Some roles in British politics are well known and with them wield a great deal of influence, like that of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Leader of Opposition. The Queen, whilst not retaining any political power, is a very visible figure to the British public.
Then there are some people who are not so much in the gaze of the public eye but have a lot to do and wield a lot of influence. It these figures, who perhaps have the most interesting jobs in British politics.
Lord Steve Bassam, Labour Chief Whip in the House of Lords is one such politician. Not only that, but Lord Bassam is a seasoned veteran of local government in Brighton, and one of the shining stars of Britain’s political twitterati. These reasons make him an ideal character to interview.
I managed to meet Lord Bassam last Thurs- day at an OULC speaker’s event at Balliol college. He addresses questions and answers really well, firing off relevant, concise and inci- sive responses. At the end of the talk he seems genuinely disappointed that there are no more questions; I choose to take this as a good omen for our interview.
I ask him first how his long political career got started. “My first piece of politics involved an argument with my mum who ran the local village hall in Great Bentley where I grew up. She favoured it being sited on the village green. I disagreed, thinking that open spaces should be protected. The parish council decided on a referendum on the issue and I campaigned against. My side won. My mother got the hump for a day or two but eventually she started talking to me and she said I might have been right.
Following an academic career at the University of Kent and the University of Sussex, where he attained a masters degree in social work, Lord Bassam moved to Brighton. In the years afterwards he had some interesting experi- ences; unable to find housing in Brighton he had to squat for a time: “After I left university together with a group of friends I started up the Brighton and Hove Squatters Union. We campaigned to bring empty property into use and squatted in houses all over Brighton. It was a somewhat precarious existence.
“You never knew, when you came home, if you were going to find your possessions on the pavement or not. It was good fun and good politics because it made the point about using empty homes to house homeless people and was a practical solution at the same time.”
Eventually he was able to take up a place as a councillor in the local government of Brighton and Hove, a very unique town to govern. He acted as leader of the council from 1987 to 1999.
“Running Brighton and Hove was fun. We had a good team of councillors by the middle of the 1980s but the council was not well run and had poor financial control. The govern- ment took control of the council’s finances through rate capping in the year before Labour took over.
“We had a strong vision and new ideas about how the town should be run, but services weren’t well run. It had no communications output, no sense of direction or purpose and little connection with the voluntary sector or businesses. There was no sense of civic leadership and the place felt like it was in decline. Our mission was to improve services, modernise the town, rebuild its tourist and conference business appeal and make it the place to be, as it is now.
“I think we achieved that and ran the council well through until 2007.”
Following the 1997 Labour general election victory, he was created a life peer, as Baron Bassam of Brighton in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is something of a distant ‘eccen- tric auntie’ in British politics, and we certainly do not hear as much about it as the Commons. Nonetheless, it still remains an important or- gan in the British constitution, and important decisions do continue to be debated. I ask him for his thoughts on the very unique culture that is present in parliament’s second chamber:
“The Lords is often in the news, just this week Labour peers together with cross benchers defeated the government on its Care Bill, insisting on inserting a dignity clause through ap- plying human rights legislation.
“It does a good job in revising legislation and tries to shine a light on the murkier aspects of the government. As an opposition we use so- cial media to get our message across — worth a follow on @LabourLordsUK…”
“We have to work across party to achieve political results. But our frustration is that however hard we work to win, the government seems determined to
use its Commons major- ity to ignore the issues. I like the Lords reputation for quirkiness and being a place where intelligent questions are asked.”
“The Lords has some well known celebrities amongst its members. People like Alan Sugar, Melvyn Bragg, David Puttnam, Joan Bakewell and Robert Winston. Also great wits like George Foulkes and Bruce Grocott — who less people will have heard of, but who are great parliamentarians. The other great thing about the Lords is that it is full of surprises.”
“Labour members struggle to get used to the Lords. It’s so much a part of the political establishment and grand to boot. It’s rules are arcane, people bark at you if you stand or sit in the wrong place and it is full of posh people. Once you get over that you really start to enjoy working there.”
In an interview with a senior figure in the Lords one must ask how the Lords should or might be changed in the future. He responds: “Lords reform should start from a different place — by looking at what is needed from both Houses of parliament.
“I favour reform and the creation of a more obviously democratic House. The last two attempts have been flawed because they failed to democratise and did not make the Lords more accountable. They were unclear about the place of the second chamber in a democracy. The House is getting too big. The Tories are stuffing it with donors and their cronies which are an abuse of the system.”
Lord Bassam’s role as Labour chief whip is an interesting one. For some people, the image of ‘chief whip’ is that of the menacing ‘Malcom Tucker’, of someone who drags MPs into parliament late at night with the threat of exposure their dirty secrets (kept in a little black book), to ensure that they vote the right way. He as- sures me that this far from the truth.
“I’m no Malcolm Tucker but I am firm about discipline, I want to ensure Labour defeats bad law and bad policies but I accept that ours is a revising chamber. Do I have a black book? No, but I do keep lists and I am very watchful. I pre- fer persuasion rather than bullying behaviour, which I disapprove of in politics.”
Whilst the Lords is an age old institution, dating back to the middle ages, Lord Bassam is also a key player in one of the newest insti- tutions in British political life, that of Twitter. Along with Douglas Carswell, he is one of the foremost UK politicians on the micro-blogging site. I ask him what his thoughts are on the im- pact of social media on UK politics.
“Twitter is a great thing in political life. It helps open up and to democratise our system and enables us all to shed light where there is darkness in our politics. My guess is that it will grow in usage. In the Lords, a House where the average age of members is 66, there are over 100 peers on Twitter. 45 of them are Labour, which is nearly a quarter of our group. It will hopefully help parties to communicate better. One day Twitter will bring down a Government.”
Lord Bassam’s life on Twitter took an inter- esting turn when he became involved in a bitter dispute with Green councillors in Brighton in the winter of 2011-2012. As Brighton, like Oxford, has a large Green representation on its council, I am interested to know what his opin- ions are on the relationship between different parties on the left of British politics:
“The Greens are an impediment to progressive politics in my experience. Their council in Brighton and Hove has introduced massive cuts when they promised they wouldn’t and they have become reliant on privatised services.
“They tried cutting the pay of low paid street cleaners and refuse workers and provoked a week long strike which affected local businesses badly. They have a bad recycling record and now have a reputation for wasting public funds. I knew they were barmy when I discovered they opposed the expansion of our beautiful football stadium and were going to put up ‘en- ergy’ saving solar powered palm trees on the seafront with a payback period of 250 years. They can’t run a successful council and in my view they give radical politics a bad name.”
Finally I ask him what lessons he has learnt over his long and very rich career: “I hope I have learned to respect other people’s views, learned to take on a degree of humility and that ultimately to put our trust in the electorate. I have also learnt that the fight against the rich and powerful takes many subversive turns, especially in the House of Lords.”