Having studied at the University of Sussex and University of Kent, where he received a Masters in social work, Bassam began his career as a social worker at Camden Borough council. He moved on to other roles in local government, serving as Head of Environmental Health and Consumer Affairs at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, later Local Government Association 1988-97.
Infamously he was also a squatter during his early years in Brighton, where upon he founded the Squatters Union which campaigned for the rights of squatters to accommodate empty properties and improving the conditions of the squats for the purpose of living.
In the meantime, Bassam had become involved in local politics and became a Brighton councillor, rising to become Leader of Brighton, then Brighton & Hove Council from 1987 until 1999. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in Brighton Kemptown at the 1987 general election against the Conservative MP Andrew Bowden. He was made a life peer as Baron Bassam of Brighton, of Brighton in the County of East Sussex, and acts as a government whip and spokesperson for the Cabinet Office and Home Office.
Bassam and his partner, Jill Whittaker, had two daughters Lauren Bassam and Ellen Bassam and two sons Tom Bassam and Gregory who died in infancy. Bassam is a keen Brighton & Hove Albion fan and competitive if not slightly ageing club cricketer for Preston Village C.C. and Brighton Beamers C.C. a passion he also shares with his son Tom.