Coffee House

Frank Field interview: Labour needs to do something dramatic to win back its lost working class voters

2 May 2013

3:45 PM

2 May 2013

3:45 PM

There’s one government adviser who still feels Steve Hilton’s absence very keenly indeed. ‘He was always thinking ahead, how do we set the debate rather than endlessly react to it, that was why he was such a delight to work for. All the time he was racing ahead. It was difficult to keep up with him. I just thought he was brilliant, he was just wonderful.’ But it’s not a Tory MP or spinner who is missing the Prime Minister’s ‘blue-sky’ guru: this adviser is Labour MP Frank Field, appointed by the government when it formed to work with David Cameron on how to tackle poverty. He suspects that it was Hilton’s departure that led to the review that he painstakingly compiled gathering dust on a Number 10 shelf, allegedly unread.

‘I think Stevie Wonder appointed me, and I don’t think, I think that had he still been there, he would have then said to the Prime Minister, this is the next stage. Stevie Wonder going to America was not only a defeat for the Prime Minister, it was a defeat for me. These eggs were in in Stevie Wonder’s basket, this was what was so valuable about Steve to the Prime Minister. It doesn’t happen now.’

When it was published, the report ‘The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults’ didn’t receive the level of attention from the government that Field had hoped, given ministers had tasked him with leading the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances. One minister apparently ‘pooh-poohed all this stuff and said “if you could do algebraic equations, you could be a good parent”‘. Field shakes his head with a wry smile, and says:

‘It was naive of me to think the Prime Minister both wanted the reforms, or would read the report and implement the report. And I thought almost for me this was a real change in lobbying. Prior to that I’d pursued a sort of 19th Century lobbying, which was if you can by reasoning present a good enough case, government is rational enough to respond. But they don’t.’

But that’s not the end of Field’s lobbying. He’s now decided to take the fight on by introducing the reforms himself in his own constituency. When we meet for coffee in Parliament, he has just finished arranging with his local metropolitan college a pilot of some of the recommendations in his report. Instead of waiting for the government to pick the darned thing up and do something about it, Field is putting his own plans into practice to show ministers that they will work. There are 15 schools – including Eton – signed up to this scheme, which will teach life skills around parenting, friendships and employment to their pupils. Eton is the only private school, and is perhaps not the first institution that springs to mind when considering anti-poverty strategies. But Field explains:

‘They know the importance of all of this. Their pupils have got different deprivations. They are not money deprivations, but they are deprivations. You know, the importance of parents being attached to their children, and how that affects children through life.

‘Also people need to know that you need to get up early and have a wash: if you see an employer, you need to look them in the eye and you also have to have an attitude that an employer doesn’t owe you a living, you have got to add something to his or her firm. They’re soft but key skills. Ask any employer. Even some of their best talented employees don’t come up with those skills.’

The project includes inserting life skills into relevant parts of the National Curriculum. But there is also a focus on early intervention for young parents who might struggle with bringing up children, including picking up young mothers at their first scan. Field is working with Cambridge University to develop a set of indicators ‘so that we will know without being too obvious about it who will we need to stand alongside the most’.

This pilot, focused in Field’s constituency, will run for two years. He explains that once it’s done, he plans to make the case to any minister interested that it should be rolled out across the country, as he originally argued in his report:

‘So that’s the report being done. And it’s a new form of lobbying, so it’s now ready for any radical government. It’s not about spending more money, it’s about spending existing money better.’


This of course isn’t the first time Field’s ambitions for social reform have been frustrated. In 1997, Tony Blair tasked his Minister for Welfare Reform with ‘thinking the unthinkable’. The problem was that the Labour party did indeed find his proposals unthinkable. Blair himself said they were ‘unfathomable’. Field resigned just 15 months into the job. His pilot will conclude in time for whichever party takes the helm in 2015 to pick it up as a new approach to social security and early intervention. The question is whether Field’s own party is now prepared to take up his plans. ‘They’d be mad not to,’ he says. He certainly thinks Ed Miliband – who he passionately supports – ‘should just take a few more risks’ and that in order to win back the voters who deserted Labour in 2010, the party is ‘going to have to be pretty dramatic, aren’t we?’

