Interview: Stephen Williams
It’s a long way from the chamber to Stephen Williams’ office on the parliamentary estate. Almost as far as the Liberal Democrat frontbenchers are from real power.
That might seem like a cheap dig at the Bristol West MP, who has enjoyed a meteoric career within Britain’s third party since being elected three years ago. But Stephen Williams, at least, might be the sort of MP who can cope with it. He’s a natural Lib Dem, committed to winning over the “urban intelligentsia” and chasing the government on civil liberties, the Iraq war and other classic orange issues. As I found – when I eventually got to his office – there is something inherently about his political background which thrives in opposition.
Mr Williams grew up in Wales getting “emotionally angry about things” and was doorstepping by the age of 17. Sunday school, he believes, is the only real clue from his upbringing that marked him out as an activist. It provided “just that little germ of Welsh non-conformist background” which spurred him on – as it did, he says, with Lloyd George and many other 19th century liberal MPs. “You either just think, ‘well, that’s the end of that’ and go down the pub. Or you do something about it. I guess I’m a botherer.”
That spirit of campaigning proved invaluable during his long apprenticeship in politics, the “long hard slog” experienced by many Lib Dems currently in parliament. He marked himself out by being the youngest councillor, by far, on Avon county council in the 1990s. After being “crushed” by Dawn Primarolo in Bristol South in 1997 Mr Williams moved on to Bristol West for the 2001 election and, through “sheer hard work and persistence”, managed to push the Tories into third place by a mere 39 votes. “We milked that for all it was worth in the next four years,” he remembers drily. The tactic, helped by disillusionment on Iraq, worked.
Safely installed in the Commons, Mr Williams has remained faithful to Bristol West. “I turned down a huge number of opportunities to travel to different parts of the world simply because if I did it’s at the detriment of my constituents,” he explained. “People took a leap of faith in 2005 and. it’s a heavy responsibility on my shoulders to make sure I get a second term.”
That elusive healthy balance between Westminster and the constituency is not always achieved by MPs, but Mr Williams says he manages to split his time fairly evenly. Perhaps this was why he was “nearly shredded” by the experience of his first few months. He was parachuted straight into the influential public accounts committee, education and skills select committee and the finance bill committee within days of arriving. Now, at least, Mr Williams is much more at home. He has been forced to give up his committee work after being handed the innovation, universities and skills portfolio by Nick Clegg.
“It’s a lot to get my head around and that’s all against the background of chairing a policy review,” he admitted. The goal is simple – improve public perception of the Lib Dems’ views on his portfolio beyond simple opposition to tuition fees. But with such a broad remit, it’s no wonder his researchers complain of being under-resourced.
That’s a common complaint among MPs’ staff. And it’s largely a justifiable one which puts in perspective the media furore over MPs’ expenses. Mr Williams says he was “astonished” by the rejected reforms turned down in the Commons last week.
“I was even more astonished when I discovered the dinosaur Labour MPs [voting against the changes] included around 30 ministers. What really made me annoyed then is that the actions of some people bring the whole of parliament, all of us, into disrepute.”
Mr Williams is more interested in getting on with the job. He has been associated with a number of sideline policy issues, like lowering the voting age to 16 and calling for greater action against homophobic bullying. His own sexuality helps him treat that issue with greater “empathy”, he says, but he dislikes attention being focused on that. “It’s part of my identity – but I’m not in politics to be a gay standard bearer. I’m in politics because I care about education, disadvantage and health inequalities. That’s the more relevant part of my background.”
Perhaps the insurgent nature of his political identity spurred Mr Williams on to become Chris Huhne’s electoral agent in the 2006 leadership campaign against eventual winner Menzies Campbell. “It’s amazing what we achieved – we very nearly caused a major upset,” he remembers. “We needed an English MP. With Nick Clegg, it was a different choice.”
Unsurprisingly Mr Williams was forced into a bit of wriggling on why he decided to abandon Mr Huhne less than a couple of years later. That, too, is classic Lib Dem. Or maybe it’s just classic politics. Mr Williams, still only 41, can reasonably expect the biggest part of his political journey is still to come. He doesn’t even mind having to trek through the parliamentary estate’s endless corridors to get to the Commons chamber. “It’s alright,” he says. “I don’t mind the exercise.”