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Frank Field, Labour’s quiet radical

Frank Field was never afraid to challenge his own party. Credit: Getty

April 25, 2024 - 7:40am

Frank Field, who has died aged 81, had an ascetic, almost monastic aura. Beneath that, the man himself was quite different. I came to see this when I had the privilege of working with him during my time as Harriet Harman’s special adviser in the Department of Work and Pensions.

Frank, who had been a lifelong backbencher and rose to be the Chair of the Social Security Select Committee, revelled in ministerial office when he was brought into government in 1997 by Tony Blair. He loved his grand office — a large room in Richmond House with wood panelling and Grinling Gibbons carvings — and plundered the Government Art Collection for the painters he loved.

He also particularly enjoyed the fact that his predecessor as minister of state had built up rather a fine wine cellar, telling me that “it would be a shame to waste it, wouldn’t it, John?” There was one occasion when David Miliband came over to a meeting in the department. “It’s six o’clock”, Frank opened, “Shall we have a glass of wine?” I will treasure forever the puritanical look that then came across David’s face.

Famously, Frank’s task was to “think the unthinkable” on welfare. In the end, he “thought the undoable” — with the Treasury vetoing the scale of spending his plans required. Meanwhile, Harriet “did the unthinkable” by being forced to cut lone parent benefits. This crass saving of £55 million to fit within the Tory spending plans that New Labour inherited caused one of the largest Parliamentary revolts in Labour history, damaged Harriet politically, and was soon bought out by nearly £1.5 billion of extra spending as Gordon Brown sought to rebuild the government’s reputation.

This was the problem of New Labour welfare reform in a nutshell: Frank was commissioned to write a Green Paper by Tony but his Chancellor had already decided that tax credits were going to be the programme. Frank’s ideas were always going to need extra spending during the transition to a new system, but the finances had already been earmarked by Gordon.

What was lost in that process was the distinctive moral tone of his language. He pithily stated that welfare should reward work, incentivise savings, and discourage dishonesty. These were refreshing views, but hard to enact when reforming an existing system rather than starting a new one from scratch.

Perhaps Frank was better employed as a critic of the existing system, as he was from 1987 to 1997 in his role on the Social Security Select Committee and again from 2015 to 2019 as Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

He loved his constituency of Birkenhead, where he was elected in 1979, and with the support of Neil Kinnock he survived an attempt by the Militant tendency to deselect him early in the next decade. When he left the Labour Party it was by his own volition, resigning the whip in 2018 by stating that Labour was “increasingly seen as a racist party”. Frank sat as an independent and then stood for the Birkenhead Social Justice Party, losing in the 2019 general election. He drifted further from Labour over the issue of Brexit and sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher until his death.

Journalists said of Frank that he was “good copy”, and as a minister he could be good fun in the Commons. Asked a multi-part question by a foolish Tory MP, Frank leapt to the dispatch box and rapidly replied, “Yes, no, and maybe. But not necessarily in that order.”

Those of us who knew him encountered a good man who was always entertaining company, but his impact stretches much wider. One of his lasting legacies is the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), of which he was the first director from 1969 to 1979. The organisation remains the most powerful and influential voice on poverty in the UK to this day.

It is increasingly rare for a politician to be so independent-minded and so loved by his opponents. British politics will be poorer without him.


John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.

johnmcternan

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

RIP. Tragically, like many great political careers, Field’s will be defined by a single error of judgment. In his case it was nominating Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. There was never a case for including a vocal (albeit inarticulate) supporter of antisemites and terrorists in the election to “broaden the debate” if he couldn’t get enough MPs to nominate him on his own merits. Ultimately Corbyn’s leadership cost Field his seat. Field’s overwhelming defeat in Birkenhead in 2019 was a reminder that even the hardest working and conscientious MPs don’t really have an independent mandate – most people vote for the party, not the candidate. That is something those who demand that MPs routinely defy the party whip and vote with the conscience should remember.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Your point is taken, but it showed what a decent man he was – that the selection process should include all strands of opinion, and indeed that forcing Corbyn into the open would destroy him. Naive perhaps, but a man of honour.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Agreed, but we shouldn’t patronise him either. Field went in to politics to get stuff done, so as to improve the lot of the constituents, and the social class, he represented. Helping to get Corbyn elected set Labour back years and drove good people out of the party, which was not what he would have wanted.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

No it won’t (nominating Corbyn). There’s far more on the credit side. People who thought for themselves and said what they actually believed will always be remembered.
If supporting Corbyn was a career-limiting decision, why’s Keir Starmer still here ?

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Frank Field was cut from a very different cloth to Keir Starmer, and earned the right to be judged to a much higher standard than that which would apply to a cynical careerist.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

One of the handful of Labour MPs worthy of respect. His death is a real loss to this country.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

With hindsight I am quite fond of Jim Callaghan

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
1 month ago

I liked him. I thought he was decent. He inherited a bad hand but he loved this country, genuinely, not just standing in front of a Union Jack if it looked as though there were a few votes in it.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  Helen Nevitt

A genuine public servant who still retained some integrity and could probably have done more for the country if it had not been for the looney left and that is where his integrity was found wanting

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

Just his bad luck to be in government presided over by the Great Charlatan.

Kevin Godwin
Kevin Godwin
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

Indeed. One of the very few Labour MP’s I would vote for.
A man that spoke so much common sense.
RiP

andy young
andy young
1 month ago

Every time I saw him he exuded honesty, integrity, genuine empathy. He seemed to understand that loving your fellow man does not mean just giving him everything he wants.
I obviously didn’t know him personally, but everything I saw about him confirmed him as one of the Good Guys. Of which there are not nearly enough. R.I.P. Frank.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Top bloke.
“He pithily stated that welfare should reward work, incentivise savings, and discourage dishonesty.”
To paraphrase Frank Field (from the quote in the article), the actual situation is “not really, no and no – and in that order”.

David Hewett
David Hewett
1 month ago

One of the few MP’s of any party I respect. When I was District Medical Officer for Winchester he came with the Select Committee to review the model we had created for people with learning difficulties living in the community. It was based on small groups living in normal housing with regular support. He quickly recognised the quality that could be achieved this way and was very supportive. He had something that very few of the inhabitants of the Palace of Westminster possess, integrity and independence of thought.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 month ago

An unfortunate omission in this piece was Frank Field’s vibrant Christian Faith and his involvement in national Church affairs. Amongst other things he had been a member of the Church of England General Synod, chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust and chairman of the King James Bible Trust. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.