In a Backbench exclusive, senior Labour MP Frank Field reveals the flaws of Ed Miliband’s leadership, and argues why we need to fundamentally reform the way the NHS is funded.
It is unlikely that one could meet a more straight-talking, sincere politician in Parliament than Frank Field – a man who has served his constituency of Birkenhead since 1979. Field is known for his well-publicised disputes with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Indeed, Field once lamented that Brown was a “fool”, who “never really understood anything.” It appears that former Labour leader Ed Miliband is the latest face in Field’s Book of Deadbeat Leaders. In an article published in the Mail On Sunday this week, the former Cabinet minister bemoaned the ‘catastrophic error’ that Labour made in 2010 when it chose Miliband as its premier.
Speaking to Backbench, Field revealed that although hopes were high at the start of Miliband’s tenure, no-one believed that “he [Miliband] would be so stubborn”. The Birkenhead MP discussed his meetings with the Labour leader, saying that Miliband treated them “like seminars” during which time few MPs could “make any impression on his views.” In the opinion of Field, Miliband was in perpetual denial about Labour’s dire prospects, and possessed a stubborn unwillingness to “take on board the weight of evidence about his strategy not working.” Quite simply, Miliband harboured “incredible certainty” about an ideological direction that “the electorate did not understand and therefore did not support.”
Field revealed in the Mail On Sunday that he was not merely a silently irked bystander to Miliband’s leadership, however. Instead, the senior backbencher attempted to persuade Alan Johnson to launch a challenge against Miliband, before Labour’s 2014 Party Conference. When we asked Field to comment on Johnson’s electoral attraction, he cited Johnson’s honesty and working-class roots.
“Had Johnson have been made leader, he would immediately have walked out without any of these PR boys or girls telling him what to do,” commented Field – before wryly remarking that political spin is a “substitute for thinking”.
Rumblings within the Labour Party prior to the 2014 Conference suggested that many MPs were open to a leadership bid from Johnson. Field told Backbench that there was “no doubt” that these rumours were accurate, and that “there would have been a stampede if he [Johnson] would have said yes.” Though, when pressed further, Field was unwilling to disclose whether any senior Labour MPs were amongst those who backed Johnson.
If Field is to be believed, this leadership ‘challenge’ was not initiated by the former Home Secretary, but was forced upon him by supporters within the party. Indeed, Johnson was unmoved by the idea, and told Field that he was unwilling to sacrifice his private life for a messy and abrasive leadership contest. Despite this, it would be unwise for Labour’s next leader to write off Johnson. Asked whether Johnson would be tempted to run for the party premiership in the future, Field simply stated that Labour’s rules should be changed to allow for a mid-Parliament leadership contest “if, in fact, people turn out to be deadbeats.”
Labour’s current blood-letting is not merely about personality and leadership, but also about ideology. “I actually think that it’s a totally different agenda that we need,” Field said. Asked how this new agenda would relate to a central Labour policy area, the National Health Service, Field advocated a radical shift of direction. He confirmed that, without drastic reform, there will be an NHS crisis in the next five years, due to a vast £30bn funding shortfall. Asked whether he could ever foresee Britain introducing a new system for NHS funding, the former Minister of Welfare Reform said that it was a necessity.
“Yes. We need to. Universal Credit isn’t going to work … [through a contributory system] you could deal with fraud. It would also prevent people coming over here and claiming benefits until they had built up contributions.”
Field’s perspectives are likely to be viewed with suspicion within the party, especially since many of Labour’s rank-and-file members idealise their position as protectors of the traditional welfare state. However, it is Field’s ambition to push through structural welfare reform before he retires from Parliament.
“The short-term goal would be to have less hungry people. The longer-term goal would be to create a new basis for the welfare state.”
Does he think his long-term goal is achievable?
“Yes, I do. With the new rules about not having deficits, which I agree with, it will push us down that road.”
Although it is nearly 17 years since he held a cabinet role within the Labour Party, Frank Field is a shrewd backbench campaigner with a clear view on the future of Labour and the nation. He is a wise and candid Member of the House, who will not shirk the urge to stand and object if he believes that the next Labour leader is as stubborn and ideologically misinformed as Ed Miliband. The new party premier would be advised not to marginalise Frank Field MP.