The New Statesman Interview - Frank Field
Blair is Labour's lifeblood, says the maverick ex-minister, and it couldn't win without him. Frank F
''A cross between a monk and a Tory" is how a fellow parliamentarian describes Frank Field, the former minister for welfare reform, and Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979. Field's white shirt may be as immaculate as an altar-cloth, but his City slicker's braces and neatly combed greying hair have little of the ascetic about them. It is true, however, that he served on the churches commission, wrote a weekly column for the Catholic Herald for years, and still describes himself as an "old-fashioned Christian". As for the "Tory" accusation: he was branded a right-winger when he took on militants in his constituency in the 1980s, and sided with the Conservative government over allowing schools to opt out of local authority control in 1989, when he was shadow education secretary. But today, he finds himself very much in tune with new Labour - an indication, some would argue, of how far his party has moved to the right.
A grammar school boy who went on to Hull University, before working on such worthy ventures as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Low Pay Unit, Field claims to be very comfortable with "Blair's party". Yet when asked whether he will ever sit again in government, he answers with a crisp "No". He was rudely ejected from his role as minister for welfare reform in the then Department of Social Security after less than a year in the role. The reason was a not-so-secret inability to work with Harriet Harman, his fellow departmental minister. It was "worse than Saigon", he jokes now. "They cordially loathe each other" is how one insider put it at the time. Field's relations with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, were "strained" - Harman was regarded as a Brown protegee. (Martin Sixsmith, the director of communications at the Department for Transport who blew the whistle on Stephen Byers's inability to work with the civil service, threatens to write about his time with Field and Harman, but Field shrugs it off: "I think everyone knew pretty much what happened.")
Field has turned the page as well as the other cheek. He is now trying to help the Treasury spend the extra £1bn it has pledged for health. His scheme would bring German medical teams - consultant surgeons, anaesthetists and theatre nurses - over to the UK to treat more than 500,000 patients waiting for quick operations that do not require an overnight stay in hospital. The plan would cost the national health service £725m.
"There will be resistance to this idea," its architect admits. "For, in cutting the waiting lists, we will cut the need for private medicine. Where there are the longest waiting lists is where the market for private health is most buoyant . . . It will take an extraordinary act of altruism for those who make the most out of private medicine to embrace this scheme." Perhaps to entice them to do so, Field suggests another "radical" plan: to turn the Dome "into a new centre for day cases. Then some terrible cynic will see that, if we add the cost of the Dome to health expenditure, we will hit the European average."
What the "terrible cynics" seem to ignore is voters' loyalty to the NHS. "It's the last nationalised industry and the only one the electorate care about." Field himself doesn't much care for a nationalised health service, and argues that "one has to go the whole hog and undo the nationalisation of 1948 for our hospitals: they have to go back to local control." He is also certain that we care so much about the NHS that we are willing to pay extra for the service. "If you were to earmark a tax for health spending, you'd find that people would be ready to pay up." Indeed, Field maintains that, before the spending review this summer, Brown may yet agree to a hypothecated tax. "Between now and June is a long time, in government terms . . . And this fetish about not hypothecating is recent. Before Gladstone we used to hypothecate. Gordon's enjoyed breaking convention - think of the Bank of England. Why would he keep Gladstone's convention on this?" The case for hypothecation is made more pressing, Field argues, because of the "revenue crisis across government. Money for services has run out, and therefore choices have to be made."
Field warns that "if we are not seen to be delivering by that next election, it's going to be disastrous". Yet the government must not attempt to ease the present revenue crisis by raising taxes: "The time when politicians could require people to pay increased taxes and they dutifully did has come to an end. We misread the last election if we think it was won because of the Tories' cost-cutting. They won on taxes, and asylum-seekers. That's what you found on the doorsteps. For Labour to recross the tax-and-spend Rubicon would be madness."
He emphasises that "new Labour is Middle England's party" - and as it is, Middle England feels nervous about its financial future, in particular its pensions. Last month, revelations about the closure of final-salary occupational schemes (affecting eight million employees) made headlines. The ensuing alarm over Britain's crumbling pension system had many predicting that Gordon Brown would be forced to ditch means-tested pension schemes. In discussing the pensions fiasco, Field could be forgiven for striking an "I told you so" attitude: in government, he had campaigned against means-tested pensions; and as a backbencher in 1998, he had proposed a welfare-reform package that aimed to secure a pension of 30 per cent of average earnings for all. Neither proposal made much headway.
But Field steers clear of hubris and pins his hopes on Alan Pickering's report on pension fund regulation, due in the summer. It will allay some of the public's fear, according to Field, by calling for a reform of pensions schemes that will ensure that "politicians keep their sticky fingers off pension funds". He finds nothing shocking in Pickering's recent claim that young people face penury in their retirement unless they are prepared to save at least 15 per cent of their salary from the age of 24.
Indeed, he fears that everyone, across the board, will feel the pinch: "If we see within a year or so the collapse of big private sector scheme funds, it's inconceivable that the public sector schemes should survive."
He is not too sanguine about the survival of party politics, either. He points to what happened in Wyre Forest, where Dr Richard Taylor ran as a parliamentary candidate on a single issue - the shutting of Kidderminster Hospital - and won with a 17,000-vote majority. "The result showed that more and more people are becoming less and less loyal to party. More people will get elected on single issues. That's the beginning . . . more and more people realise they can get elected with very limited loyalty to the party."
At which point, a reform of parliamentary politics that is far more ambitious and thorough than any of the present proposals will become inevitable. Devolution, devolution, devolution is the Fieldian recipe for the success of such reforms. Time and again, in his own proposals for reforming health and pensions, he has urged local communities to invest in their own future. He sees a future where governments across Europe market investment projects - a new school, say, or a new hospital - to local communities that would put up money for an agreed rate of interest. Pension funds could then invest in these bonds.
In Field's eyes, there is another key ingredient for Labour's own success - one Anthony Blair. "I don't think the transition for us after Blair leaves is going to be that easy. He is very, very important for our electoral success. We won in 1997 because of him primarily and because of our tax pledge. Blair reached part of the electorate we had never reached before. I'm not sure that, if that heartbeat were taken away, the blood would continue to those veins in the electorate."
As for his own future, Field (60 this year) denies rumours that he might bow out of the Commons to join the Anglican priesthood. "I'm not up to the job," he claims. Instead, he sees himself serving his constituents to the very last. "I'd like to be carried out from Birkenhead in six pieces of wood."