“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.