Home > General Politics, Terrible Tories > The electoral argument for the deselection of Frank Field

The electoral argument for the deselection of Frank Field

‘What we’ve go to do here is get people to understand it’s not a referendum it’s a choice and as a choice it has consequences,’ says Sean Woodward MP at the Labour party conference.

And the fast emerging electoral strategy, as reflected by Labour Matters, is all about ensuring that the voters see the clear blue water between Labour and the Tories. 

 The focus, say the electoral strategists and the PR people, should be on the way Labour is dealing with the economy, and the 1937-style  disaster that may well ensue if the Tories get into power.

And as election strategies go, it’s pretty good one, especially as it’s starting to be sharpened up by a concentration on how the Tories will ‘target investment on a tax giveaway of £200,000 to the 3,000 wealthiest estates’; in general the focus is on reminding people that, in the end, it is the Labour party that is wedded to the interests of the working class, not the Tories.  

Leave aside the small matter of the actual record of New Labour on commitment to the interests of the working class for just a moment, and we get an electoral pitch which is, on the doorstep at least, starting to gain some traction.  The slight narrowing of the opinion polls since the party conference is not all about the Tories failure to ‘seal the deal’, or about their indecisiveness over Europe; there is the start of a real move back to Labour, and the message is starting to get through in places where it is being well sent.

Time then, for Labour members, you’d think, to get behind the message.  

If you’re on the so-called moderate wing of Labour, it’s all about the best way of winning a new term; if you’re on the Left, at least the broad narrative is swinging in your favour, and it’s something to hang on to till the real opportunity to organize anew starts in May 2010.  The main thing for now is to defeat the Tories, because their winning really will be a disaster for everyone but the privileged few.

Unless you’re Frank Field, that is.

Our loveable old maverick Frank has been thinking the unthinkable again, decided he doesn’t care for any of this ‘spending our way out of recession stuff’, and has come over all biblical 

In his Comment is Free article, Frank warning of an impending economic apocalypse, and says that the only way this country can possibly survive is to cut savagely, and cut now.

 The fact that he is utterly, utterly wrong, and wouldn’t recognize a considered leftist economic argument if it struck him on the head from a very great height, need not detain us long. 

Briefly, his fear of massive inflation is simply nonsense, when the by far the biggest threat is Japanese-style deflation if the economy is kick-started.

Likewise, his argument that we run an imminent risk of losing our AAA+ credit status if we don’t cut now (no mention of other ways of reducing the deficit, note) is simply scare-mongering, and only likely to come true if he and his right wing friends keep the scare-mongering up. 

As Martin Wolf has pointed out, cutting the UK’s credit rating would mean that logically, the US’s credit rating would also need to be cut, and can anyone really see that happening (especially given the rapid flight to ‘safe’ US government bonds in the light of the Dubai crisis)?   Logically, even if the US rating were to be cut, the AA+ rate would simply become, in the case of the biggest world economy, the new AAA+, because for the medium term at least a stable US economy cannot simply be dispensed with.  The market, with their servants in the credit rating agencies, is not going to cut off its capitalist nose to spite its capitalist face.

Such real world thinking is, in any event, of little concern to Frank Field.  What is important to him, it seems, is that he should be out of step with mainstream Labour thinking, and be seen to be.   That’s our Frank, the loveable maverick.

So long as it was a vicious disregard for the real lives of the poor, in his ‘unthinkable’ welfare reforms, it was all ok, because it was only one step beyond where New Labour and Purnell were headed anyway.

This time, though, it’s different.  In setting out a line on economic policy which is absolutely out of the Tory mismanagement manual, Field is setting his face directly against the government’s electoral strategy, which is to create an ‘investment vs. cuts’ distance between themselves and Tories.

As such, the only reasonable assessment of Frank Field is that, given his high media profile, he has become an electoral liability.

And what does the Labour party do with people that it considers make it unelectable?   It expels them.  Ask Terry Fields (well he’s dead, but you know what I mean), another Merseyside MP.

If there’s any consistency in the way the Labour PLP deals with rebels that are damaging its electoral chances, Field should be given his marching orders, and a more compliant PPC put in place in time for the election.  

