How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?

Karen Sherlock faced endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms - all as she battled to survive.

I’m a disability campaigner. I’m not sure I ever set out to be – indeed that anyone does – but that is what I became.

You may have read some of the reasons here. Perhaps you’ve skimmed a few articles on ESA - the Employment & Support Allowance - tutted a shocked tut at cancer patients on chemotherapy sent to the job centre to find work. Perhaps you’ve sat open mouthed at the idea of one of the richest nations on earth arguing over just how terminally ill you need to be to get the gracious sum of £96 per week to survive with at least some dignity.

Maybe you heard that this government believes that for almost all conditions, one year is now considered enough to find work. You may have heard Chris Grayling, the Work and Pensions minister, tell you that it doesn’t matter whether people are better, or if they have found work, we simply can’t afford them any more. Their benefits will be stopped if they have a partner who earns just £7,500 a year or more.

You may have heard of this blind, deaf, tube-fed, non verbal, disabled man deemed fit for work by the DWP, or Jan Morgan, unable to look after herself after a severe stroke yet also told she must seek work. You may have heard of very many others. You may even have found these stories hard to believe. I’m not sure that I would blame you. For if we believe these stories, where do they leave us? Where do they leave claims that we are “protecting the most vulnerable”?

But today, I want to tell you about Karen Sherlock, because she was my friend.

Karen was extremely unwell. Here, in Karen’s own words are her medical conditions:

DIABETIC AUTONOMIC NEUROPATHY (GASTRIC, CAUSING UNPREDICTABLE AND SEVERE DIARRHOEA)

GASTROPAERESIS (CAUSING UNPREDICTABLE AND SEVERE BOUTS OF VOMITING)

DIABETIC RETINOPATHY, PARTIALLY SIGHTED (LOSS OF PERIPHERAL VISION IN BOTH EYES AND SOME CENTRAL VISION IN LEFT EYE)

HEART CONDITION, CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE, VITAMIN B12 DEFICIENCY, ANAEMIA, HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, HIGH CHOLESTEROL, UNDERACTIVE THYROID, CHRONIC TIREDNESS DUE TO COMBINATION OF MULTIPLE MEDICAL CONDITIONS, ASTHMA

I urge you all to read this post, written by Karen just two months ago. It details a process many of us who are sick or disabled know all too well. Apply for ESA, get “assessed” by Atos, the private company charged with making these life or death decisions, get turned down for ESA, found “fit for work” or put in the wrong group, appeal decision, win tribunal, get a new letter demanding you attend another assessment, repeat the entire process until you despair, ground down by the misery.

My ESA is being stopped……………

Now, I have turned over in my mind how they can do this to me. 

Where it is going to leave us money-wise and what we can do about it? The answer is;  I don’t know. 

I am not entitled to a penny more due to having a husband that works too many hours and brings in too much money. I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.

Karen faced all of this as she battled just to survive. Endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms. She was one of those who’s ESA was time-limited - and what’s more, it was limited retrospectively, leaving her with just a few months to appeal for long term support.

What I want to tell you today is that she was frightened. Terrified in fact. She was terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.

She was scared for her future, scared for her family. She had no idea how they would survive when she lost the little support they relied on. Her husband works, cares for a sick wife and they had “done the right thing”. Do you hear me Ian Duncan Smith? David Cameron? Nick Clegg? Ed Miliband? Her family had done the “right thing”, at least in your narrow world of workers and shirkers.

Despite her own terror, she tried to tell her country, her peers, her friends - even journalists - what was happening to her and thousands like her, but shocked tuts didn’t save her. Open mouths and disgust didn’t save Karen; they didn’t save my friend. Perhaps no one could have, but those who hold and abuse power could have eased her fear or reassured her that they would act.

Karen died on June 8 from a suspected heart attack. I’ll leave you with her own words, from the end of her final post on April 29:

“We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights, and if we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.  If nothing else, we do still have hope and our rights on our side.”

Will we listen? Will Karen’s story be the one to convince us that enough is enough? Or will we turn a blind eye, continue to look away?

I hope not. There are dangerous historical precedents.

Sue Marsh is a writer and disability campaigner. She blogs at DiaryOfABenefitScrounger.blogspot.co.uk

Karen Sherlock's Twitter page.
Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.