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Old Don, New Tricks

January 22, 2014 12:00 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Interview with Don Forster, Lib Dem chief whip.

He began his political career as an Avon County Councillor in 1981, now more than 30 years on, Don Foster takes up residence in the Whips office. Whether it is dealing with potholes in Bath or learning about national energy policy, Don keeps his feet firmly on the ground, and his constituency close to his heart, writes Laura Archer.

When I meet with Don Foster in the Whips office, I am instantly at ease. It is hard to believe that the Chief Whip is (in his own words) "in the middle of a bit of a crisis." He is currently preoccupied with "having to learn about energy performance standards in coal fired power stations," but still finds time to ask how I am.

As we settle down to chat Don smiles warmly as he points to a telling poster hanging behind me.

It features two very apt words: "The Don". I realise the tone for our meeting is set. I am with a very committed, experienced politician who clearly has a sense of humour.

In his 21 years as MP, Don has covered a range of portfolios from education to the Olympics. In October's reshuffle, he relinquished his responsibility as a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government to take the lead in the Whips office, allowing Don to draw on his expertise of more than two decades in Parliament.

He first served as education spokesman under Paddy Ashdown. He then "had the great delight of shadowing John Prescott", and from 2005 to 2010 was the party's Shadow Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, before Nick Clegg appointed him to DCLG in 2012.

Perhaps it is his extensive experience as a Shadow Cabinet member and subsequently as a Minister that makes Don so qualified for the responsibility of Chief Whip.

"In each of those departments there are lots of different elements, and although you are dealing with a wide range of issues, you nevertheless are well focused and you are dealing with a tight group of people."

"When you become involved in the Whips office, you are suddenly dealing with every single Government department and with every issue that can come down the line. And so you have to know a lot about different issues. One minute you are dealing with HS2, the next you are dealing with something else from another Government department."

Whatever the reason for his appointment to the post, no one was more surprised to receive the call from Nick Clegg, than Don himself.

"Undoubtedly it was a complete shock. I had no expectation that Nick would invite me to do this particular role and of course in one sense there was a bit of disappointment, as there were a number of things as a Minister that I wanted to see through."

Don talks of a "sense of loss" at having to hand over his responsibilities at DCLG in order to take up his new post. During his time in the department his ministerial duties allowed him to get his teeth into issues that were close to his heart. And he admits even now, it is still hard sometimes to let go completely.

"Poor old Stephen Williams occasionally now has to put up with me saying, "Are you sure you're following this through and making this happen?" which must be very difficult for him. Obviously he will hate the back seat driver, and just as Andrew Stunell tried very hard not to get on my back when I took over from him, I am trying to do the same."

Don's "disappointment" is however countered by his enthusiasm for the new responsibilities that the role of Chief Whip presents. He talks of the position as "a hugely exciting and challenging opportunity."
"The thing that I loved about each of the jobs that I have done is not that I've just been able to develop Lib Dem policy and promote it but also it has been the learning that I have done, and in this new job, the amount of learning is quite phenomenal. It certainly is a surprise to be where I am, but I am certainly enjoying it."
Don approaches his responsibility by being unflappable in a crisis. "It is important to remember that the job of the Whips Office - the whole team, because I don't do it by myself - is to try to ensure that we don't have problems coming down the track.

"We have to make compromises to make sure that we have got a good story to tell, so getting involved both in policy is a key part of the job."

He dispels any stereotype that you might expect a Chief Whip to embody. Don is firm, but fair.

"It's not so much the job of trying to force people through the division lobbies to support things that they don't want to. The best way of avoiding that is to get the policies right in the first place."

I soon learn that the role of the Chief Whip relies heavily on the person responsible to balance a number of responsibilities.

Don says: "There are some times when you are dealing with really difficult personal issues and issues that we don't always talk about. The role of Chief Whip in a sense is that if you are successful, nobody will ever know. It is only when things go wrong that then you have to carry the can and that is very different from any other role, where people can actually see your successes. The success of the Whips Office is that we avoid problems. So we are keeping problems at bay when most people have no idea that there was a potential problem there in the first place."

On hearing this I have a flashback to Don's poster, perhaps it should say "The Fixer", rather than "The Don".

Whether his achievements are unsung or not, there is no denying that Don is modest in his own successes.

"Did I expect to be a Government Minister? Did I expect to be the Chief Whip? Did I expect to be the Government Deputy Chief Whip or as I am officially entitled, 'The Comptroller of the Royal Household'? Not in a million years. You don't join and get involved in, and stand for election in the Liberal Party, as it was when I first joined, and now as the Liberal Democrats assuming that you have a chance to be in Government."

But since it became a reality, Don sees governing as a tangible goal that the party can achieve once more, looking ahead to 2015.

"I think that what we have achieved in the last three and a half years in Government has been absolutely amazing, and I think Liberal Democrats all around the country should be incredibly proud.

"We can now demonstrate that we are a party capable of being in Government. We've got a fantastically talented set of people who have served already in Government. We have been able to show that we are as competent if not more competent than the other parties at having people taking on the top jobs.

"We really can demonstrate that we have helped resolve the economic mess that we inherited, getting a stronger economy and that we have done it in a way that is fairer than it would have been if the Tories had been in power.

"We go into the next election being able to say to the electorate that there are three very clear, distinct choices available to them and that the only party that can deliver both a stronger economy and a fairer society is the Liberal Democrats. You won't get that from Labour who would wreck the economy and you won't get that from the Tories, who wouldn't give us a fairer society."

As he enters his 22nd year as MP, and in a senior Cabinet role, Don's feet are very much firmly on the ground.

He tells me about the previous weekend's action day: "Spending my time knocking on doors, talking to people in my constituency is what I absolutely love because then you really are hearing what people think.

"To actually spend time talking to the people that I represent and that I am working with and for, is a great joy. That's why I try to go out knocking on doors every single week, even if it is just for a few hours. It is just great to just engage with people and hear what they are thinking because it really does bring you down to earth."

And when he is not working, who cracks the whip? Why the man himself of course. He is strict with himself to ensure that he enjoys what he calls his "limited" free time.

He applies that same balancing act as Chief Whip to his work and home life: "For the very many people that work, they also have a hobby, they have some other passion outside of work, as well as family. In my case I am combining something that is my work, with something that I am passionate about."

Don makes sure he finds time to be a husband, father, grandfather and friend. In the realms of normality he enjoys going to the theatre, the cinema and when time allows, cooking for friends. After all as Don says "it is the day to day living" that keeps his "feet very firmly on the ground."