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Nothing new in Frank Field’s disloyalty to Labour and contempt for party members

Nothing new in Frank Field’s disloyalty to Labour and contempt for party members

Since he resigned the Labour whip, denouncing the party for “becoming a force for anti-Semitism in British politics” and claiming that a “culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation” prevails in his local party, Birkenhead MP Frank Field has been all over the media. Predictably, they have treated his decision with respect and sympathy. To anyone who has followed Field’s career, though, his current behaviour — involving as it does disloyalty to Labour, contempt for members of his own constituency party, and unsubstantiated accusations of intimidation against his political opponents — can only induce a sense of déjà vu.

Back in 1987 Field provoked an outcry from Labour supporters when he publicly advocated tactical voting for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in that year’s general election — a call to vote against Labour candidates that was in clear breach of party rules. Even worse, Field circulated a letter attacking Labour left-winger Lol Duffy who was standing as a parliamentary candidate in the neighbouring Wirral constituency. The letter, in which Field declared that he would not be supporting Duffy’s candidacy and would refuse to appear on any platform with him, was published on the front page of a local paper under the headline “Marxist Lol slammed by Frank Field”. Duffy still managed to cut the sitting Tory MP’s majority to just 279 votes, and would very likely have won the seat had it not been for Field’s political scabbing.

Understandably, Field’s deplorable actions antagonised many members of Birkenhead CLP. At that time mandatory selection was in force, and in 1989 when Field stood for re-selection he lost to a local left-wing trade unionist named Paul Davies, who received 50.5 per cent of the vote as against Field’s 45 per cent. As Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee record in their book Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, when the result was announced:

“Field stormed out of the meeting, making it plain that he would not accept the local Party’s decision. Although earlier he had raised no complaints about the conduct of the selection, now he cried foul to the press. He intimated that he would resign and fight a by-election if the Party leadership failed to defend him. He then embarked upon a high-profile media campaign to save himself, indifferent to any damage he would cause to the Labour Party or even its leadership.”

To back up his accusations of malpractice during the selection process, Field and his supporters compiled a dossier which they submitted to the party’s National Executive Committee. Heffernan and Marqusee describe it as “a farrago of bizarre and largely untruthful allegations about a number of personalities in the Wirral Labour Party. It also raised the by now familiar spectre of ‘intimidation’ and claimed that both Birkenhead and the neighbouring Wallasey constituency parties had been infiltrated by ‘Trotskyists’ and ‘Militants’.” Despite the dossier’s lack of credibility, the Labour Party NEC ordered the selection to be rerun.

The original contest had been supervised by regional organiser Peter Kilfoyle, who despite his rightist politics was committed to following democratic procedure. By the time time the selection was rerun in 1991, however, Kilfoyle was no longer in post, having become an MP after winning the Walton by-election. His replacement as regional organiser, one Eileen Murfin, was evidently intent on ensuring that the “right” result was achieved this time, even if it meant playing fast and loose with the rulebook. In the outcome, the original decision was reversed and Frank Field defeated Paul Davies by 53 per cent to 45.5 per cent. To quote Heffernan and Marqusee again:

“Two trade union branches, GMB No.275 and No.11, and two affiliated societies, the Christian Socialist Movement and the Co-operative Party, all of which voted for Field, were allowed by Murfin to participate in the ballot despite the fact that their delegates had failed to fulfil the voting precondition of attending at least one general committee meeting of Birkenhead CLP in the past twelve months. In addition, the Christian Socialist Movement branch had not paid its affiliation fee for 1990. Up to sixteen Field supporters who had not paid any subscription to the Party during 1990, despite written reminders, were allowed to vote in the second contest even though they had been ruled ineligible by Kilfoyle in the first. Paul Davies and his supporters claimed that if it had not been for these breaches of the rules he would have won the selection ballot by 50.3 per cent to 48 per cent.”

