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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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