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Ending the Dependency State. Frank Field – The New Beveridge

This week’s party truce on the child benefit cap was dwarfed by news of the death of Frank Field, Labour’s former minister who recognised that if the welfare state is to survive, it needs radical change. Here Sheila Lawlor, Politeia’s Research Director, assesses one of Britain’s rare politicians, and remembers a friend.

Frank Field’s death this week has left Britain’s political life without one of its rare stars, the Labour movement without one of its moral leaders, and those locked into poverty by the failures of the welfare state without their surest advocate.

In politics Field displayed the intellectual qualities of an academic, probing the problems of poverty, disadvantage, their causes and their solutions, with an open-minded and forensic line of questioning. His dedicated service as MP for Birkenhead over four decades was rivalled only by his pioneering work on welfare reform, when he chaired the Social Security Select Committee (1993-97) and its successor, the Work and Pensions Committee (2015-19). His research and publications continued to offer a powerful antidote to the state dependency system which had developed; it included writing for a variety of think tanks, including Politeia, most recently in 2020 with Andrew Forsey, Revisiting Beveridge: A Benefits and Welfare System for the 21st Century.

Like Beveridge, Field explored how people could take the lead in providing for themselves and their dependents, ensuring income over the rough times and the smooth. Perhaps more so than Beveridge, he believed in the contributory principle as the basis for social security, and believed the state should give way to the mutual societies, which would manage the contributory system more effectively and fairly than the state in supporting individual self reliance. But he contended with circumstances very different to the war years: family breakdown and insecurity, child poverty, an unstable labour market and the problems of globalisation and the EU’s Single labour market Market, which drove down wages, investment in high skills and productivity.

Field’s socialism, was of the Fabian type. It would have been at home in Toynbee Hall, where the interwar generation of left-leaning graduates worked and through their work encountered the problems of the working men of the east End of London first hand, among them, Attlee, a fervent Christian Socialist, and Beveridge. Unlike Attlee or Beveridge, Field did not come from the established orders. Born in Edmonton in Middlesex, his father was a labourer, his mother was a welfare worker at a primary school. He was educated at a grammar school in Hammersmith, studied economics at Hull University and became a further education teacher in 1964 in Southwark and Hammersmith. But, like both, he recognised that politics was the means to the end of tackling poverty. He had joined first the Conservative Party, but because he opposed apartheid in South Africa he left it to join the Labour party, to which he belonged until he resigned from the Labour party in 2018 as did some other Labour MPs on account of its anti-semitism.

Field’s real induction into the world of poverty came not through Toynbee Hall but through work at the Child Poverty Action Group CPAG,, where he was Director (1969-79) and the Low Pay Unit, and as a councillor in west London (1964-68) and then as MP for Birkenhead on the ground. He met poverty and its causes, economic, structural, personal. To the traditional sources identified by Beveridge, Field added the list that followed in the wake of the liberation of the sixties, the poverty that followed the breakdown of stable families, with no steady income, often no breadwinner, where lone parents struggle and children often suffer, coming home from school, as Field would explain, to no food in the fridge. He saw its effect on children, slipping, uneducated and neglected, from cruelty into criminality, or at best into a life of dependence. The message to  government was stark. The welfare system is failing when benefit recipients are not helped out of dependency, but handcuffed to it.

As a politician, therefore, he did not fit within the narrow confines of party, or the quick political fix. Poverty and disadvantage had complex causes, and as an intellectual in politics he sought to identify and then resolve them. Like Labour’s greatest leaders of the 20th century, in today’s Britain, he struck a chord, and not only with those left behind by Tony Blair’s metropolitan causes – Blair at first appointed him to government as Minister of State for Welfare Reform, ‘to think the unthinkable’, as we were told at the time. The problem was that the unthinkable was fashionable neither with the Blairites nor his boss, Harriet Harman. But nor was Field’s self-help socialism attractive to Brown’s hand-out dependency culture, one Field had seen lock those on benefit, to it, over a lifetime.

Out of office, where some said he belonged, he resumed his work – chairing a review into poverty under the Cameron Coalition, through the new All Party Group on Hunger and Food Poverty which he helped to set up, and its enquiry into hunger, chairing trustees of Feeding Britain, and returning in 2015 to chair the Work and Select Committee until the general election in 2019. He also continued to publish, including his co-authored piece for Politeiain 2020 – emerging from the pandemic and despite his cancer to speak at its conference launch in London.

Field refused to take on the dubious conventions to which contemporary politics has descended, engage in spin not argument, impose courtesy of the taxpayers solutions to problems which not only wasted their money, but destroyed people’s lives. On matters of welfare he refused to cowtow to the Blair Brown elites, or for that matter the Cameroons. On Brexit, he and three other Labour MPs supported leave, given the single labour market driving down wages and increasing pressure on public services, which victimised particularly the working poor. But it was on anti-semitism that he quit the Labour party, on the same kind of moral issue as he had left the Conservatives in his much younger days. In the 2019 general election he contested and lost Birkenhead as an independent. He became a peer in 2020, as Lord Field of Birkenhead, with fellow Labour Brexiteer, Kate Hoey, and sat on the cross benches. But weakened by cancer and given the pandemic, he did not play an active part in the lords.

Field was an intellectually minded Christian politician in a secular age, taking on the mantle of Labour’s Christian socialism – he served on the Synod and numerous parliamentary committees on ecclesiastical matters; an advocate of the weak, the poor and the patriotic working class. Despite his saintliness he enjoyed, and retained his fascination for, politics high and low, and for the politicians who shaped their country – he knew and admired Thatcher – and he understood it, piecing together the evidence from all quarters, chatting to friends, watching the world he had made his own, reading the inward meanings from the outward clues. He has played his part for over forty years in making that world in his own way for the better: part politician, part intellectual, part realist; shrewd, sceptical and sphinx-like.

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor (Baroness Lawlor) is Politeia’s Founder and Research Director. She served as its executive director from 1995-2020, developing the constitutional, economic and social policy programme with UK and international specialists. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy. She was made a Life Peer in October 2022.

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