FRANK FIELD: I battled Labour’s bullying, deceitful hard-Left all my political career – until the day Momentum thugs forced me out of the party I’d devoted 60 years of my life to
My father loathed me. I was conscious of this from my earliest days. In his eyes, I was a particularly difficult child. This was the basis of his persistent bullying of me, in which I never knew when I would be subjected to the next onslaught.
His behaviour taught me much about the tyranny of arbitrary power, but also about how power could be lost. I was 15 when he came at me with a hammer. I took it from him and told him if he did it again, I would use it on him.
The balance of power had changed. Before I acted, I’d had no idea I would prove to be the stronger, but I was. No more physical bullying.
This experience stood me in good stead to oppose the bullying by the hard Left — the Trotskyist tendencies that took over the Birkenhead Labour Party, where I was MP in the early 1980s, and the bullying by Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum group decades later.
For significant parts of my political life, the Labour Party was unelectable in Westminster. A main reason was the influence of Trotskyism and the hard Left. My activities against the Trotskyites became part of Labour’s battle to regain the trust of the electorate.
Undermined: Former Labour MP Frank Field with ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2016
My trials began in 1979 when I was elected as Labour MP for Birkenhead, the old shipbuilding town across the Mersey from Liverpool.
I was 37 and practically the whole of the local party was older than me, having grown old in the struggle for the New Jerusalem. They tried to live out a set of political ideas from which they expected to gain no personal honour.
But there was a cuckoo in the nest, a lying, cheating, bullying cuckoo. The votes had barely been counted when I was warned by far-Left pressure group Militant that, if I didn’t take their line, I’d be deselected before the next election.
What was the point of being an MP if I could only serve Birkenhead on their terms, rather than trying to interpret for myself what I believed to be best for my constituents?
A huge power struggle erupted once it became clear that I was not prepared to accept their diktat.
Party meetings became chaotic. Militant member after Militant member got up to tell shocking lies about me. Every new lie left me aghast. What sort of machine did they have to think up such a campaign?
I would regularly wake up at night, my heart thumping, as the next meeting approached. One morning, I was shaving when I found myself thinking about facing the Trots at our next meeting. Such was my fear that I vomited.
I looked into the mirror at my pathetic face, with sick all over my shaving cream. I said to myself that I could think of any number of excuses that would appear plausible for not appearing at that night’s meeting. But if I so acted, I would be running away from such conflicts for the rest of my life. To the meeting I went.
My battles with the hard Left continued throughout my years as a Labour MP, right up to the day I was ejected from the party to which I’d been devoted my entire adult life.
The whole affair started oddly with me actually nominating the hard Left’s Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate in the leadership contest to succeed Ed Miliband back in 2015. I would never have done so had I thought for a second that he would win, and this judgment was shared by those on the hard Left who reckoned their chances of success were nil.
But I do believe that what the hard Left define as their socialist views have a place in the Labour Party.
I also firmly believe it is crucial for different sectors of the party to be able to contribute to its local and national debate, since that is where the nuance of democracy needs to be practised.
Frank Field outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster
I wished the Corbynite views to play a part in the leadership contest — to help influence the outcome but not to dominate it. Sadly, once Corbyn was in power, the hard Left’s total domination of the debate was served up as a form of party democracy.
I knew Jeremy. He had served on the Health and Social Services committee I chaired during the 1992-97 Parliament, but he had never actually spoken to me.
He now came up to thank me for nominating him — talking to me for the first time ever, including all the committee sessions.
I was so surprised at being spoken to that my answer simply jumped out: ‘I won’t be voting for you.’
‘I never expected you would,’ came the equally quick reply.
The election of party leader was on a ‘one person, one vote’ basis, something I had campaigned for. In adopting this reform, it was assumed the age-old rules aimed at protecting the Labour Party from extremist infiltration would continue to operate.
But under Ed Miliband’s leadership, the party made a fatal error that resulted in Corbyn being elected.
Miliband introduced a very cheap party membership which gave new members the right to help elect the next leader. Anyone could join, and some Tories openly did to vote for Corbyn, as this would be of most advantage to them.
But so, too, did huge numbers of people with Trotskyite sympathies. The hard Left saw the unique opportunity this party reform offered them and acted ruthlessly.
Labour under Ed Miliband lowered the party’s protective shield against those groups which historically had tried to destroy the Labour Party. Many of them piled into the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn — and he won.
They soon came for me. In Birkenhead, a leading Momentum supporter accused me of attempting to undermine the National Minimum Wage policy — a typical untruth peddled in order to undermine the credibility of an elected Labour MP who would not bend to their agenda.
At a local Labour Party meeting, I explained the history — I’d actually established the Low Pay Unit back in 1974 and we’d lobbied to gain a legally backed wage for all workers.
Walter Smith, our local party chair, son of a trade union leader and Labour to his core, came to my support, but later allegations were made to the police that he had physically assaulted a fellow Labour councillor at that meeting. He was questioned under caution.