This sort of drama would involve an apology to the working class women who have turned their backs on Labour:

‘Why has our vote collapsed amongst working class women? Because they do not relate to the equalities agenda the Labour party pushes.

‘We could just start by saying what I’ve said and apologise for what we’ve done for that group up to now. I mean, our vote has almost collapsed amongst this group. It used to be one of our biggest groups. What the hell do these focus groups tell us or are they so snapshot that they don’t look over time about where we have steered the party?’

That attack on the ‘equalities agenda’ can’t possibly be a reference to Labour’s equalities champion, Harriet Harman, with whom he fell out catastrophically when thinking the unthinkable didn’t work out, can it?

Labour’s rehabilitation would then involve ‘reversing Gordon Brown’s lunacy which makes it tougher if you’re in work’. That’s a reference to tax credits, which Field has made vocal interventions on for years. He says:

‘What happened was this terrible tax credit subsidy – I think it was in 2008 – Gordon Brown, who never really understood anything, let alone the economy, changed the rules on how your child tax credits and child benefit were treated. Up to that point, the monies you got for child benefit, and tax credits, were deducted from your social security payments so the bigger your child benefit, and child tax credits when you were in work, the bigger the incentive to work.

‘But that fool, without by or leave, changed the rules… So this huge incentive to people with three or four children about working was lost. Lots of them to their credit have not responded to the lunacy of Gordon, and continued to work. But once you’re out of work and you realise you still get this… I mean that terrible person who was wickedly controlling two women and their children, was earning hundreds and hundreds a week, he was getting that because it was child benefit that was paid whether he worked or not.’

That ‘terrible person’ is of course Mick Philpott, now jailed for the deaths of six of his children in a fire that he started. Field’s own party expressed outrage that Chancellor George Osborne made the link between the failings of the welfare state and Philpott shortly after the verdicts in the case. But Field believes it was valid. Asked whether it was right to make that link, he replies ‘absolutely. On all the welfare reforms, we’re following the debate. We should be setting it’.

Labour setting the debate would involve a gradual introduction of a mandatory living wage and a focus on the quality of jobs. He cites a recent Policy Exchange report which analysed the jobs people move into from the dole:

‘They’re all crap jobs. They are miserable, horrible low-paid jobs, and therefore the people that leave benefits are the ones that have got work in their DNA. Well, they were going to leave anyway, they don’t need universal credit, or any threats, they go! It’s deeply shocking, the jobs people are going into. The records show however good you are, they just don’t last because employers mess you around, you are so vulnerable.’

Field is a polite man who manages to say the words ‘dreadful’, ‘terrible’, ‘crap’ and ‘lunacy’ with such a restrained demeanour that he appears really rather positive about whatever’s bothering him. But beneath that restraint, he clearly also relishes a fight. He’s complimentary about Ed Miliband and the party’s policy chief Jon Cruddas, who he says ‘has got the job of saving us’, but there’s an expectation that this salvation will involve squaring up to some pretty big beasts. ‘We won’t win the election because of the unions, we’ll win it in spite of them,’ he says, with a little grin. ‘We actually want to win it with the union members, rather than the barons.’

He also quite fancies a scrap with Europe over Bulgarian and Romanian migrants. If the UK announces it isn’t prepared to accept many new migrants from these countries when transitional controls lift, then the rest of Europe will follow, he predicts. ‘Once somebody breaches the dyke, I think others will follow,’ he says. But there’s also a chance for him or another MP to spark a fight in the Commons. Field wants to introduce a bill tying welfare to claimants’ contributions to the system, their functions as a worker and the amount of time they’ve spent in the country. ‘I’d love to do this,’ he says. ‘I shall be going into the private members’ ballot.’ And he believes that a backbench bill along these lines would make life difficult for the government by crystallising opinion in the Commons. On which note, he also suggests Labour should trump David Cameron by bringing forward its own legislation for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU (Field was one of 19 Labour MPs who rebelled on the 2011 backbench vote for a referendum).

Aren’t all these ideas just a bit, well, unthinkable? ‘One of the things I’ve learnt in politics is that people can have very strong positions, but when they see the way the wind has blown, they jump,’ says Field, turning on his slightly icy smile again. In the meantime, he’s clearly prepared to fight to make that political wind change. But the big question is which party is prepared to listen?

