Frank Field: unpicking the Victorian politics of an Independent MP

“If the system pays people more on incapacity benefit [than jobseekers’ allowance], it’s human nature to claim the higher amount. We have to remove the incentive.”

Frank Field MP

Over the decades, Frank Field made clear that he has no empathy for recipients of social security. As part of the New Labour project, he remained something of a maverick. He articulated opinions that underlined his concern for so-called ‘welfare dependency’ and his rhetoric was more bellicose than the other ‘reformers’ at that time. Like the New Right thinker Charles Murray, Field thought that poverty was not the consequence of people having too little money. In particular, the moralistic representative of Birkenhead viewed single parents as fundamental in the reproduction of deprivation. Differentiating between the deserving and the undeserving poor is rooted in the thinking of the nineteenth century.

However, the politics of an individual are not necessarily consistent and it may be that postmodern developments have transformed the opinions of Field. The radicalisation of the Labour Party may oblige Field to be more responsive to the needs of his constituents, while the economic realities of post-welfare Merseyside could pull the veteran politician away from his Victorian mindset. When the MP deserted his party and attacked the politics of his local Labour Party, he gave himself a chance to start thinking in fresh ways. Moreover, the roll-out of Universal Credit has allowed Field an opportunity to reinvent himself. This dramatic change to the post-welfare system has overwhelmed local charities- food bank usage went up by over 30 per cent. An empirical focus on what the benefit experiment was doing would have signalled that Field had the capacity to evolve.

An established operator, Field is proud of his media skills. His straight-talking style can be media savvy. But it can also cause unnecessary upset. Instead of concentrating on the overall damage to public health being caused by Universal Credit, Field felt he should turn up the volume. His claim that the benefit shakeup was directly responsible for a local rise in prostitution was problematic. Firstly, it hurt the image of the struggling town he represents. Secondly, it reflects a Victorian fascination with sex work. In the short-term, Field might have embarrassed the department in charge of Universal Credit and hit the headlines. But he had allowed Esther McVey MP to escape from the detailed policy discussion which would undermine the Conservative Party.

In fact, Field is not opposed to the theory of Universal Credit. He is merely against the way in which it is being implemented. The point is that Field is at one with many Tory MPs. He views the ‘simplification’ policy as worthwhile and claims that an injection of resources can save the disastrous reform. While he advocates a tweaking of Universal Credit in line with some of the injustices associated with payment gaps, he fails to appreciate that it is fundamentally flawed. Even if Universal Credit was administered well and had sufficient resources behind it, many people would still suffer a lot from its practical complexity. Universal Credit was not built around the needs of families: it was constructed around perceived economic imperatives.  It is important to remember that the Victorian era was an unjust one. The hypocrisy of the time was extreme, and Victorian novelists documented the struggles of the people.

Victorian-style myths of Englishness have informed Field’s position on the European Union. His simplistic patriotism is linked to an empire which is gone. It is also this backward-looking attitude that has influenced his divisive discourse on immigration. While the culture of Birkenhead has not been adversely affected by the free movement of people, the demagogue has tried to play on local resentments. Furthermore, Field has connected poverty to globalisation in a reductionist fashion. By failing to perceive the neo-liberal element of economic globalisation, the MP has depicted it as a natural force.

An isolationist, Field thinks that the UK should stand as autonomously as he does. He lacks an adequate appreciation of geopolitics. The economist Ann Pettifor pointed out that the country will drift towards the United States of Trump after any Brexit. For Field, it is simply the “destiny” of the nation to succumb to such a fate. This doctrine of international inevitability is linked to a fatalism on domestic policy.

The integration of the local arm of the National Health Service (NHS) with social care has gone through while Field was looking the other way. This controversial move is likely to embed third sector provision and might usher in further privatisation. The bulk of Field’s constituents rely on the existing model of the NHS- they are ill-prepared for the coming ‘reforms.’ Place-based care may leave Birkenhead with a reduced walk-in centre service. Never averse to charities assuming roles beyond their capacity, Field does not appear to mind that existing health inequalities might spiral further out of control. Like his Victorian predecessors, Field believes that church-based charities can do what the state should accomplish.

In reality, the public sector is a source of great innovation. But it can only fulfil its economic and social role if it is resourced properly. The tragedy of Field is that his enthusiasm for Victorian values has hidden the truth from his eyes. Before the economic storm of 2008, the oddity of Field could be overlooked by most people. The problem is that his divisive ideology has become a potent threat to the lived experiences of the multitude. Hence, this Independent MP should have the courage of his convictions and call a by-election immediately.

