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Faith in Practice

Inside the building

Steve Webb

More or less a vicar's husband, Steve Webb MP is also a part-time organist, full-time Liberal Democrat MP and the Minister for Pensions. An early adopter of social media, Steve stands by his party and the decisions he's made.


I was a numbers man in the late 80s looking at poverty and inequality for the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Eventually I got to the stage where I didn't just want to comment and describe, I wanted to get cross or change things, but as an academic that's quite difficult. The 1992 election is what did it for me: I assumed there would be a change of government and there wasn't, so I thought it was probably time for me to get off the fence and get involved.

Whereas now joining the Liberal Democrats is a fast track to government, 20 years ago that wasn't the case. I've come to feel there is a much better fit between the Liberal Democrats and Christianity than would have been apparent to be at the time. And it was as much the people as it was the ideology. I wasn't a Tory 20 years ago, and I'm still not.

I never thought I'd end up in a coalition. I never thought I'd end up in government full stop. I thought we'd go from one majority government to another, so 2010 was quite extraordinary.

The Tories got 11 million votes and we got seven million, so much as I'd love to do everything my way, I think they have a legitimacy in pressing for some of what they believe in. On every contentious issue we could block them, if Labour agree with us, but then you don't have a government for five years. As a democrat, I accept that coalition was the only thing to be done in 2010 and that involved give and take.

We got things wrong early on because none of us had been in government before! We learned about the dynamic of coalition; there's stuff that early on we could have been tougher in saying no to, but we didn't realise we had as much clout as we do. I call it Coalition 101: we're all learning how to do this and we're still learning.

I often say when challenged on policy that there is nothing politically progressive about borrowing money to pay for current costs that your children have to pay back. My job is in a humane way to try and help the coalition find ways of taking money out of a huge bill, while protecting the most vulnerable. Can I do this most effectively from in this building or from shouting outside? I know without a shadow of a doubt the answer to that question.

I have a Secretary of State who is Christian, which makes a huge difference. We don't sit and pray together, but where we're trying to make savings, I hope that in the room each of us are thinking 'What does this mean for the most vulnerable?'. It's self-evident that we should be asking that question.

What I would never do is stand up and say in the House of Commons: 'The Bible says, therefore...' because frankly it's not persuasive. So what does your faith do? It affects the things you get involved with. Here I am at the Department of Work and Pensions, the department that helps poor people, I'm not in a department that focuses on the wealthiest. That's not an accident. It's a conscious choice that I'm more bothered about making the system work for the people at the bottom.

I've talked about pensions for years and years: I've campaigned and got little victories. But in the Queen's speech there was a law which wouldn't have been there but for me driving it, which I think will change the system for decades to come in a really positive way. There is an immense satisfaction in that, which means you can then live with more difficult decisions.

I have sat in the House of Commons and watched the vote on gay marriage and seen good Christian people I know vote very different ways. Whatever you think about an issue, no party should claim a monopoly on Christian wisdom. So I think the fact that parties or individual politicians don't seem to trade on that very much is a good thing. If we're supposed to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we should have a bit of humility in our thinking. The hardest constituency emails and letters to respond to arefrom the Christians who know they're right. And they're often the most offensive and un-Christian.

I became a Christian at university. Guilt is a big part of my motivation in life and I think I grew up feeling quite guilty about most things. I went to a sermon called 'Following Jesus, what about the small print?' which I thought looked an interesting, cerebral approach to things. There was a Bible verse: 'He who is not for me is against me' and I thought 'Gosh, there isn't a middle way here.' I later found out about the verse, 'He who is not against me is for me,' but I was in the camp by then!

I met my wife Helen at the local Anglican church in south London: I was the organist occasionally and the PCC secretary, she arrived as the new curate (there are probably canon laws against that kind of thing). We joke that with potential women bishops, she might get into the House of Lords before I do! I think the Church of England has shot itself in the foot so many times on this issue. We all know what the answer's going to be and wonder how on earth we didn't get here sooner.

I get a bit cross when people say they feel a bit let down by the Lib Dems. What were the options? It's pretty obvious Britain needed a stable government: we forget how volatile the world was in 2010, particularly financially. It was blindingly obvious Labour weren't interested in give and take with us. So it was Tories on their own or Tories with us. Our challenge, as junior coalition parties tend to suffer, is we've got two years to make it clear that what we've done we stand by and yet we are two different political parties. A Liberal and Democratic voice is more important now than ever.

Steve Webb - follow him on Twitter @stevewebb1 - was talking to Hannah Kowszun.