit cuts. Thanking Barwell for the opportunity to speak and distribute his literature, he said it was very fair of him to do so, given that he (Wilcox) was ‘the opposition’. He added to the discussion of the bedroom tax, which had seen one woman applauded for declaring she would find a way to stay in her home, no matter what, and she would keep her spare room for when her grandson came to visit – Barwell responded by saying ‘we can’t let everyone have a spare room for family members.’ Wilcox offered an example of a woman who requires a sterile room to perform vital medical care on herself several times a week, and that this sterilised room in her home is still considered a ‘spare room’ under the terms of the bedroom tax.

‘I don’t want to live in a country where someone is lying in the street and we say “not my problem, guv”.’

I was there in my capacity as an Editor for the Citizen and as such had to keep my usually rabid leftism to myself, but running the Citizen’s first livetweet of a political event was hugely rewarding. Readers, both  in the room and those unable to attend, were retweeting like crazy. Someone who couldn’t be there asked a question for me to pass on to Gavin, which I was able to do. The subject was the London Living Wage, something Barwell has repeatedly stated support for but Croydon Council has maintained a more cautious, some say dismissive, attitude towards. The details of his answer can be read here.

There was plenty more to this meeting, such as the moment where Barwell said ‘there’s a perception that the government is taking money from the poor and giving it to the wealthy’ and hecklers replied with ‘it’s true!’, or the time when he defended the openness of Britain’s welfare system with the powerful phrase ‘I don’t want to live in a country where someone is lying in the street and we say “not my problem, guv”.’ You can get a picture of the whole event by reading the livetweet here.

Podcasts of the event, and some public reactions, can be found here from Croydon Radio. It seems the event was a success for local outreach and debate, if not for those hoping for a change in course of government policy. Atos still needs to be thrown out on their ear, the London Living Wage is a hot potato that isn’t going to go away and Mr Barwell hasn’t heard the last of the bedroom tax. But the Citizen’s first foray into livetweeting was well-received and we absolutely intend to do it again – keep an eye on us on Twitter and maybe next time you’ll be the one asking a question to an elected representative through the medium of a 22-year-old from Coulsdon.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gilesap Anne Giles

    Excellent, Tom. I think most of us agree that Atos are a bit of a nightmare. I suffered from their mistakes, as have so many others. I had two appeals and still have a massive file on my case. Gave up in the end.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.sheppardjones Liz Sheppard-Jones

    That LiveTweet really was brilliant and the Citizen is to be congratulated.. My congratulations also to Christian Wilcox.

    I despair of the terms in which the national debate on this subject is being conducted – the Daily Mail-style hate campaigns, the targetting of the most vulnerable, the choice to disregard the self-evident fact that benefits are frequently high because housing costs are exorbitant and rents go to enrich landlords. It’s pleasing that at least at times, the Croydon debate seems to have taken place on a more informed and intelligent level.

    My ex-husband, who is not a benefit recipient, has a bedroom in his home for our children when they stay with him. This is a vital part of our family life, which takes place between two homes. The idea that this room could be regarded as some kind of luxury appals me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gilesap Anne Giles

    Every family should have a spare room. O.K. – not more than one spare room, but one nevertheless, so children or grandparents can stay. Also – I have been ill for a while, so am sleeping in our spare room – otherwise he would not only catch my bug, but would never get any sleep.