Where Are They Now? Former Liberal Democrat MP Sir Steve Webb
Sir Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat MP for Northavon (1997 - 2010)
and Thornbury and Yate (2010 - 2015)
Sir Steve Webb didn’t expect to be elected as the Liberal Democrat MP for Northavon in 1997; facing a Conservative majority of more than 11,000, he’d told his employer he’d be back after the election.
“I was probably the most shocked person in the room.” He definitely never expected to end up as a minister. “When you’re in a third party, you don’t spend your time measuring up the curtains in No 10.”
The aftermath of the 2010 election (when his seat became Thornbury and Yate due to boundary changes) was a “strange time,” Webb recalls. “Cleggmania” meant the party gained more than 850,000 votes, but actually lost five seats, which was disappointing. Webb says: “Of course, most Lib Dem MPs… had spent our careers saying, ‘Vote for me to get the Conservative person out.’ As it turned out, the only viable coalition was with the Conservatives. People think, ‘oh, you just wanted get your bum in the ministerial car’. But it was a really, really painful process.” Although he loved his five years as pensions minister in the Coalition, “it wasn’t comfortable at any point”.
Having been the Lib Dems’ work and pensions spokesperson on and off since 2001, Webb still works in the pensions field as a partner at the consultancy Lane Clark and Peacock. He finds the subject fascinating: “Every single aspect of somebody’s life has an influence on their pension outcome,” he says. “You have to be broad. You’re not just a calculating machine.”
Every single aspect of somebody’s life has an influence on their pension outcome
As minister, he delivered reforms such as auto-enrollment, the pensions triple lock, and redesigning the state pension, with a particular focus on making it fairer to women. “I deal a lot with the public now, and when they tell me about the pension they are getting, I quietly think, ‘I designed that – with a little help’,” he says with a laugh.
While Webb didn’t expect to be a minister after the 2015 election, he was also not expecting the Lib Dem collapse nor the loss of his seat. “It’s hard not to take it personally. At one level, you rationalise it and say, ‘everybody bar eight of us lost, so it’s not just me’. On the other hand, I still live in the same house in the same constituency, and I walk around the shopping centre and occasionally think, ‘some of you must have voted me out’.”
Would he run again? “Absolutely not.” However, he does believe the Liberal Democrats can rebuild – there are always going to be tough times for a small party but the volatility of the electorate is an opportunity as well as a challenge, he believes.
Webb is still in touch with many Lib Dem peers and “lifelong friends” he made through Christians in Parliament. He missed doing casework, and so trained as a debt counsellor, and also volunteers with the Pensions Ombudsman to help resolve pensions disputes informally.
Webb was one of the first MPs to set up a website and a blog in the early 2000s, believing MP should be accessible. “I thought my gravestone would say ‘he replied to emails’, because it felt like that’s all I did all day.”
The idea of MPs on social media was so novel there was even an event at Lib Dem conference called ‘Steve Webb wrote on my Facebook wall’. Now, Webb finds the tone of debate on social media “depressing”. “As an academic and as a Lib Dem I believed in the power of reasoned argument. Very late on I realised that there were a set of people who certainly on an individual issue were simply irreconcilable, and that I was literally wasting my time by replying,” he says. “I think accessibility is good, but as an MP you have to prioritise what you might loosely call real people with real issues.”
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