Underrated: Frank Field

The independent-minded Labour parliamentarian would have made an excellent Speaker

Andrew Gimson

Frank Field is an idealist. That is a very unfashionable thing to be in politics, especially among his fellow Labour MPs. So the last time the office of Speaker was contested, in 2009, Field recognised that his own colleagues would block him, and decided not to let his name go forward.

And yet he would have been an excellent Speaker. Even his severest critics acknowledge his independence of mind: indeed, they find it intolerable. He has been in the House for almost 38 years, is deeply versed in its procedures, and has the moral authority required to preside with success over its deliberations. He saw the reforms which were needed to rescue it from the deeper than usual contempt into which it fell during the expenses scandal. The grotesque lapses of taste committed by the present incumbent would not have occurred to him.

So Field more than deserves to be described as underrated, especially on his own side of the House. But this is a point that goes far beyond the Speakership. He stands for an idea of socialism which is in harmony with the best instincts of the working class from which he sprang. His father was a labourer in the Morgan Crucible factory in Battersea, his mother a teaching assistant. They were Tories “who believed in character and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”, as their son, born in 1942, later put it.

His hero is Clement Attlee, who in Field’s words showed “extraordinary personal radicalism” by “building a legislative programme with the aim of ennobling the character of the citizenry”. Attlee did not just aim at institutional reform: he wanted “moral regeneration too”. The welfare state was to be an insurance system: you would be rewarded for contributing to it. The system would work because it was the expression of a national moral community in which poverty was regarded as intolerable.

A few years ago, Field edited a volume called Attlee’s Great Contemporaries, in which he rescued from oblivion some of the journalism written by Attlee after retiring from the Labour leadership in 1955.  In his introduction he wrote:

The failure of the political classes to offer an Attlee-style leadership has much impoverished public life in Britain, to the regret of many voters who are thereby denied a real choice at the ballot box.

Field’s entire career can be seen as an attempt to rescue Attlee’s socialist ideals and apply them to present-day conditions. For ten years from 1969 he served as Director of the Child Poverty Action Group. In 1979, he was elected MP for Birkenhead, and in his maiden speech attacked the plans of the new Conservative government for increasing economic incentives: “I wish to describe the incentives that could have been given without making society more unequal.”

In 1997, Tony Blair made Field the Minister for Welfare Reform, working under Harriet Harman as Secretary of State for Social Security. In his memoir, A Journey, Blair admits that this turned out to be “a kind of ‘dating agency from hell’ mistake”:

Harriet was not really a policy wonk and this portfolio required a lot of wonkery. Frank was not really politically astute and it required a lot of political astuteness . . . I removed Harriet in the July reshuffle . . . When I refused to make Frank Secretary of State, he resigned. It was embarrassing, and though I both really liked and respected Frank — a genuine free independent spirit — I was also relieved. Some are made for office, some aren’t. He wasn’t. Simple as that.

One notes how Blair attempts, with characteristic skill, to sugar his self-serving account by ladling a large dollop of praise over Field, while also blaming him for being useless.

The truth is surely that the enrichissez-vous mentality of the Blairites was anathema to Field, and a harmonious working relationship with them was never very likely. Field is an Anglican of a somewhat puritanical disposition: he doesn’t see the need for all that money. Until he laughs, there is something thin-lipped, a hint of French revolutionary mercilessness, in his expression. He stands as a rebuke to a careerist political class which pretends to be uninterested in the fruits of office but fills its pockets whenever it can.

He got on well with Margaret Thatcher: an additional reason for his own side to regard him as suspect. He is also on this magazine’s advisory board, and an occasional contributor to its pages. And he warned from an early stage that traditional Labour voters were deeply worried about uncontrolled immigration from the European Union: a truth middle-class Labour MPs even now find impossible to accept.

Field is that curious figure, a rebellious conformist. He wants his party to stand up for the patriotic, respectable beliefs of millions of people who are never invited to dinner in Islington. If Labour had any sense, it would be listening to him instead of ignoring him.

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