Frank Field has been up to mischief. Since leaving government in 1998, he has not been a fan of Gordon Brown, but last week he declared all-out political war against the Chancellor. In an article for the Guardian he outlined exactly why Mr Brown should not become party leader, arguing that he is too associated with past failings to offer hope for the future. He concluded his attack with four words which caused even more havoc, ‘Step forward, David Miliband.’
If Mr Field were an ordinary maverick Labour backbencher, no one would much care what he thought. But he has been proved right too often in the past to be written off as a crank. Bookmakers have duly made the Environment Secretary the one most likely to challenge Mr Brown, which in Westminster is the equivalent of passing someone a black spot. All previous challengers now lie mangled. So what, I ask, does Mr Field have against poor Mr Miliband? Does he want him assassinated?
‘Do you mean David is not pleased with me?’ he asks, smiling. Well, I say, he describes suggestions that he should stand as ‘ridiculous’ and seems to find the spotlight mildly terrifying. ‘Well, this is a test for him,’ says Mr Field. ‘I just thought it would be useful to say we could skip a generation, I mean, we also have John Reid. And Charles Clarke has been making speeches recently. But whatever happens, I think it is crucial that we have a Cabinet-level contest.’
Mr Field’s aim is to alert Labour to what he sees is a calamitous mistake: entrapping itself in the Blair–Brown era. A leadership race would bring the party to its senses, by seeing what a dire candidate he is. ‘Gordon is not good at responding quickly,’ he says. ‘He has his annual budget, gets geared up for it and the machine delivers Gordon’s message. But he has never been tested to act by the second. In a leadership contest, people will see him and think, “Gosh, I didn’t realise Gordon was so slow in responding in this way.”’
His beef with Mr Brown cuts straight to the heart of what he believes Labour should be about, and the ways in which it helps the most vulnerable. He believes Mr Brown looks on the underclass and sees a financial problem which can be solved if people’s income surpasses certain thresholds. Mr Field sees a behavioural problem: broken families, collapse of discipline and what he calls ‘new barbarianism’ among the poor. It is a new mutation of poverty, which cannot be fought by old methods.
He attributes his own conversion to a visit from a group of pensioners in his Birkenhead constituency ten years ago. ‘They told me how life had changed for them. Kids were running across the bungalow roofs, peeing through their letterboxes and jumping out at them in the dark,’ he says. ‘I realised then that Britain was changing for the worse and so was my job as an MP. I’d been trained in the politics of class, and while not unimportant, this was now secondary to what my constituents were demanding.’
He wanted the new Labour government to address this issue head-on, and for a while was encouraged by Tony Blair, who made him welfare reform minister with a brief to ‘think the unthinkable’. But his ideas met a cold reception. ‘I could never get the Prime Minister interested, so I’d say something to make him jump,’ he says. ‘I once said, “Can we have built in Birkenhead indestructible units under our flyover, and put neighbours from hell there? I don’t want to live next to them, my constituents shouldn’t have to. There they can make as much noise, song and dance as they want.” He sort of laughed at me nervously. But I was serious.’
Before too long, Mr Field had walked the plank. His sin was to be about six years too early with what is now known as the Respect agenda (sin bins are now being pioneered in Dundee). Now it is David Cameron who is asking whether the tax and welfare system is undermining the family. ‘Cameron is on the right track,’ he says, almost mournfully. ‘But so was Blair, once. The trouble is in government you can get knocked off the right track.’ And the Prime Minister, he believes, was derailed after the first backbench rebellion in welfare reform in December 1997.
That’s what makes Mr Field so hard to place. He is not a Blairite. He has trenchant political beliefs, yet belongs to no political faction. He has created his own centre of gravity, and his Commons office (where we meet) churns out reams of research on welfare and pensions. He does not seem to miss government, and when I ask if he could have achieved much had he stayed, he is adamant. ‘No, because Gordon would have stopped it,’ he said. ‘He runs Whitehall.’
He believes the Chancellor is unable either to recognise or redress the social decay he is diagnosing, a malaise of historic proportions. ‘There are times in English history where things have been as rough as anything in this country now. But from the 1850s, the working class wanted to become respectable. They felt you could actually transform your life yourself, without waiting for government. That’s where the Labour movement was born, and that’s why Labour should grieve the most about the rise of this new barbarianism.’
It is not impossible that Mr Brown will change his ways, he says. ‘There are such things as Pauline conversions. Gordon has been wrong on pensions, we’ve run our course on tax credits, there’s no more money and we’ve enveloped huge sections of the population in means-tested benefits; there ain’t any future in this. There is a need for a mega-rethink, and that’s why we need a leadership contest.’
But as Mr Field knows, there are no takers. And when Mr Brown wins, as everyone expects, won’t he be cast into utter darkness? ‘Well, I’m in utter darkness now. What would change?’ he says. He is happy in his isolation. ‘When I was in government, the Cabinet secretary said to me, “Don’t resign, you’ll lose your car and nobody will listen to you.” This idea was that on the backbenches you are finished. Yes, I longed to be a great reforming minister, but that was not to be. So I’ll make my contribution elsewhere.’
Might he make this contribution in the Conservative party? ‘I am not for moving. That doesn’t mean to say I’m happy in the Labour party. Who is? But I have a lovely constituency and a group of people that support me there.’ This does not quite rule out crossing the floor, so I try again. Soon the Labour party will be led by a man he considers unfit for office, pursuing policies he considers ruinous. Can he give a categorical assurance that he will stay in the Labour party? He leans back and laughs. ‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘You don’t think I’ll make life that easy for him, do you?’