The news that Frank Field, long-serving Labour MP for Birkenhead, has resigned the Labour whip, has generated a deluge of comment, including the predictable attacks from the Corbynist left.
Field’s resignation letter cites antisemitism and a culture of intolerance and bullying as the reasons for his departure – in which he is far from alone; those of us involved in Labour politics have seen a steady exodus of Labour stalwarts – the people who run election campaigns and organise Labour events at local level, as distinct from the social media clicktivists – over the past three years.
Field’s critics have pointed to his role in the development of the welfare system, both under Blair and the Cameron coalition. Appointed Minister of State for Social Security in 1997, with a brief to “think the unthinkable”, he lasted barely a year; Blair, in his autobiography, described Field’s thoughts as less unthinkable than unfathomable. His advocacy of a small-state approach to welfare, based on mutualism and opposition to non-contributory benefits, put him at odds with Labour’s thinking (although his consistent opposition to means-testing is closer to the position held in some parts of the Left).
On other issues, he has been associated with the Labour Right – as a prominent Eurosceptic who has consistently supported the Government over Brexit, and as a consistent advocate of reducing the time limit for abortion.
But there is one issue over which Field deserves unstinting praise; his work as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons. That committee has been forensic and absolutely ruthless in its exposure of the cruelties and incompetence of the Department of Work and Pensions, and has embarrassed the Government into significant change.
For example, it exposed the internal DWP targets for dismissing appeals at mandatory reconsideration – the initial process that all those appealing DWP decisions to cut their benefits must go through; the DWP was forced into a humiliating climbdown and the internal target – described disingenuously as a “management target” was abolished, as a direct response to the Committee’s criticism.
And the same Committee has been equally damning in its criticism of how the so-called “health professionals” employed by the private sector contractors who manage Work Capability Assessments are likely to have no expertise in the field in which they conduct assessments – especially where those assessments involve mental health issues.
In other words – Frank Field’s committee has been an absolute model of Parliamentary scrutiny, exposing one Government failure after another and forcing red-faced Ministers into making changes to the benefits regime.
And that is what real opposition looks like. No matter how many rallies one attends, or how many Facebook posts one likes or how many retweets one makes, the real business of politics is about making a change. And, like him or loathe him, Frank Field and his committee have achieved far more for the most vulnerable than all the Facebook likes, retweets and Momentum meetings and Jezfests between them have done.