Having seen off this challenge, and with the Left marginalised within the party over the following years, Field must have thought his position was secure. He felt free to pursue a career as a political maverick, promoting his right-wing views on welfare reform, immigration and abortion rights, while on occasion expressing his admiration for Margaret Thatcher (“certainly a hero”) and Enoch Powell (“The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech gave him a commanding position among voters, as Enoch was expressing their fears”). Needless to say, Field has been one the most hostile critics of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist politics. In May last year he threatened to split the Parliamentary Labour Party, by forming a “People’s Labour” bloc of right-wing MPs, if Corbyn refused to stand down as leader following the general election.

Alas for Frank, Corbyn’s election to the leadership has brought an influx of new members into Birkenhead Labour Party who are not prepared to accept this sort of behaviour any longer. As one critic wrote recently: “Field’s views are so clearly inimical to Labour principles of justice, humanity and acceptance that in his case it’s reasonable to ask whether he should still be representing Labour voters in parliament.”

In March, a local party branch submitted a motion to Birkenhead CLP censuring Field over his paid journalism for the Sun, which is reviled on Merseyside because of its smears against victims of the Hillsborough disaster. According to one witness who was present at the debate: “Frank said that he would not be muzzled. He refused to give the requested commitment not to repeat the offence caused and stated that if members didn’t like it, they could deselect him.” When the censure motion was passed, Field “flounced out of the meeting”. In July he voted with the Tory government to oppose the UK remaining in a customs union following Brexit — saving Theresa May from a Commons defeat that would have provoked a major political crisis and could conceivably have led to the fall of the government. In response Birkenhead CLP passed a motion of no confidence against Field.

Field’s accusations of antisemitism and intimidation are obviously just a diversion. The reality is that his position within the local party had simply become untenable. In a future ballot there would presumably have been a majority in favour of triggering a full selection contest which Field would almost certainly have lost. This time there is no right-wing majority on Labour’s NEC to overturn the result and order a rigged rerun. So Field decided to jump before he was pushed. Through this action he has placed himself outside the party, and the selection of a Labour candidate for Birkenhead should be initiated as soon as possible. No doubt Paul Davies, and all the other party members whose democratic rights were trampled on so disgracefully back in 1989–91, will feel that justice has belatedly been done.

The following excerpt is from pp.271–77 of Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee’s Defeat from the Jaws of Victory (1992):

Frank Field, who was first elected Labour MP for Birkenhead in 1979, was always a fervent champion of his own right to say or do anything he liked. In April 1987 Field appeared on BBC television to advise voters to back the SDP-Liberal Alliance in seats where Labour came third. At the following NEC Tony Benn suggested that Field be asked to issue a statement calling on all electors to vote Labour. Kinnock replied that this was unwise because Field might refuse…. In the general election that followed, Field’s call for tactical voting was used by the Liberals against the Labour candidate in Southend West. The latter asked Field for a statement which he could use to rebut the Liberals but Field declined, saying, “I stand by what I said on tactical voting and I don’t issue statements of support for anyone.”

At around the same time Field was denouncing the Labour candidate in the neighbouring Wallasey constituency, left-winger Lol Duffy, in the press. Although he had never met Duffy, Field wrote in a private letter that was widely circulated in the area, “I can tell you in the most definite terms that I will not be supporting Duffy. I have refused to appear on any platform with him and I hope that Cammell Laird workers similarly refuse to give him a hearing when he tries to gatecrash on our factory gate meetings during the election campaign.” This letter, written on May 5th, was published on the front page of the Wirral Globe, a local paper, on May 21st under the heading “Marxist Lol slammed by Field”.

The Wallasey CLP ran a vigorous local campaign and Duffy succeeded in cutting Tory MP Lynda Chalker’s majority from 7,000 to 279 votes. Without Field’s intervention, Duffy would probably have won the seat. The MP’s treachery angered local Labour Party members, many of whom were already alienated by his aloof and dismissive attitude towards his Birkenhead Party members. Field’s views on such issues as training and taxation were not in keeping with the views of most Party members or indeed with Kinnock’s own Policy Review. He had strongly opposed the workers’ occupation of the Cammell Laird shipyard and was hostile to trade union activity. In the Commons he was a right-wing maverick, earning plaudits from Tories and the media but annoying many Labour MPs.

