Underrated: Frank Field
The veteran Labour MP has always championed the poor, but has now quit the party because of the far Left’s anti-Semitism
Of all the people we have profiled here over the past decade, Frank Field must be one of the most admired. Few politicians have ever been so transparently decent; of him could it be said that he dignifies Parliament, not the other way round. In almost 40 years as a Member, he has consistently championed the poor and vulnerable — but never resented the rich.
And yet he is underrated. Worse: many of those who claim to admire him actually condescend to and damn him with faint praise. When he resigned the whip over Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism, not only the Labour leadership but plenty of commentators dismissed him as a maverick. “Frank Field is not the answer,” Parris wrote in The Times. “He’s on the side of the angels but he is not one of them . . . he is slightly touched by the Joan of Arc syndrome.”
The insinuation of insanity, albeit of a harmless kind, is intended to evoke that very English suspicion of those who take their faith seriously. A prominent Anglican, Field is chairman of the King James Bible Trust; that’s quite enough to be put down as a Bible-basher. Yet it was he who last month urged the Church of England to buy the bankrupt payday lender Wonga’s loan book.
Full disclosure: I first met Frank Field at the age of eight. The occasion was the 1966 general election: he was the youngest candidate in the country and I was his youngest canvasser. Nationally, Labour won by a landslide; but in South Bucks (now Beaconsfield, then as now one of the safest Tory seats in the country), the earth failed to move. Hurrying home from my primary school I joined Frank and his little entourage going from door to door. He was as charismatic as he was energetic, but when we offered a leaflet to one couple, their faces fell. “That’s no use to us,” they admitted. It took a moment for the penny to drop: they were illiterate. Having been able to read for half of my short life already, I was shocked. “That’s why we need the Labour Party,” Frank said.
Thereafter he was driven by burning desire to help the children of working-class families to seize opportunities such as he, a grammar school boy, had enjoyed. Three years later, Field set up the Child Poverty Action Group. In the 1970s it mounted highly successful campaigns, including the replacement of family allowances by Child Benefit, normally paid to mothers. He did not fight another seat for Labour until 1979, when he won Birkenhead and he has held it ever since. But Margaret Thatcher won that year, the first of four successive Conservative victories. Field disagreed with many of her policies, but he was impressed by her as a politician and a person. On the eve of her fall in 1990, he gained an audience amid the chaos, during which he tried to persuade her not to resign. This Labour backbencher was more loyal than most of the Conservative cabinet.
The man who taught Field to value principles above party was the economist John Vaizey. He was ennobled by Harold Wilson but later became a convert to Thatcherism; his son Ed Vaizey is a former Conservative minister. Like Vaizey, Field has never been institutionalised and has never feared to take a leap of faith.
By the time Labour held office again in 1997, Field was 55. He knew more about the welfare state than anybody else in politics, having chaired the relevant committees for a decade, but it was late in life to begin a ministerial career. He became Minister of State for Welfare Reform, with a mandate from Tony Blair to “think the unthinkable”. Field made it his mission to restore the insurance principle to the heart of the welfare system, but his experience in office proved to be nasty, brutish and short. Within months, Gordon Brown and his Treasury had boxed in the upstart reformer. Feeling let down by the Prime Minister, he resigned. Field has never held ministerial office since.
Not that this has hindered Field’s crusade on behalf of the little man or woman. Under the Coalition government, he led an independent review into poverty; but David Cameron gave him no more support than Blair and Brown. As chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, he remains a force in the Commons — and he gets results. His grilling of Sir Philip Green over the latter’s treatment of staff at the bankrupt BHS led the tycoon to contribute far more to their pension fund. But he was shocked by receiving anti-Semitic abuse aimed at Green, much of it from the Left.
It was, however, the purge of Labour MPs by Momentum and other Corbynistas that proved to be the last straw. After voting with the government on Brexit, Field was targeted in Birkenhead and lost a vote of confidence in his local party. He had endured years of such hounding at the hands of the far Left during the 1980s. And when the full extent of anti-Semitic penetration under Jeremy Corbyn came light, Field decided to break with the party he loved.
Magnificent in adversity and magnanimous in victory, Frank by name and frank by nature, at 76 Field may be the only true statesman now sitting in the House of Commons. He deserves the nation’s gratitude for leading by example.