Can he make Mr Blair great?

Frank Field has radical plans for welfare. He told Paul Vallely about the case for change
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There was only one person mentioned by name by Tony Blair in the two-page interview published in a tabloid newspaper yesterday. That person was Frank Field, the Labour chairman of the Commons social services select committee, and though the reference was only passing, the agenda which the Labour leader set out on the reform of the Welfare State was pure Field.

Blair talked of reform to unemployment benefit so people would be encouraged to work, of a new income support system which would create incentives to self-help instead of curbing it, and of the need to move the nation's pensions into the private sector but in a way that was fair and just and did not end up with old people living in poverty.

It was like an echo of the conversation I had had with Field only the day before in his House of Commons room overlooking the Thames, where he outlined how his thinking on welfare reform has evolved over the past decade. The time has come when it no longer seems fanciful to suggest that the Labour backbencher, who has been dogged by the tag of "maverick" throughout his 16 years in Parliament, could well find himself in the Cabinet of a Labour government.

Until now Field has been seen as an outsider. He made no friends in the last Labour government (indeed David Owen, of all people, called him a traitor) when, as director of the Child Poverty Action Group, he published a report which the Tory leader, Edward Heath, pithily summarised as "the poor get poorer under Labour". Few seemed willing to come to his aid in the early Eighties when Trotskyists three times tried to get him deselected from his seat in Birkenhead.

Now, at last, he has come in from the cold. Relations with Blair's office are "friendly" and the leader's team seem happy to allow Field to occupy the vanguard on social policy: "They've got lots of other things to do and I'm really happy doing this. And I'm happy to take all the risk in case it goes wrong." As Donald Dewar, who holds the shadow social security portfolio, wrestles with the task of translating the party's social justice document into a workable policy, Field is given the licence to think the unthinkable. Blair, he says, gives him sympathetic support, looks carefully at the developments and is "concerned very crucially" about two specific proposals on employment and long-term care of the ill and elderly. Field is to have these costed by the government actuary before floating his reforms to gauge the public response.

This extreme caution is a mark of how revolutionary the proposals will be. "They have to be," says Field. "We've got to have a complete rethink on welfare because it's the largest area of government expenditure - and one of the fastest growing. It already spends a third of taxpayers' money and unless we have an alternative we'll only be faced with a Labour secretary of state doing what Peter Lilley is doing - tightening up conditions, cutting rates and throwing people off benefit. Even if we got every other policy right in every other area, if we don't get welfare right it will derail a Labour government. So there's a desperate need for an alternative."

If Blair does adopt it, as Field now believes he will, it will confound those who denigrate the Labour leader as no radical. "He wants to be a great prime minister. We've had two great reforming governments this century - 1906 and 1945 - and both were great because they struck a deal on welfare. I would therefore hope and confidently expect that we would have a great third reforming government and the centrepiece of that has to be welfare. The cornerstone of this debate is a proper appreciation of human character and everything Mr Blair says indicates he reads character in this manner."

To explain, Field goes back to his days at the Child Poverty Action Group: "It was the end of the old politics of rationalism when you could win the debate by good argument and then get the bishops, or whoever, to put pressure on Labour ministers." In those days "the poor" and "the working class" were synonymous.

Thatcherism changed all that. The working class was broken asunder and aspiration replaced class as the driving force of politics. The task for Labour was to build a coalition which covered the diverse groups resulting from that fragmentation.

Independently, Field, Blair and the other instinctive modernisers began thinking along the same lines. "We have to find a way of going with the grain of human nature rather than against it. Altruism is not the great force in human nature. Human beings are primarily interested in themselves, and then their families - loyalty to the wider community gets weaker as one goes further afield. Everything about Mr Blair has got that right - altruism can only thrive properly if you are satisfying properly the self-interest side. Self-interest has to be harnessed in such a way that it thrives and yet also promotes the common good."

The current social security system does the opposite. Under the Tories' increasingly means-tested system, the unemployed lose benefit if they find some occasional or part-time work. Savings are confiscated and incentives to dishonesty are created: "The problem is not primarily with the people who cheat, but the politicians who fix people into a system where to cheat is rational behaviour." Field's reforms would change income support into a mechanism for encouraging training to empower individuals and change the present culture of dependency.

His fear is that the techniques he has developed to build a new relationship between the individual and the state (in a way which gives more control to the individual, but which promotes a new sense of collective responsibility) could be misused if they were brought in by a government which did not share his moral vision. Implemented selectively, they could be used as part of a right-wing agenda for terrorising rather than empowering the poor.

"Welfare affects character. We're fallen creatures, capable of redemption; that's where I start from, and that's where Mr Blair starts from. I want welfare reform to entrench some of the verities in a way which people understand and cheer for." As to personal ambition, he concedes disarmingly that in a Labour administration he would like to be Secretary of State for Social Security, but adds, "it would be a bonus, of course, implementing it; but it's the change I'm after".