New kid in the House

May 23, 1997

Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb talks to Phil Baty about the transition from Bath University professor to House of Commons greenhorn.

Steve Webb is approaching his third week as an MP with all the adrenalin-fuelled excitement of a gatecrasher at an exclusive party. His wife Helen has arrived from their home in the new Liberal Democrat constituency of North Avon to meet fellow political wives at a reception hosted by the party leader's wife Jane Ashdown. Taking tea in the hazy lunchtime sun on the Commons' riverside terrace, the couple revel in spotting the stars of their new club.

"There's Martin Bell," she whispers. "Still wearing the white suit." "Nicholas Lyell was behind me in the queue," says Webb. "He was the former attorney general you know. He was very gracious to me, despite my being one of the new ones." The chatter flits from the novelty of subsidised food - "95 pence for three coffees, and it's all on the taxpayer," jokes Webb - to the increasingly farcical Conservative leadership campaign. "Kenneth Clarke would split the party," he says. "And as for John Redwood..." Helen nudges him before he finishes his sentence. Mr Redwood is sitting four feet away. It is Webb's first lesson in diplomacy, and he splutters into his coffee.

Professor of social policy at Bath University for the past 18 months, Webb is one of a newly enlarged species, the academic politician. He joined Bath from the independent thinktank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which he left when his political affiliations became more pronounced. Webb turned over a Conservative majority of 11,000 on May 1 with a 10 per cent swing, ending former paymaster general Sir John Cope's 14 years as MP for North Avon. At the age of 31 he has won a major mandate, and he is itching to get stuck in.

But so far 13 days in the job has provided him with little more than a shaky grounding in the trappings and ceremony of office. Today, he says, he helped a constituent get his front door repaired, but beyond that, he has not done any work. He has just come from the most pompous ceremony of them all - the state opening and the Queen's speech. "It's all bizarre ritual," he says. "For me it was almost farcical. There was no room in the chamber so I had to stand in the lobby outside and watch it on the TV."

Like so many other new members, Webb has yet to get an office, so he is trying to work from a shared committee room with a shared desk and one phone. "When it comes to getting an office, I'm the lowest of the low here," he says. "Not only am I one of the 1997 intake, I'm a Liberal Democrat - it's Labour, Conservative and 'others' here. And my name starts with a W, so I'm bottom of the list."

"There is so much to sort out," he says. "I've got to set up a constituency office first. I've got to take on staff. I was an academic, now I'm a small business. Then I've got to set up an office in the House and get a system in place. I've just hired a researcher. I need to appoint a full-time secretary in my constituency. And I'll take a regular stream of placement students from Bath University on work experience. The biggest shock is the volume of mail - I could barely carry it all yesterday. There was a lot of general lobby bumf which I could throw away, but there was a lot from constituents."

The barely suppressed euphoria surrounding all the fresh-faced new kids is simmering under the surface. Webb's enthusiasm for his party verges on blind optimism at times. So why did he opt for the "impotent party"? "As an academic I spent a lot of time concentrating on policy - analysing policy as an independent expert. I decided I wanted to help shape policy. At the 1992 election, I was appalled that the Tories got back in. I objected to their greed and selfishness and their contempt for the public sector. At the same time Labour's approach was too heavy handed, and too interventionist. I chose the Liberal Democrats on balance. The more involved I've become, the happier I've become."

And he is quick to scotch talk of the Liberal Democrats, even with 46 seats, being impotent, again with a heavy dose of idealistic excitement. "Morale is very positive," says Webb. "Labour is more willing to consult. The Tories were not interested in the views of others. Despite the huge majority, I feel that in many areas the Government is looking for as wide a consensus as possible. I think there's a real opening there."

Webb has also vested a lot of faith in the potential for electoral reform, and an end to the first-past-the-post system. "The Government has promised a referendum on electoral reform. If we get proportional representation, the Liberal Democrats would have 100 MPs, not 46, based on this election. It sounds idealistic, but I think the Lib Dems could soon be a major force in parliament."

He sees himself, too, playing a key role within a new improved Liberal party. "Paddy Ashdown has indicated that I will have a key role because of my academic credentials." And with education spokesman Don Foster in the neighbouring Bath constituency, he has already got friends in high places. "Education is the Liberals' biggest priority. I hope to use my knowledge of higher education. The Queen's speech said that the Government will respond positively to the Dearing report - I'll be following what that means closely."

It is his academic field, social policy, which he hopes will win him the most influence. "The party welcomed me with open arms. Politicians welcome specialists," he says. He expects that projects such as his IFS survey of the welfare system, For Richer, for Poorer, will stand him in good stead for a select committee seat. He hopes he may be considered for an honorary professorship at Bath, where he has unfinished work - a Rowntree Foundation-sponsored project on low pay and benefit dependency.

But he acknowledges that his new political role may well be the undoing of his academic ambitions. "As politicians we suddenly have to be experts in everything."

"The difficulty in being a politician is that everything is simplified. I will have to become more of a generalist. I will have to find out how a health service ombudsman works, or whatever. It's a compromise of my academic specialism, but I'm looking forward to it."

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