Frank Field recognised the working class need dignity, not a life on benefits

A job centre plus employment office logo is displayed
A job centre plus employment office logo is displayed

Frank Field, who has died at the age of 81, should have had a far greater impact on public policy than he actually did. The failure was not his; rather it arose from the timidity of a political establishment that recognised the truth of his analysis yet feared to implement his solutions.

Field was frequently misunderstood by his opponents, both within his own party and outside it. It would be lazy and inaccurate to describe him as “Right-wing”; yes, he supported leaving the EU in 2016, but so did many of his working class constituents who would fiercely reject such a description.

His reputation as an opponent of the hard-Left was born from his battles with Trotskyites in his own Merseyside constituency in the 1980s. But it was his determination to recognise the impact of welfare dependency on the poorest people in the country that established his reputation as a maverick.

There was no contradiction whatever in Field’s commitment to combatting real, grinding poverty among those now labelled “the underclass” and his clarion call to end the cycle of benefit dependency. Instead, perhaps influenced by his faith, he recognised that Labour’s original mission was to raise the standard of living of ordinary people by providing them with paid employment, not offering state subsidy in perpetuity. The dignity of the working classes, Field believed, could only be restored by a programme to wean the “economically inactive” off benefits and into work.

In the massive increase of former workers claiming disability benefits during Margaret Thatcher’s first term in office, he recognised a long-term threat to Britain’s social cohesion and economic prosperity. As the 1981 recession tore through traditional industries, ministers saw the benefits of a political sleight-of-hand that hid the true scale of unemployment.

Field was not fooled. But whereas many, in both Labour and the Tories, were content to focus on the official unemployment rate, essentially offering formal approval to the ballooning of the well-hidden ranks of disability claimants, he was not. This made him a pariah in certain parts of the Labour movement, particularly those who regarded any suggestion that pressure might be used to increase the size of the workforce. But the arguments he made, based on his many years representing some of the poorest communities in the country, proved persuasive, at least for a short period of time.

On taking office as prime minister in 1997, Tony Blair surprised many by appointing Field as welfare reform minister. Unexpectedly, the chance to implement his vision presented itself. But a year later, following clashes with his boss, Harriet Harman, frustration at the government’s timidity, and a loss of faith by Blair in the practicality of Field’s solutions, he left government, never to return. It was a missed opportunity that many would have cause to regret, including ministers today who recognise the dangers of the “sick note culture” that has resulted in historically high numbers of individuals subsisting on benefits, even as employers decry a national labour shortage.

With a majority of 180, Blair could have forced through radical reform and transformed the welfare state for the long term, even at the risk of temporary unpopularity among some voters. But it has always been middle class, wealthier interests who have opposed such reforms; in the working class communities represented by Field and other colleagues, the despondency and indignity of worklessness was recognised as a curse, even by those living cheek by jowl with those so afflicted.

As a backbencher, I sought – and received – Field’s support after I was criticised for suggesting that young working class girls’ life chances would be hugely improved if they avoided motherhood until they were older and in a settled relationship. Having incurred the wrath of the benefits industry and those with a vested, often financial interest in perpetuating welfare dependency, even at the expense of the future of millions of people, it was Field who defended me. It was Field who understood the vile injustice that life-long state subsidy for worklessness imposes on communities.

But his legacy may not have died. Senior Labour politicians, including the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, claim to have recognised the truth of Field’s view that Labour must be the party of work, not benefit claimants. Yet without his measured, informed, experienced voice to guide them, the party is without the intellectual and moral ballast that he provided.