In the selection contest held in Birkenhead in late 1989, Field was beaten in the electoral college by Paul Davies, chair of the Wirral District Labour Party and a local TGWU official, who secured 50.5 per cent of votes to Field’s 45 per cent. In the individual members’ section of the college, Field had won by 165 votes to Davies’s 113. In the unions’ section Davies took 35 votes to Field’s 16. The postal votes went to Field by a wide margin.

Field stormed out of the meeting, making it plain that he would not accept the local Party’s decision. Although earlier he had raised no complaints about the conduct of the selection, now he cried foul to the press. He intimated that he would resign and fight a by-election if the Party leadership failed to defend him. He then embarked upon a high-profile media campaign to save himself, indifferent to any damage he would cause to the Labour Party or even its leadership.

Davies was not a member of the Militant Tendency, despite Field’s attempts to hint to the press that he was, but a mainstream left-wing TGWU activist. This meant that his opponents found it difficult to redbait him and had to resort to accusing him of thuggish behaviour. According to Field, Davies had physically threatened a fellow trade unionist and had intimidated children attending a Sunday School. Davies was able to produce evidence to disprove both these allegations.

In response to a question from Tony Benn at the December NEC Neil Kinnock admitted that he had had a private meeting with Frank Field. The leader said he had told Field that any evidence of malpractice in the selection procedure should be submitted to the NEC. Accordingly Field drew up and submitted an extraordinary 150-page dossier.

The Field dossier, compiled by a group of the MP’s Birkenhead supporters, was a farrago of bizarre and largely untruthful allegations about a number of personalities in the Wirral Labour Party. It also raised the by now familiar spectre of “intimidation” and claimed that both Birkenhead and the neighbouring Wallasey constituency parties had been infiltrated by “Trotskyists” and “Militants”. According to the dossier, twenty-two Militants and eleven Socialist Organiser supporters lived in the two constituencies. This rather contradicted Field’s earlier claim — made to explain away his defeat in the selection contest — that his local Party membership was 40 per cent Militant with an additional 20 per cent Militant “fellow travellers”.

Invitations to members of the public who wished to submit evidence to the dossier were placed in the local press by Field’s supporters. The finished product was ineptly written and singularly unconvincing. It asserted that “the political antics of some Labour members of Wirral Council have brought the name of the Party into disrepute”. The “evidence” for this claim was provided by three “independent Labour councillors” who had been expelled from the Labour Group for persistently voting with the Tories. Included in the dossier as “evidence” of the unacceptability of Paul Davies as a Labour candidate was a letter from the deputy leader of the Wirral Council Conservative Group.

One entry in the dossier read: “Tom Scilly, ward secretary (clerk with the TGWU, Liverpool office) works closely with the left in the party. He has a relationship with Tina Moran of Liscard ward who has been the constituency assistant secretary.” What were these people being accused of? Working for the left? Working for the TGWU? Having been constituency officers? Having a relationship? Another entry referred to “the vice chair Jane Fairburn, common-law wife of Mark Cushman” and alleged, falsely, that she “organized the printing of T-shirts for the anti-Poll Tax cause”. One contributor to the dossier explained informatively that a certain Party member “lives with a lady of the same opinions, whose name I can’t remember”. Another saw fit to bring to the readers’ attention the fact that a particular Party member was “a Welshman”. Militant supporters, described as “hard men, hit men”, were said to be at the forefront of a campaign of “intimidation” in the Wirral, though the dossier derided one of them for being only “5 feet tall with duck feet”. As evidence of the serious charge of “intimidation” Field cited incidents in which members of the Birkenhead general committee had laughed at him.

Field’s dossier argued that the parliamentary selection was invalid because membership checks were not undertaken. He claimed that more members had voted at the reselection conference than were eligible to do so. He also attacked TGWU affiliations to the Birkenhead CLP and called for nine of the thirteen affiliated branches to be investigated by the nationaI TGWU. This theme nicely complemented the ongoing “soft left” campaign, supported by the media, to exclude trade unions from the selection process. The Labour Co-ordinating Committee jumped on Field’s bandwagon and issued a press release protesting against the role of the unions in deselecting Field. Although Field denounced the TGWU for affiliating to the CLP on the basis of inappropriate membership (unemployed workers who had retained their union cards) he was himself, though no dockworker, a member of the TGWU Dockworkers Branch TG 6/506.