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Show comments
  • jesseventura2

    Let us remember that Frank the church going would be saint never really came out against Tony the phony Blair and his fellow liars over the Iraq war crimes?

  • Makroon

    The problem is that Frank really believes that most of the “disfunctional ones” can be gently chivvied/nannied into reforming themselves. He ignores the huge number of hard-core who love their parasitic life-style and will not be moved, and who dominate their whole peer group.

    He should be discussing his report with relevant executive ministers (Gove, IDS), rather than the figure head.

  • Wilhelm

    This is how Labour treats the white working class with contempt and disdain,”she’s just a bigot and racist.” to labour voter Gillian Duffy

  • Baroness Vindaloo Big Poo

    The Country is buggered anyway. Who cares what Frank thinks.

  • OldLb

    The problem with Frank is that he thinks the solution is to rip people of by using the pension system and hide the fact that he’s doing it.

    A 26K a year worker is his target voter. He’s taken 450,000 pounds worth of pensions from them.

    Then to cap it all they have allowed unfettered migration of low skilled migrants, and that has screwed the work prospects of the poor.

    Then to really rub it in, they have allowed the teaching unions to protect teachers who are incompentent. 5 GSCEs is a pathetically low target, and plenty of schools fail large numbers on that measure.

    • Makroon

      He ? They ? Are you saying that Frank Field is responsible for all the peccadillos of Balls-Brown ?

  • James

    The bottom line is that Labour is a party for foreign doctrines, religions and gypsy’s, working class people are sick of it. If Cameron was smart, with some, he would capitalise on this by putting British people first and saying goodbye to extremism, criminals and scroungers. However, he would rather let UKIP take those votes.

    • Francis Lunn

      I rather think you are an extremist

      • James

        Sorry you have dysfunctional brain chemicals.

        • Richard

          Anyone who disagrees with you is unwell? Claim to speak for all working class people? Clearly you aren’t someone worth listening to.

          • James

            Mathematics suggest more people listen.

      • Colonel Mustard

        They do that with dissenters in China too.

  • Ray Veysey

    So my mistake was what mentioning UKIP ? Poltroons

  • telemachus

    Field is yesterdays man and talkks nonsense
    The Government will lose the General Election
    Before that we will see firm and charismatic economic policies that will get us growing

    • GUBU

      Whereas you, on the other hand, write nonsense, unhindered by insight and, it would appear, punctuation.

      • OldLb

        Nothing like throwing lots of commas around is there. 🙂

      • telemachus

        The message remains clear and it is not the message of the costive has been Field

        • Colonel Mustard

          Clear as mud but a lot smellier. Like something one has stepped in walking one’s retriever in the Shires.

  • Tom Tom

    I remember Frank Field at the Child Poverty Action Group where he displayed great detailed knowledge of the Welfare System, and it was illuminating that Brown could not harness that knowledge to build a proper system. Brown however was only interested in buying the Left of the Labour Party for his leadership claim at taxpayer expense. I do not believe Labour can ever represent “Working Class” voters because it cannot handle the adjective “Working” which conflicts with its academic Marxist claptrap of Lumpenproletariat and its middle class Administrative Cadre in the public sector.

    Labour has colonised the Working Class, turned it into a serf population subservient to its Apparatchiki just as in the Soviet Union. The Labour Party sees itself as superior to its voters and holds them in contempt.

    It is a dead party, it was dead in the 1970s until Blair & Mandelson revived it as a vehicle for Communists dressed as Conservatives to get into power and impose the most Marxist programme the country had ever seen.

    • Ray Veysey

      You have essentially said exactly what I said earlier, but I was foolish enough to mention UKIP so I was excluded.

    • dalai guevara

      ‘Working’, indeed a phrase of much debate.
      Hasn’t ‘precariat’ been the mot du jour for quite some time now?

    • Andy

      You have it about right. They are basically a bunch of Fascists.

      I loved David Starkey on Question Time last Thursday dishing it to the ghastly Harman, Shirley Williams and Dimbleby too ! You could see Harman was nettled, the back stiffened, then she turned and it was a ‘Don’t you patronise me’. . . and all the bullshit at how she had to fight as a woman, but no mention that it was Margaret Thatcher who blazed the trail. These people think they have a right to rule us, never having done anything useful in their miserable lives.