Yes, there’s a small chance that it might backfire and the seat be lost, but there is any event no guarantee that Field isn’t simply biding his time in a fairly safe Labour seat before switching sides after the election, and that might mean the difference for Labour between loss and hung parliament, or hung parliament and victory.

Better, I contend, to take the bull by the horns now and get rid of Field. 

In so doing, Brown would send out a message not just of new found strength and authority as PM safe from Compass-led plots, but – more importantly – send out a stronger message than any second hand party political broadcast can ever get over that Labour is serious about having a distinctive economic policy, one which really does defend Labour ‘hard working families’ in the tough times.

Will it happen? Well, if the idea gets taken up by @bevaniteellie on twitter, it might just.

Of course, if the Labour grassroots builds a head of steam on this, and gets rid of Frank Field, then Tom Harris MP (who had the same virulently ‘anti-Gordon’ banner advert as Iain Dale on his blog all weekend), would surely be next in line.

But business before pleasure.

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  1. November 30, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    Instinctively I like this idea, but surely if Field was deselected it’d be spun as

    a) the end result of a longstanding petty spat between Field and Brown, neither of whom can stand the other, and
    b) revenge for Field leading the charge (or being seen to) on the 10p stuff, on which issue the party leadership was on the wrong side of the broad narrative

    My concern would be that the stuff about savage cuts gets lost in all of that.

    Then there’s also the issue about Field not actually having done anything that is clear-cut against the Party’s rules. If we threw out MPs just for being assholes (even huge gaping assholes, like Field), how many would we be left with? And would the precedent make it easier to get rid of leftish MPs?

    I agree with you about Field probably jumping to the Tories after the next election, though. (Especially if they form the next government.)

  2. Barney Stannard
    November 30, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    You may be right about Field being an election liability – but I doubt he’ll be that important, and as tim f points out, kicking him out isn’t costless.

    I don’t see why you need to pad that out with slagging off his economics as nonsense. This is part of a general theme on this blog as stating that anyone who believes debt is a problem is not only wrong but ‘economically illiterate”, “illogical” and “divorced from reality”. They’re not. There are a lot of respected economists who argue along classical lines and think cuts are necessary. They may be wrong, they may be right – they’re not idiots.

    The reference you post to a considered left argument goes to an article where analysis concerning the US is used as an analogy with the situation here. While useful this is hardly a compelling argument which sweeps all before it. It also describes (Cameron’s) belief that debt reduction and growth go hand in hand as economic illiteracy. Right. Ok. Aside from being just wrong it kind of misses the point – the debate isn’t whether debt reduction per se is positively related to growth. There will be circumstances where it isn’t and circumstances were it is. This isn’t a matter of literacy but of judgment.

    As for the continued attack on the idea that AAA status will go as being purely scaremongering etc. It clearly isn’t. Firstly: absent a sensible plan to cut debt there may well be a downgrade (maybe two or so years time at earliest I’d have thought), secondly: its something of a red herring – even whilst we stay at AAA the price of debt still goes up – as Martin Wolf points out in his article CDS spreads are rising.

    As it happens I tentatively agree that the biggest danger is cutting too soon. But treating other arguments as ludicrous is just rubbish.

  3. November 30, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    I don’t think it is a general theme on this blog, Barney; certainly over economic matters I am usually quite cautious before I attack people on the other side with such intemperate language.

    I also don’t think, necessarily, that Paul disagrees with you that, on the basis of the economic system as is, long term debt is unsustainable. What I suspect gets Paul’s goat – especially with regard to our triple A rating – is the number of articles in the Daily Mail and by people who have a political agenda to serve, rather than an economic argument to make, who are routinely trying to use this to scaremonger.

    Perhaps you should go blast some of them for their intemperate behaviour too?

    Edit: apologies for the edit, but I wanted to add a few things. First, I don’t think that Paul considers deselecting Field to be a realistic choice, he’s just highlighting a disparity in how the Labour leadership tends to treat Labour MPs on the Left compared to Labour MPs on the Right of the Party. Secondly, if we were seriously considering this, there’s a bunch of other reasons for getting rid of the man. His views on immigration. Or his 1950′s style version of morality.