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Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Any book which is recommended by Malcolm Gladwell is to be regarded with a high degree of suspicion. Nevertheless, this text does contain something of real value within its bloated content. This is because there is ample evidence to support its contention that contemporary Western society is really uncomfortable with the idea of death. After all, a recent survey found that a fifth of those Americans questioned were stressed by their inevitable fate. And it should be remembered that not all Westerners are likely to have the same degree of solace afforded to them by religion- the United States is commonly perceived as being less secular than France, for example.

Dr Atul Gawande is right to contend that life is not worth living at any cost. However, any assisted suicide scheme would have to be regulated with care. Suicide can be a permanent response to a temporary set of circumstances. Regardless of this point, one can agree that Dr Gawande is correct to criticise existences which lack any quality of life. Some provision of social care does not respect the dignity of the recipient. Elderly people should be empowered to make their own choices about the risks they want to take, while they are able to do so.

The problem with the discourse of choice is that it has to be backed up with ample resources. If individuals want to be taken care of at a range of life stages, they must be prepared to pay their taxes. And progressive taxation has to be ramped up. The difficulty with the superficially sensitive solutions of Dr Gawande is that they currently only work for those with an abundance of money. In too many countries, the public sector has been scaled back to line the pockets of the few. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the complications have been compounded by state-promoted hostility to immigration. If elderly people are to be treated properly, there has to be a diverse workforce ready to put in the shifts required.

Within the United Kingdom, there is an understandable urge to put healthcare and social care together. Advocates of such a move claim that it could reduce pressure on the state sector by cutting back on ‘bed blocking.’ The peril of this way forward is that it jeopardises the remaining public element of healthcare provision. This is because integration enables further privatisation. Collaborative efforts between an underfunded public sector and a confident private sector will not roll out the ethos that made the National Health Service distinctive for so long.

Dr Gawande avoids such discussions of political economy by a sleight of hand. By focusing on personal stories and anecdotes, he makes the case that the institutionalisation of the old tends to be pernicious. He is right that it is hard for children to look after old parents. He is correct that listening is a vital process. And he is probably correct that vegetative states are not worth the complications of medical perseverance. But he locates his debate about life, death and meaning in a world of abstraction. If one does not take a systematic approach then one is having a conversation which excludes ordinary people.

Austerity has shredded the concept of the public good in Britain. Local government has not been given the money necessary to maintain the health of most social classes. This means that one has to deal with the healthcare that there is, not the healthcare that one would like. Citizens need protecting from callous decision-making. But individuals and families cannot do the job on their own. This is why the campaign for a reinstatement of the National Health Service has never been more urgent. Too many people will die prematurely, unless we act. Only a consolidation of the National Health Service has the capacity to put individuals in the empowered position envisaged by Dr Gawande.

Turned Out Nice Again by Richard Mabey

Reviewing a book which was a gift is awkward. The feeling of gratitude collides with the critical spirit. Fortunately, this tiny text has an authentic sparkle. Both weather and climate are absorbing topics, so the pages turn themselves.

Richard Mabey is something of an expert. Mabey is a painter with words. Even if one finds his content to be unpalatable, one is seduced by his style. His passion for experiencing and describing weather is genuine. And he is really familiar with the art of great weather students of the past.  The musings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, John Ruskin and Dorothy Wordsworth all receive appreciation.

However, the beauty and originality of the extended essay is marred slightly by its message. Mabey accepts that man-made climate change will transform the reality of life in Britain. Unfortunately, this recognition is not attached to the idea of taking adequate action to ameliorate climate change. The precautionary principle is the ethic which fails to show its face.

For Mabey, the variety and drama of the weather of the past means that the people of the UK have the experience to brave the gales and flooding of the future. To be fair to the author, this complacent text was published a few years ago. Since then, weather-related disruption and deaths have made the necessity of international action to combat climate change more acute.

Western capitalism has become a complex mal-adaptive system. This complicated financial structure drives excessive consumption. The result is that climate change is reaching new levels of risk. There has to be a radical adjustment in the way we live. Time is running short. For example, if fracking in Lancashire was the right answer, we would have asked the wrong question.

Mabey is a Utopian. His beautifully articulated thoughts are not real solutions. He focuses on adaptation to change and downplays human agency. He writes:

“Why not create buildings to coexist with water? Venice and Amsterdam seem to have made quite a good job of it. It could be a first step in learning to live with nature and climate change, as well as doing our feeble best to slow it down.”

