Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is also Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs
Frank Field is one of the giants of the modern political era. Perhaps he is the greatest politician in Parliament today. Despite yesterday’s news, long may he remain there.
He entered government in 1997 urged to ‘think the unthinkable’ by Tony Blair. That phrase was borrowed (or stolen) from the title of a ‘biography’ of the IEA and other think tanks by The Economist’s Richard Crockett.
Unfortunately, what Field thought was unpalatable to Gordon Brown who had been given complete control of economic policy. Field had spent years going round think tanks developing a coherent set of ideas for welfare reform based on the principles of mutuality and fraternity, but firmly embedded in a socialist ideal. This is where I first met him in the 1990s at Politeia, Civitas and the Institute of Economic Affairs as he tested out his ideas.
The fact that these think tanks are regarded as being Conservative or classically liberal is significant. Field was definitely neither of those. However, he believed his ideas would be stronger if tested and his arguments would be better if he treated the arguments of others with respect and addressed their strongest points head-on. Not only that, both sides of the debate believed they had something to learn from each other as Westminster then brimmed with ideas about how to solve the ageing crisis which was then anticipated and is now apparent with all solutions having been left on the shelf.
His treatment of the separate critiques of his pension proposals by David Willetts and me in a book published by Civitas and freely available online and which also includes commentaries by three accomplished academics is a case in point. These were two of the most important people in politics at the time (Willetts and Field) debating at length in a book with experienced academics about serious policy issues, disagreeing with each other courteously and politely. In the age of shallow Twitter spats it is difficult to imagine that this was only 15 years ago.
It is said that Conservatives have tried to get him to join their party. They believed that this would be a coup. It would not. It would be an indictment of both parties.
Field believes that Thatcher was wrong to use monetary policy to try to reduce inflation in the early 1980s. He believes in contributory systems of benefits, but with large amounts of redistribution. Yes, mutual societies and friendly societies would be involved, but these would be heavily embedded in a state-designed system. He believes in higher minimum wages and increased regulation of employment. Anybody who believes that markets work pretty well would be much keener on the pre-funding of pensions through private institutions; market-determined wages; and low levels of employment regulation. Such policies would be complemented by market-led land-use planning reform to reduce poverty through different means.
Quite simply, Field is a Christian socialist: ‘old Labour, right wing’. He is conservative on social issues, conservative on migration, and pro-Brexit. That does not mean, however, that he is a supporter of a de-regulated market economy or believes that mutuality in welfare should be based largely within voluntary systems and not used to promote substantial redistribution.
A contrast between the views of Field and those of Ruth Kelly, with whom I work at St. Mary’s University, is instructive. Ruth could be described as being ‘new Labour, right wing’ (in Labour terms), and also conservative on social issues. She would favour a bigger role for the market than Field, with non-contributory systems of redistribution such as tax credits to deal with poverty. Whilst favouring broadly free markets in areas such as financial services, she would believe that they could be effectively controlled for the general public benefit by state regulatory agencies.
Field would be suspicious of this approach. Kelly’s views are a moderate form of social democracy with an economist’s imprimatur. Interestingly, Field studied economics at Hull University (a university that has produced some fine Labour MPs such as Field, Roy Hattersley and the late Kevin McNamara). However, he prioritises consideration of the sociological and anthropological impact of policy and how policy resonates with grassroots communities.
Different strands within the Labour Party (including the extreme left) should be arguing their case in Parliament, in their party and in think tank and university circles. The Conservative Party should be taking on the Labour Party in a battle of ideas and philosophies. And different strands within the Conservative Party should be debating different views on the role of the market, how to reform the tax system and the extent to which the state should promote a socially conservative agenda.
Instead, except for the Corbynistas, it is really quite impossible to work out what anybody really believes. The Conservative Party still seems to suffer from the splits of the Major years and the extraordinary brilliance of the media operation of Labour in the Blair years which, with the odd exception, makes their MPs frightened to say anything interesting at all whilst they adopt opposition parties’ policies by stealth.
Perhaps the relative success of Corbyn and the huge regard in which Field is held shows that the public would actually admire politicians who put their cards on the table. Politicians must be willing to think the unthinkable and say it. If they did, they might be pleasantly surprised by the response. After all, Field has quintupled his majority in his 39 years as an MP.