  4. Barney Stannard
    November 30, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Re the edit: perhaps, but certainly the article could be read either way.

    Re economics: I don’t have the time to look over past posts – I suspect neither of us do. So I’ll let that go as I have no evidence. But the point still stands on this post and those which it follows from on the topic of AAA.

    I won’t blast the Mail, because it doesn’t hold itself up as a paragon of analysis. It is a business built to sell papers to people who aren’t necessarily interested in a deep understanding of the issues at hand. Which is fine – why should everyone be interested in this stuff?

    Further, whilst the language they use may be intermperate and crude (and I wouldn’t know) I’m not sure how radically that differs them from some posts on this blog, where the same is done but with another level of sophistication. As I stated above calling everyone who disagrees with the view that debt levels are temporarily sustainable (whatever that means in practice) illiterate and disingenuous, doesn’t constitute much of an analysis. Neither does relying on isolated quotes taken out of context.

  5. December 1, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Barney @2 and @4:

    Yes, I’m happy enough to acknowledge that there’s a bit of two-posts-in-one here; the main post just drifted towards the AAA+ stuff as I wrote. I’m not pretending to write to any kind of academic standard here – stuff is battered out in a few minutes when the urge strikes -and the main object is often to raise items/areas for debate rather than provide a polished conclusion. As Dave has said previously, this reflects the way this blog engages with commenters in a different manner to most blogs, and comment streams tend to wind around and peter out with thought processes updated and re-expressd in later posts.

    So too with the question of the AAA+ threat-or-not. I’d read the Martin Wolf column on the train last week and thought it interesting enough as an idea to raise, however clumsily, within this post. I’m not suggesting I’m offering concusive proof in a 1,000 word piece that the UK is unlikely to suffer a downgrade (at least in the absence of continued calls for it from the Tories for their own electoral advantages) because it would set a model for the US, but the idea that there are countries which really are too big to fail is in the context of a Marxian analysis of where power lies quite convincing. Likewise, In think there’s something in the notion that the only way the UK might be downgraded is if, with economic management under rhetoricla assault from the right, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or for example (and somewhat more conspiratorially)it is found to be a politically convenient thing to do in the event of a Labour government scraping back in with an (enforced) redistributive agenda (cf Clinton and the bond markets c.1993?).

    I don’t think any of this, raised in brief in the OP, is particularly outrageous, and in general I think your view that my/our posts on economics always veer to the ‘intemperate’ is a bit unfair. On this occasion, if you read the piece, my polemic in this area is actually aimed at Frank Field as part of the main theme of the article – that he is an electoral liabilty – and a reading of his CommentisFree article does, I contend, reflect his lack of capacity to engage with with anything other than the economic mantra of the Tories. This is very different from an intemperate attack on all economic alternative thinking.

    In other posts I have certainly got into a bit of polemic about the credit rating agencies, but I think I have set out justifiable grounds for that, which have not been challenged in their substance (indeed commenters who started out saying I was conspiracy nut have later conceded that on the evidence I’ve brought, I’m not).

    In any event, one person’s intemperate language is another’s polemic and, as Dave suggests, the development of a discourse to the effect that the other side is ‘illiterate’ is a perfectly justifiable response, now starting to gain a little bit of traction, to the right’s talk of a bankrupt nation etc. etc.. Krugman sets the example there, and I quite admire his forthrightness. Economic ‘orthodoxy’ comes as part of a wider power play, and a discourse that sets out clear dividing lines is part of that.

    Tim @1: The post was on the whimsical side, certainly, and aimed more at raising the incongruity of treatment for left and right ‘rebels’ (and Terry Fields was not, as far as I remember, expelled in 1991 for doing anything against party rules, but for being sent to prison for poll tax non-payment). Having said that, I think the balance could still be in favour of expelling Field if it were given serious consideration, on the basis that more or less owning up to being a Tory on economic matters, at a time when this is the main battleground, is bringing the party into disrepute. I wouldn’t worry, though – it’s not going to happen.

  6. December 1, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Oh, I see this has turned up at Liberal Conspiracy now. I do wish they’d let me know before copying stuff over.

  7. Rob
    December 1, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Given that you own the copyright on the piece, you could just tell them to stop.

