Thursday, January 12, 2006

 

Respect Agenda and Frank Field

Blair's Respect agenda has been criticised roundly for being to legalistic and draconian, but one Labour critic has argued from the other end of the spectrum. Frank Field is an unusual maverick, we learn from the extensive interview in Society Guardian on Wednesday, 11th January. Originally a Conservative grammar school boy from west London, he was thrown out of the party for protesting against South Africa and went on to direct Child Poverty Action Group 1969-70. He was soon Labour MP for Birkenhead and a respected chair-on both sides of the divide- of the Social Services 1974-80. Blair apointed him to 'think the unthinkable' on welfare reform in 1997 but rejected him when his ideas proved unthinkably expensive.

But he has not gone away, prefering to refine his ideas on the backbenches. His view of the Respect package is that Blair is not being tough enough. His experience of living in a pooor constituency is that one has to be clear and tough, just like his friend Mrs T.(she invited him to her 80th birthday). He argues nuisance neighbours should be sent to live in indestructible houses under motorways and have their housing benefit reduced if they continue to misbehave. He hearkens back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras when working people were enjoined to accept a code of citizenship. He blames the erosion of such robustly healthy ideals on the welfare state which he sees as encouraging a breed of workshy, feckless scroungers. No wonder, one reflects, he was/is so close to Maggie.

Field thinks Labour suffered a loss of nerve on welfare- it should have been much tougher and Blair should not have given in to backbench pressure. I'm not sure he is right. Part of me agrees with him but that's what worries me; everyone -me too- harbours a desire to be tough on anti-social behaviour as it so offends middle class people's sensibilities. My worry is that being tough does not change anything necessarily. People who have had benefits reduced or ended still need to survive and will just as easily turn to crime instead. Consigning them to the darkest corners of society will just as easily ensure their exclusion as win them back into the orbit of decency and responsibility. Field offers fascinating ideas but they seem a bit too dangerous on balance.

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