The Field dossier was sent to the press at the same time as it was submitted to the NEC. Field’s strategy was to use the media to apply pressure on the NEC to act in his defence. He presented himself as an innocent man of principle hounded by raving, bullying, cheating extremists. For the media he was Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront or Gary Cooper in High Noon, a brave individualist standing alone against a mob of evil-doers. Paul Davies was affronted by the charges made against him. In the good humour which, in marked contrast to Frank Field, characterized his approach throughout the dispute, Davies claimed that on the basis of the portrait contained in the Field dossier “even my mother would not vote for me”. But few people in the media and none at all in the Labour leadership appeared to be remotely interested in hearing Davies’s case.

In January 1990 the NEC solemnly agreed by twenty votes to three (Benn and Skinner were joined on this occasion by Eddie Haigh of the TGWU) to institute a wide-ranging inquiry into the Labour Party on the Wirral. Many NEC members agreed with Roy Hattersley that much of Field’s “evidence” was irrelevant, yet they all voted to back Field by launching what was, in effect, a crackdown on the left in the Wirral. It was not that any of them had much time for Frank Field. Most NEC members considered him a liability to the Party. Many declared, in private, that Field should not be allowed to hold the Labour Party to ransom. But time and again they came to his rescue at the NEC. They were as determined as Field himself that he should continue to be the Labour MP for Birkenhead — for the simple reason that the NEC dared not allow itself to be seen by the media as defending the Labour left against Frank Field.

The February 1990 NEC considered an interim report from [the party’s director of organisation] Joyce Gould, which acknowledged that not one of Field’s allegations relating to the selection procedure could be substantiated. The NEC majority responded with a call for a further investigation not only into Field’s allegations but also into the activities of the Socialist Organiser group in the area. Forced to concede that no Party rules had been broken, the NEC fell back on the old standby of “far left infiltration”.

Among those who had confirmed that the original selection was perfectly valid was Peter Kilfoyle, the Party’s right-wing regional organizer who had overseen the entire procedure. He resented what he saw as a slur on his professionalism and went on record refuting Field’s allegations. Joyce Gould had also been forced to concede that the allegations made against Paul Davies were bogus and that there were no grounds on which he could be disbarred from standing as a candidate should the NEC decide to rerun the selection. As Davies said, “The only thing wrong with me is that I am not Frank Field.”

Field, meanwhile, kept up his one-man campaign against the forces of darkness in the Labour Party and reiterated his threat to resign and fight a by-election. The June 1990 NEC received a further report from Joyce Gould. The meeting had no alternative but to conclude that there had been no irregularities in the conduct of the original Birkenhead selection contest and to confirm that all the trade union affiliations were bona fide. None the less, by seventeen votes to eight, the NEC ordered the selection to be rerun. The NEC also accepted Gould’s charge that six members of Birkenhead CLP, including Geoff Barker, the deputy leader of Wirral Council, were supporters of Militant. They were referred to the national constitutional committee and subsequently expelled from the Labour Party. At the same meeting the NEC agreed to undertake a separate investigation into the activities of Socialist Organiser.

The rationale for a new selection contest thus turned out to be not any objections to the conduct of the previous one but simply to the participation in it of half a dozen people alleged to be members of the Militant Tendency. The NEC made no recommendation about when the Birkenhead selection should be rerun, but did authorize a continued investigation into the activities of Wirral Labour Party members. The effect was to provide Field with a free hand to continue his campaign of blackmail against the Party and to give Joyce Gould the discretion to delay the reselection indefinitely.

Shortly after the NEC meeting, an informal approach was made to Davies to see if he would give up his claims in Birkenhead in return for the Party’s nomination for the Bootle by-election. This proved once again that there was no objection to Davies himself, simply a determination not to upset Frank Field. Davies, a local activist who had spent years building a local base, was not interested.