Ten Books by Helen Dunmore

This poem is one of the most interesting works featured within Inside the Wave. The collection as a whole is a delicate reflection on life and death. Any reader can appreciate the deftness of Helen Dunmore. Even when she contemplated grim aspects of reality, she retained her lightness of touch. Dunmore’s mastery of words has the capacity to take away one’s breath.

In Ten Books, the poet glances back at some of the poets who inspired her own efforts. She nods to Siegfried Sassoon, T.S. Eliot, Herbert Read, William Blake, and Louis MacNeice. Nevertheless, this poem is not a sterile list. It is not an ode to the great and the good.

One strength of Ten Books is that it views the volumes of poetry as objects. For Dunmore, the actual texts were things which linked to stories beyond themselves . She enjoyed intimate relationships with books. Memories and family-based meanings meant that the words of the great poets never seemed abstract to her. Her skill at paying eloquent homage to other poets is bound up with her appreciation of a reality that would not have been accessible via a mass-produced e-reader.

In relation to MacNeice, the method of Dunmore is at its most acute. There is something really special about the ability of MacNeice to capture the personal and the political. His lack of dogmatism and his capacity for appreciation make him into something of a poet for poets. For her, a book of his was more than an inspiration; it was a companion.

While one would recommend Ten Books as a whole, the verse about MacNeice seems to capture the sensitive spirit of the poem. It contains a reference to the foxing of the book which speaks to the wider theme of deterioration. Like books, we age: we develop spots. MacNeice died prematurely, but he was not young. Nor did Dunmore attain the age one might have hoped. But this coincidence did not lessen the poignant vision of either poet. They thought and felt with rare eloquence in their maturity:

“MacNeice, freckled with brown

From many damps in many different houses.

On the inner page, under my father’s autograph

An early flourish of blue crayon

Where I scribbled a figure so primitive

There are not even legs for it to walk upon.”

One is struck by the breaking of the lines and the two full stops. The punctuation speaks louder than the words. But there is a modesty about this beautiful and tragic slice of introspection.

 

The Story of English by Robert McCrum et al.

Following on from Melvyn Bragg’s eccentric biography of English, it seemed appropriate to look at this text by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil and William Cran. Despite the discrepancy in the age of the books, they do cover similar ground. The narrative of McCrum et al. is more balanced than the ‘biography’ of Bragg, reflecting the fact that three heads are better than one. Further, the edition I read has been revised, allowing for improvements to be made.

Nonetheless, more can be said about the battle of the books. Bragg is a flashier writer than his rivals. Even his punctuation stood out. I still remember his dramatic use of the semicolon. In addition, his pugnacity meant that his text was less thoughtful. The Story of English benefits from its less adversarial approach to other cultures. The section on Irish English is of particular interest.

However, what intrigued this specific reader was the attention paid to Irish English in England. The focus on the Scouse dialect of Merseyside was fascinating. In music and poetry, the culture of Liverpool made a big impact during the last century. But the differences in the accents in question have not always been clarified. What made the voice of professional Scouser Cilla Black sound distinct from that of cultural megastar John Lennon?

It seems that the legacy of religious sectarianism has had a profound influence on the way that some Liverpudlians have communicated:

“John Lennon, from a Roman Catholic family, would pronounce a word like ‘early’ as airly, quite differently from Cilla Black, a Liverpudlian singer from a Protestant background, who would say something like urrly.”

It is this detailed examination of sound that was largely missing from the work of Bragg. A great talker, thinker and interrupter, he might not be the listener that the study of linguistics demands.

Saying so don’t make it so

Prime Minister Theresa May has caused a small ripple with a newspaper article that was aimed squarely at Labour voters. The embattled leader made a pitch for what she believes to be the centre ground of British politics. This strategy triggered some hostility from those in the political know, but it should perhaps be a cause for reflection on the left.

On a superficial level, it is apparent that May has never been averse to stealing policies from Labour. The back catalogue of Ed Miliband MP has been raided with regard to imposing a cap on energy prices. Allowing councils to borrow for housing construction is an indication that thoughtful Tories are not simply determined to keep rolling back the state. The Conservative leader clearly has doubts about the wisdom of leaving everything to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Her team is concerned that the coalition of voters that back the Prime Minister is in danger of collapse.

Clearly, the Labour Party should not waste time being flattered by May. Nonetheless, any policies that do buttress the livelihoods of ordinary people should be interpreted correctly. The Conservative coalition would not be engaged in triangulation if there was not significant pressure from the labour movement. Momentum, and its democratic potential, are terrifying the Establishment, while the possibility of another Scottish referendum cannot be perceived by the elite with equanimity.

