History / Politics

Frank Field: A square peg

This extract from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s picks up on the resignation from government of Frank Field in 1998.

One of the most awkward of Labour MPs, Frank Field had twice served on the opposition front bench since his election to Parliament in 1979, lasting for no more than a year in either instance; he now repeated the feat in government. He could also boast of having been ‘booted out of the young Tories’ for organising an anti-apartheid boycott, of having lost his seat on the General Synod of the Church of England for supporting the ordination of women, and of having only narrowly defeated an attempt by Militant members to deselect him in his Birkenhead constituency.

Unmarried, teetotal, owning neither a car nor a television set, he was constitutionally incapable of fitting in, with a persona somewhere between a nineteenth-century social reformer and a saint. The fact that the resolutely nonconformist Margaret Thatcher was a friend of his (she referred to him as ‘a good man’) vouched for his outsider credentials. He was also a curiously old-fashioned politician, harking back to a time when voluntary societies, trade unions, cooperatives, churches and workers’ education groups created a sense of community and shared values.

Yet he was precisely the kind of figure that Tony Blair needed around him if New Labour’s claim to be a radical government was ever to hold water. Field had spent the 1970s working for the Child Poverty Action Group and the Low Pay Unit, and had argued longer than anyone else in politics about issues of poverty and of the underclass that, in his eyes, had emerged during the 1980s: the millions left exposed and stranded, cut off from society in the wake of the two great recessions. Much of this came from the experience of living in and representing a constituency that had once been dominated by the Cammell Laird shipyard and was now scarred by unemployment, drugs and crime.

Initially a keen supporter of Blair, he celebrated the way that the new leader was breaking fresh ground. ‘For fifteen years we’ve done nothing but follow the Tory agenda,’ he said in 1994. ‘Now we can leapfrog the Tories and make them follow our agenda.’ A couple of months later, he was to be found making an even more controversial claim for a Labour politician: ‘We are leapfrogging over the old social democracy.’

And some of the message he had been espousing for years undoubtedly chimed with Blair’s vision, particularly his emphasis on individual morality, responsibility and self-improvement. There was also, however, a fervent belief that the stability of society could only be secured by a return to full employment, exactly the kind of ambitious objective that New Labour was keen to avoid.

Blair brought him into government, charged with ‘thinking the unthinkable’, with reframing Labour’s traditional position on the welfare system. Field proceeded to do just that, outlining a massive programme that centred on a reinvention of National Insurance, an end to means-testing, an attack on benefit fraud, tighter controls on who should receive incapacity benefit, and the encouragement of private pensions – in short, a rolling back of dependence upon the state combined with a focus on collective insurance.

The estimated cost of his proposals, around £8 billion, would, he argued, be recouped once the programme was fully implemented, but it scared the life out of both Blair and Gordon Brown and ensured that his ideas stood no chance of making progress, particularly since he had few supporters in government. For Field hadn’t shaken off his reputation as a maverick to whom the newly fashionable expression ‘team player’ meant nothing, and his abrasive relationship with Harriet Harman, his immediate boss, was marvelled at even in a government riven with such conflicts (‘she wanted Frank hung, drawn and quartered’, according to Peter Mandelson).

His departure from office in 1998, when he refused to serve in any other capacity than as secretary of state, relieved Blair of the need to find a round hole capable of taking this square peg. ‘Some are made for office, some aren’t,’ wrote Blair. ‘He wasn’t.’ But Field’s return to the backbenches also suggested that the entire project of welfare reform had been quietly abandoned, leaving behind only cost-cutting attacks on benefits that hit the poorest without providing a broader philosophy in justification. The new government was looking very much like its Conservative predecessor.


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