I do not normally comment in this blog on matters from outside of the city-region. However, the recent actions and statements of Frank Field, MP, may well have an impact both within our city-region, and on the national scene, with unpredictable consequences for all of us.
Firstly, I must set out my credentials for this. Like Frank, I have more than fifty years membership of the Labour Party, and, like him, have served as a minister in a Labour government. Nevertheless, I can claim no intimate knowledge of the Birkenhead Labour Party, nor am I able to comment on any of the specific charges he has filed in recent days against members of that party. Another point on which we would diverge is Jeremy Corbyn. Frank’s was a critical nomination enabling Jeremy to become leader of the Labour Party. I have openly stated that had I still been in parliament, I would not have nominated Jeremy, amiable although he is. Critically, he is the party’s leader, and I accept the membership’s decision on that.
Before entering parliament, I was the Labour Party’s regional organiser in the north west of England. I recall two instances of Frank’s rather unique approach to party membership and all which that entails. These attitudes of thirty years ago are echoed in his recent performance. In the 1987 general election, he encouraged voters to opt for his friend – Tory MP for Wallasey, Linda Chalker – rather than support the Labour candidate, Lol Duffy. No action was taken against him at that time despite his disloyalty.
The second occasion was the selection of the Labour parliamentary candidate for Birkenhead in 1989. The process ended up with a shortlist of three – Frank; Paul Davies, a union official; and Cathy Wilson, a Militant. Difficulties began at the hustings, held in Birkenhead Town Hall. Frank could not produce a union card as the then rules demanded. I suspected that this was a tactic by Frank to delay the reselection as he did not have the numbers to win. To the rescue came Paul Davies, offering to give me a letter to the effect that Frank was indeed a member of one of his branches – a docks branch, of all things. Problem solved.
When we came to the count, Paul Davies was the clear choice of the membership, with the Militant a very distant third. A very agitated Frank was impatient to go outside to the waiting press to tell them what he would and would not do. I had to implore Frank to at least thank his own supporters for their vain attempts to win him reselection. He did so in a brusque fashion, but still he exited, uttering threats of a by-election to his press audience. His current posture shows little change in Frank’s sense of entitlement to what is effectively a parliamentary sinecure. To me, this is at odds with what he has often condemned as the fecklessness of some of those who view a life on benefits as their entitlement.
Thus, I was not too surprised by Frank’s recent fit of pique. He has form. Back in 1989, he threatened a by-election if his local party’s choice was not overturned. After I left my job as regional organiser, he got his way. This was much to my dismay, and, indeed, to many local party members who had previously supported Frank, but were outraged by what they saw as his political blackmail.
As for Frank’s use of the anti-semitism row to back his vague claims of thuggery in his local party, I am cynical – I think of his own comments on immigration. I can only say what I have said before – that I have never witnessed, in my fifty five years in the Labour Party, any anti-semitism. My biggest concern is that the legitimate fears of those who see a surge in anti-semitism, are being manipulated by some for political reasons, both within and without the Labour Party. Conflating criticism of the Israeli government with anti-semitism has the objective of neutralising public policy towards that government across the political spectrum.