However, the discursive shift of May must not be overestimated. The ideology of the right has rarely been imposed without the odd gesture to other perspectives. Pragmatic Conservatives have a long history of ruling in the interests of capital. This has been feasible because the Tories have sometimes ignored the short-term desires of business. A glance backwards shows us:

“Neoliberalisation, even when it is dominant, never secures a monopoly. As a frontal project, it always exists amongst its others, usually antagonistically. So Thatcher forged a governing strategy across the fault lines of neoliberalism and traditional British Toryism and little-Englander anti-Europeanism; Blair reworked the interface between an inherited neoliberal settlement and social democracy or Christian socialism (take your pick), while separating from the labour movement; and Cameron’s coalition since 2010 can be seen as a volatile cocktail of Blairism and Thatcherism, remixed in the context of weak leadership and even more deeply financialised times.” (Peck, Jamie, 2012).

Obviously, the problems with the change of tack from May are significant. Whatever she says, Brexit is distracting her from pursuing a policy of national reconciliation. Furthermore, the right of her fractious party will not permit her to move to the centre. The really tough questions posed by climate change threaten to make postmodern British capitalism ineffective. If Brexit is negotiated, the scaffolding of legitimacy that holds up the government could wobble. On the other hand, a no-deal might lead to a major constitutional crisis. Labour has already started to stand up by making clear that it would not persevere with Universal Credit. This benefit ‘reform’ has begun to epitomise all that is wrong with the uncaring Conservative Cabinet.

In some ways, the awkwardness of charmless May is reminiscent of the clumsiness of Gordon Brown. It is sometimes difficult for prime ministers who have served in unsatisfactory administrations before they have attained their full authority. The legacy dogs them. May lacks the slickness of some of her predecessors, and it remains to be seen if she has terrible judgement. Her decision to propose a festival to celebrate the country seems to be a genuine hostage to fortune. An article can aim to generate the political weather, but a lot more work is needed to address the political climate.

If Tory austerity is ending why is it continuing?

In some of the Tory media, Prime Minister Theresa May will be congratulated for completing a marathon speech after the amusing debacle of last year. She was less impersonal than normal and made a slightly bigger effort to connect with the anxieties of ordinary people. But the content of her oration raised many awkward questions. Firstly, she made clear that she was pushing on with her Brexit policy regardless of its consequences. Secondly, she signalled that she would placate her party critics by altering her language on Brexit. Thirdly, she demonstrated that she was taking Labour seriously by attacking socialist proposals. However, the anti-Corbyn rhetoric was undercut by her claim in relation to austerity.

May is contending that the policy of austerity is coming to an end. She has understood that many of the public cannot take much more. As a result, she is arguing that the Conservative government will begin to fund the troubled public services properly. The problem is that her Chancellor will not be in a great place to do so. His room for manoeuvre was restricted somewhat by her pledge to keep the tax on petrol down.

Nevertheless, it is the Tory policy on the National Health Service which has caused the most suspicion. May is transparent about her intention to put more money into the service. However, she is guilty of exaggeration in relation to the scale of her commitment. She seems to have completely ignored inflation in her assertion that the level of funding adjustment is historic. Moreover, she has neglected the advice of experts who have told people that a larger funding increase would be necessary for British healthcare to stand still.

When questioned about the implications of this obfuscation, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was evasive. Matt Hancock MP claimed that the reconfiguration of services could help to address the deficit. Such shakeups can incur costs and cause painful chaos for citizens. Hancock is known for advocating technological solutions to health problems, but the record of IT-driven change in England is poor. Innovation can be more expensive than people estimate, while new systems can be vulnerable to cyberattacks. Furthermore, Hancock was less than forthcoming about the money. He simply said that funding healthcare was the responsibility of Chancellor Philip Hammond. In other words, the putative end of austerity might be some time away.

Therefore, this speech was about changing the discourse. By responding to the criticism of Labour, May showed that she can listen to the Official Opposition. By abandoning the use of the word Chequers, May illustrated that she can heed the warnings coming from Boris Johnson MP and his xenophobic acolytes. However, this cynical exercise in triangulation means that the Prime Minister stands temporarily for everyone and nobody. The shape of Brexit is likely to be dictated by the European Union, while the reality of austerity is likely to outlast its supporting narrative.

The Prime Minister remains in power, but she is at the mercy of events. The Conservative Party Conference might have backed business rhetorically, but the sustainability of British capitalism is being damaged by the protectionist policies of May. Verbiage cannot save the Conservative Party: the party needs a genuine change in direction.