An open message from Lord Bassam to Lord Newby, the LibDems new Chief Whip in the Lords
May I begin by congratulating you on your appointment as the Government’s Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, and your new role overseeing the whipping of your Party’s Peers.
The last couple of years have been a bit bruising for your colleagues in this House, and no doubt they will be looking forward to a change of management to see if it brings some light relief. I reckon that you have a small window of opportunity.
Your colleagues will be looking forward no doubt to a slightly different approach. Now I don’t know how you do things internally but a few points occur to me.
Firstly, the hardnosed approach to whipping political troops into line clearly has its downside. During Lord Shutt’s tenure as Deputy Chief Whip he achieved a whip compliance rate that would be envy of any modern political machine. Over 96% of all LibDem votes cast in the Lords were cast for the Government. There were fewer LibDem rebels than Tory rebels. Remarkable when you think that most of the legislation was Tory inspired.
All this might look good in terms of discipline but does it work for the long term? I have never seen such agonised souls trooping night after night into the Tory lobby to vote in favour of even more ghastly measures. Making women work longer for their pensions and changing the terms of the pension they receive, cutting support to cancer sufferers, cutting help for pregnant women, the bedroom tax, cutting legal aid for asbestosis sufferers, for victims of domestic violence, privatising the NHS, introducing police commissioners. It’s a long list and I could make it a lot longer.
It is little wonder that at the end of the first two years of being in Government some LibDem Peers looked emotionally drawn and more than a little out of sorts. I think that your colleagues are in need of rather more than a bit of pastoral care, I suspect that they need some political love, something to cheer them as they face another three years of being the Millwall of British politics.
So secondly, may I humbly offer some advice. Give them a break. Let the whips off a little and cut them some slack. Your group doesn’t need to have the highest turn out all the time. Let the Tories front up more of the pain – after all, as they keep saying, you are all in it together. Tory Peers turnout figures are sometimes so dismal, votes are lost. If I was in your shoes, I would have a word.
Thirdly, I would keep a keen weather eye on the general election and thereafter. Your background as a flexible friend of other parties may come in handy. Keeping lines of communication open to the Official Opposition Party might serve you well in the longer term.
LibDems need a nice guy image and I can well understand that your silky persuasive skills will be put to the test in keeping your Party afloat at a time when you are still shedding support electorally.
Here in the Lords, Labour seeks to build support for principled positions on legislation. We hope we can tempt you and your colleagues to adopt a more considered approach to our amendments, which clearly many of your colleagues would like to support but feel unable too out of loyalty to the Government.
No doubt you will be mindful too of the extreme discomfort some have felt in moving critical amendments and then finding themselves voting against them.
The new legislative programme will provide many challenges for the Government. It is wafer thin on an abiding narrative, while containing many law and order measures which were not part of the original coalition deal. Quite how easily that will sit with LibDem Peers only time will tell, especially as composition of the Lords is up for consideration in the reform bill.
It might therefore, help you and your colleagues if from time to time you and I met to review issues and understand where one another are coming from. Who knows, this may even make your job easier during what is clearly a time of political purgatory.
Lord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour’s Chief Whip in the House of Lords. This letter was first published here.