  8. December 1, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Rob @7: Well, I could, but it would be a bit hoity-toity. Mind you, copyright, eh? Think I’ll sue the pants of Sunny and get loads of money. Excellent plan.

  9. Jill
    December 1, 2009 at 11:51 am

    I confess, I see no “clear blue water between Labour and the Tories”. Where is it, pray tell?

    • paulinlancs
      December 1, 2009 at 5:49 pm

      Jill, try the link in the second para for a handy summary.

  10. December 1, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    I think the number one priority for a government dealing with economic difficulty of any political persuasion is not to panic. Don’t go into a mad spending french hoping all the money is going to fit in all the right holes, but conversely don’t claim the sky is going to fall in because of a government debt black hole!

  11. December 1, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    And winner of non-sequitur comment of the week is…

  12. Barney Stannard
    December 1, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Paul – that is a very fair defence in the light of fairly extreme provocation. I thought the Daily Mail comparison would cause a hail of return-fire.

    Within the context of your explanation of the purpose of the blog please take my post in that spirit. It is precisely for that reason that I read your blog, and why I particularly enjoy reading it on matters politic. I just have the feeling that on econ sometimes the style makes it hard to get traction. Perhaps that is because econ is a necessarily more pedantic subject and therefore requires much greater stipulation before positions can be appreciated…

    Dave: re the non-seq: I genuinely can’t see one anywhere…

  13. December 1, 2009 at 7:11 pm
  14. Barney Stannard
    December 1, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    Yeah… Frank’s command of monetary theory isn’t all it could be. I take the point. Thanks for the link, interesting analysis. I have to agree with the general thesis that Field is a clot. Whilst I agree with some of what he says, his analysis never fails to fail to impress.

  15. December 1, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Barney

    Without wishing to get into a blogger-commenter love in, please rest assured that I take your comments, however robustly put, in the spirit of intellectual exploration with which they are intended. It is very welcome to have someone from beyond the left, if I can put it like, who is willing to engage with the blog on the basis that we are not simply loons, but have an intellectually valid perspective related to experience.

    You’re quite right about leftwing economics and the difficulty in gaining ‘traction’. I think the key problem is that for over thirty years we’ve been exposed to a borad discourse of economic management which is based on the idea of a country’s/international economic management smply being a scaled up version of household ‘finite money supply’ economics (what I refer to in other posts as the ‘Thatcher handbag’ metaphor). This idea that, essentially, we must reduce spend when we are in debt has become very persuasive and overrides to a great extent any more seasoned Keynesian logic of the cycle and countercycle. This means it is an additional challenge to present Keynesian proposals in a way whicgh convinces, and that the best way to do it is often to set it off against what we portray as ‘economic illiteracy’.

    This may not be, for the tehicnically minded like yourself and, say Giles at FreethinkEcon, be an attractive way of going about it, but it is, for me, the reality of the relationship between discourse and political power; I contend that it is simply more noticeable (as Dave suggests above) when it is the left that tries it on like this, because the left has tended to be too try and technical, and not polemic enough.

    By the way, there’s furher commentary on Frank Field’s economic understanding at Giles’s place – http://freethinkecon.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/why-exactly-is-frank-field-a-labour-politician/. Nice to see another technical economist agreeing.

  16. December 1, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Barney

    I think Dave’s non sequitur barb was amined at Hadleigh, not you. I’ll limit myself to saying it was elliptic.

    Just had another look at Giles’ place and Paul Sagar has commented with insider knowledge to confirm that Frank Field is seriously considered to be a pre-election defection threat (though I’d have bet on just post-election).

  17. Robert
    December 1, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    One liability Labour has it’s Brown, with stopping DLA for the elderly with cuts in public services I’ve had enough of New labour, clear Blue water then vote New labour, because right now whether it’s true or not I have to vote Tory.

  18. Del
    December 5, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Time for Frank to think about spending more time with his family…

    … Whoops! Sorry, I forgot. He hasn’t got one has he?!

  1. December 1, 2009 at 4:47 pm
  2. December 3, 2009 at 8:50 pm
  3. March 17, 2010 at 4:17 pm
  4. June 14, 2010 at 8:38 am

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