Political

We need a few more, but not too many, Steve Webbs

At last weekend’s Social Liberal Forum conference, two common viewpoints amongst attendees were apparent. First, widespread unease at many of the changes being made to the welfare system. Second, the popularity of Steve Webb and the work he is doing to the very same welfare system. That contrast between those two viewpoints, concurrently held by the same people, is made even sharper by Steve Webb’s record in the media – he is rarely quoted knocking what Conservatives in government are doing.

How does he manage to combine mostly public silence over unpopular welfare policies with being a minister in the department carrying them out and yet popularity with Liberal Democrat activists (and more widely)?

Part of the answer is that he has carved out a clearly defined brief for himself over pensions, and has made the most of the opportunity, therefore, to be seen as the minister for pensions and not one of the ministers for welfare in general. That gives him the freedom to be seen as promoting the more popular and more Liberal Democrat pension policies, whilst disassociating himself from some of the other welfare changes without needing to take to the media to do so.

That approach is common amongst the most successful of the non-Cabinet level Liberal Democrat ministers. When at the Home Office, for example, Lynne Featherstone managed to carve out a clear role as the minister dealing with equalities issue, so subtly distancing herself from controversial other Home Office areas. The least successful of their ministerial colleagues, by contrast, have not carved out a distinctive niche for themselves in the department and in the public’s eyes. This isn’t simply a matter of how different ministerial portfolios are structured. It’s also a matter of the best ministers looking to clearly own an area and not to be lost in their whole department’s work.

Another part of the answer is that the pension policies Steve Webb has been introducing are popular and, so far, working well. As he often comments himself, the lack of news coverage for auto-enrollment pension scheme for millions is a sign of success. It’s a massive project, involving millions of people, billions of pounds and relying on IT systems. And it’s working – hence the absence of media headlines about disasters, waste and failure. Steve’s expert knowledge of the area is a key factor in that success.

Another is his political approach to coalition, something which came out clearly in the interview he held with a series of bloggers over the lunch break. His view is that if he wants to get major policies successfully implemented, he needs support from the Conservatives in the Department for Work and Pensions, and that involves working constructively with them. His reluctance to criticise other welfare policies in the media is part of that constructive approach, although when asked whether the Lib Dems are communicating effectively enough in government his answer was very clear: “No”.

Although he didn’t quite put it like this, part of his calculation is that he’d rather pass up on a nice write-up in The Guardian now and again for his views knocking the Tory approach to welfare if the quid pro quo is that he can work successfully with Tories to get his Lib Dem policies put into place.

During the interview with bloggers several of those Tory policies came up, and each time Steve made clear his dislike of the Tory approach without ever offering up the sort of quotes that Vince Cable regularly dishes out knocking Tories. As Steve Webb’s record in government shows, it is an approach that is working well for him, for pensioners and for Liberal Democrat policies.

The tougher question is how well it works for Liberal Democrat electoral support. Steve’s successes certainly are generating the sort of campaigning material the party can make good use of. However if all the Lib Dem ministers were in public as quiet about right-wing Tory policies as Steve Webb is, then that would be a major problem for the party.

The party would then benefit from having a few more Steve Webbs, but not too many more.

For write-ups from other Liberal Democrat bloggers of the Steve Webb interview, see Mary Reid’s post.

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