The caution had the most dramatic impact on him. He felt ashamed and two weeks later died of a massive heart attack, aged 82. Walter Smith was kind and full of goodness, never holding a grudge against anyone, as far as I could judge. In some instances, I thought he was too tolerant of the intolerance around us.
The idea that this man could suffer a heart attack after a lifetime of service, without the National Labour Party lifting a finger to inquire as to the circumstances surrounding his death, appalled me.
A characteristic of totalitarianism has always been a complete disregard for individual life. A pattern of events was beginning to emerge that showed how the Corbyn Labour Party would behave if it ever formed a government.
At a party, I complained to friends and supporters about the bullying behaviour to which party members were increasingly being subjected.
Every attempt to restore civilised values had been knocked back by Labour Party bureaucracy, generally by ignoring each complaint and submission.
I pledged to resign the party whip if I failed to get the National Labour Party to adjudicate in what I saw as trumped-up charges against Walter.
Time and time again I requested specific action about Walter’s case. None was forthcoming, not even a formal reply to any of my requests. Even when the Chief Whip sought action, nothing happened.
I was brought up sharp by the deep calamity and wretchedness the Labour Party had fallen into, with Corbyn cultivating a tolerance of the thuggery we were experiencing from Momentum activists.
It had a familiar ring. I’d tried to forget the horror of Militant activists back in the early 1980s, but now those memories were snatched out of that far recess of my mind and replayed, this time with a Militant and Momentum line-up.
Momentum had joined forces with those from Militant who were still knocking around and had been welcomed back into the party by the leadership. Those malevolent events of lying, cheating, bullying and the like, which were the stuff of Militant politics, were now centre-stage and appealing to a wider membership that carried this hateful DNA.
The National Labour Party was also harbouring anti-Semites. All too many of Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations were with groupings who believed it was legitimate to use violence to achieve their political ends, including those committed to wiping Israel off the face of the map.
For both these reasons, I resigned the Labour whip on August 30, 2018.
I did so because of the active protection of thugs by Corbyn’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which had resulted in bullying behaviour becoming the norm against anyone deemed to be unsound on Corbyn, and because his Labour Party bent over backwards to harbour anti-Semites to such a degree that anti-Semitism had become part of Labour’s DNA.
I saw the chief whip Nick Brown in his office, where he told me I had two weeks to reconsider and withdraw my resignation. If I didn’t, I would cease to be a member of the Labour Party.
I gasped. I never thought for one moment I would lose my party membership. I never viewed resigning the whip as a capital offence. I had assured my friends that, should I fail to get an inquiry for Walter, I would nonetheless remain a Labour Party member, as I had been for very nearly six decades.
Brown showed me the Labour’s rule book, which decreed that ‘All Labour MPs shall be members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and play their part in its work.’
‘This doesn’t apply to me, Nick,’ I responded. I still saw myself as a Labour MP in every aspect of my work, while I continued to fight for justice against the thuggery in the Birkenhead Labour Party.
‘I shall legally contest this ruling’s applicability to me,’ I kept muttering.
But it did. A letter of execution headed with my Labour Party membership number of 60 years told me I was out of the party. It added that, now I was no longer a member, my complaints about the thuggish behaviour by Momentum members were no longer being considered.
Labour under Ed Miliband (pictured) lowered the party’s protective shield against those groups which historically had tried to destroy the Labour Party
I stress this action as it suggests Labour Party bureaucrats believe either they are above the law or that no law applies to them. The Labour Party is a corporate body, and anyone, member or not, has a right to complain about its conduct.
But for all my protests, that was me gone. In a two-line statement Corbyn thanked me for 60 years’ membership — as though I had resigned from the local whist club for showing intermittent commitment during a probationary year’s membership.
At the next general election, I stood in Birkenhead as the Social Justice candidate but, despite a small bank of loyal supporters, I lost. The hard Left had bussed in people to work their campaign. One evening I went into a local pub and found a note from a group that was just leaving. It said: ‘Up from Wokingham to get you.’
And so they did. My 7,000 votes were overwhelmed by the total for the official Labour candidate. I was out and Momentum and the hard Left were in.
Why did I make all this fuss about my membership of the Labour Party once I had resigned from the party whip? Why did I involve myself in protracted warfare with Corbyn and his bureaucracy to overturn their arbitrary decision to expel me?
Because from the day I joined, it wasn’t the Labour Party organisation to which I was giving my loyalty. It was with the party’s ideas, vision and direction of political travel that I wished to join forces. I still do.
Freedom from the exercise of arbitrary power has been both the simplest and strongest of all my drives. You could say I learned it at my father’s knee that day he came at me with a hammer.
- Adapted from Politics, Poverty And Belief: A Political Memoir by The Rt Hon Frank Field (Bloomsbury, £20). © Frank Field 2023. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 04/03/23; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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