In the late autumn it was widely rumoured in the press that Labour would rerun the Birkenhead selection in March 1991. Regional organizer Peter Kilfoyle made it clear that the Birkenhead Labour Party was ready to proceed. But Field declared that he would not stand in any new selection until the left in Birkenhead and Wallasey had been routed. He issued yet more statements demanding the Labour leadership root out “left-wing infiltration”. As before, his outbursts in the media forced the leadership to take action on his behalf. The December 1990 NEC decided by seventeen votes to six to defer the Birkenhead reselection. Outside the NEC David Blunkett, who had voted with the NEC majority, declared his impatience with “Frank Field going on the TV and abusing the Party when it is doing what has been asked to be done”.

The Birkenhead selection was finally rerun in June 1991, eighteen months after the original ballot. This time, Field won the individual members’ ballot by 159 votes to Davies’s 99. In the unions’ section Davies won 25 branches to Field’s 18. That made Frank Field the overall winner in the electoral college by 53 per cent to 45.5 per cent.

One of the reasons that Field had finally agreed to let the ballot go ahead was the presence of new blood in the regional office. Peter Kilfoyle was on his way to Parliament courtesy of the Walton by-election and had been replaced by Eileen Murfin. Kilfoyle was passionately anti-Militant and clearly on the Party’s hard right, but he was prepared to tolerate traditional trade union left-wingers like Davies and had little time for a self-publicist like Field. Murfin, on the other hand, knew exactly what was expected of her by the leadership and proceeded to do it.

Two trade union branches, GMB No.275 and No.11, and two affiliated societies, the Christian Socialist Movement and the Co-operative Party, all of which voted for Field, were allowed by Murfin to participate in the ballot despite the fact that their delegates had failed to fulfil the voting precondition of attending at least one general committee meeting of Birkenhead CLP in the past twelve months. In addition, the Christian Socialist Movement branch had not paid its affiliation fee for 1990. Up to sixteen Field supporters who had not paid any subscription to the Party during 1990, despite written reminders, were allowed to vote in the second contest even though they had been ruled ineligible by Kilfoyle in the first.

Paul Davies and his supporters claimed that if it had not been for these breaches of the rules he would have won the selection ballot by 50.3 per cent to 48 per cent. Davies had drawn the attention of the national Party to these irregularities before the selection meeting had been convened but had received no response. Birkenhead CLP chair Sue Williams publicly charged the Labour hierarchy with manipulating the procedure to get the desired result. “I am absolutely appalled that the Labour Party has stooped so low to get the result that they wanted,” she said. “It’s an absolute disgrace. I have never seen such a shambles of a meeting. They have altered the voting and the membership.”

Davies documented his complaints to the NEC but, in contrast to the treatment given the discredited Field dossier, his submission received short shrift. NEC members were presented with it only when they arrived at the July 1991 organization sub-committee meeting, which expected to endorse Field. Tony Benn asked for more time to read the document but “soft left” members insisted there was no time available. Kinnock moved to endorse Field immediately. When Benn raised the question of Field’s disavowal of an official Labour candidate in Wallasey there was no response. John Evans defended Eileen Murfin and Clare Short described criticism of the regional office as “outrageous”. Only Benn, Skinner, Eddie Haigh and Barbara Switzer of MSF voted against endorsing Field.

The NEC then moved to silence grassroots protests about the conduct of the rerun selection by suspending the Birkenhead Labour Party. The excuse was once more a complaint that local Party officers had sought to “intimidate” members at the conclusion of the selection meeting. In response to Field’s claim on television that he had been physically sick before attending local Party meetings, local Party secretary Paddy Reynolds had quipped, after the ballot result was declared, “Frank Field has another four years of feeling sick to look forward to.” This comment was intended by Reynolds as a joke and taken that way by everyone else present. But for the Party leadership and the media it was evidence of the “intimidation” Field and his supporters had endured from the local left.

If anyone was guilty of running a campaign of intimidation it was Frank Field, who used the media to slander local Party members whose only crime was that they preferred to have someone else as their Labour MP. These were not public officials or national figures. These were not members of organized left-wing groups. They were grassroots activists with strong political commitments who had made every effort to abide by the rules of the Labour Party only to find that they were denied even the semblance of fair treatment. For the Party leadership, appeasing Frank Field and his backers in the media was far more important than protecting the rights of Party members to select a parliamentary candidate of their own choosing.

Note: The above article first appeared in MEDIUM

 

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