10 May 2017

Free Exchange: CapX meets Frank Field


In 1993, a profile of Frank Field described him as “a holy man in a wicked world”. If anything, Field has got more holy even as the world has got more wicked. As Labour MP for Birkenhead, he has championed such un-Labour causes as welfare reform and immigration control, while also playing a leading role in the hounding of Sir Philip Green over the BHS pension debacle and in inspiring Theresa May to take action against modern slavery.

In the latest edition of the CapX podcast (recorded before Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election, while the Brexit Bill was still going through the Commons), he spoke to me about the importance of faith in politics, his battles with the Corbynistas, and how the Labour Party can regain its connection to the voters.

Readily apparent throughout this fascinating conversation was that the man ordered by Tony Blair to “think the unthinkable” has never stopped thinking it – although he does now accept that nominating Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership was a thought experiment too far…

Frank Field on… joining the Labour Party (1 min 30 secs)

“I helped organise a boycott of South African goods in Brentford and Chiswick, where I was secretary of the young Tories. All it really amounted to was that we printed out a couple of leaflets. But I was squeezed out of the Tory party. And quite pleased to be squeezed out. It was just before Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech – before that the young Conservatives were holding the line on race. It did show the importance of leadership: that speech changed a generation of young Tories’ views.”

Frank Field on… disobeying the party line (3 mins 30 secs)

“As head of the Child Poverty Action Group, I wrote a memorandum which I headlined ‘The Poor Are Getting Poorer Under Labour’. It was a long time at public meetings before people wouldn’t shout ‘Judas’ at me.

“I’m viewed as an outsider, but I long to be an insider. It just so happens that the events you’re dealing with push me to the outside, to say what I think needs to be said – and to organise in a way I think you need to organise, and often to try to defeat the Government, whether it’s a Tory or a Labour government

Frank Field on… immigration (8 mins)

“The truth is, I wasn’t brave enough to raise it as an issue – though I thought it was an issue for yonks – until we were talking about white people coming in. And even then the anger that this was racist was something one had to face. David Blunkett and Jack Straw both kindly made statements and went on to the media to assure people that Frank wasn’t racist. I said: ‘David, how do you know I’m not? How do you know in my heart what I really think?'”

Frank Field on… Labour’s immigration problem (13 mins)

“We had a debate in the parliamentary party just before Ed Miliband led us to defeat. A large number of then Labour MPs got up and said he’d given a brilliant speech. I got up just before the end and said ‘Do you actually think that we’re responsible for this huge influx? Do you think this has resulted in real pressure on the NHS, that there’s no chance of getting your children into the local schools, that you’ve got no chance of getting a house? And Ed got up and said ‘No’. And a lot of the PLP cheered. And I thought ‘God, what am I doing in this party?'”

Frank Field on… the role of the state (19 mins)

“It’s very interesting how the view of the state has changed during my lifetime from what was seen as a protective organisation to what it was originally – an enemy. I don’t think many people in Stoke think the state is the solution to their problems.

“The Labour movement was actually originally anti-state. It was the body that protected the rich. And we’re back to that. We’ve not had one banker in the box – let alone sent to prison – for all the terrible things that they’ve inflicted upon us. I think people do see the state as protecting the very rich, and not on their side.”

Frank Field on… being an MP (25 mins 30)

“I’ve always thought I should give up when one of two things happen. One is that I arrive at Liverpool Lime Street and I’m not excited. And secondly, when I’m in the constituency, that I don’t learn anything. To have a single-member seat where you’re responsible is the great strength of our system. It provides members – if they wish to learn from it – with the most marvellous education possible.”

Frank Field on… Labour’s future (30 mins)

“The idea that we’re going to have another Blair – that’s impossible. Unless we’re totally suicidal. It’s going to be a Jess Phlilips figure, isn’t it – not a charmer like Blair, if we’re going to survive. Someone who’s straight-talking, who mixes it, who just goes in there.

“If you look at Jeremy’s views, he’s very consistent and honest about them. But they’re views that the core white working class vote simply do not share. And he’s not prepared to move and they’re not prepared to move…

“We need a figure like Jeremy with his character and sincerity, but the right views. And the life he or she leads also has to be one that can win middle-class votes. We cannot win without that coalition. To lose that old working class vote, and think there’s enough votes in the North London elite, is folly beyond belief. But we do need middle-class votes as well.”

Frank Field on… his time in government (37 mins)

“Blair once said to me, you reach people that even I can’t reach. And I ought to have registered that and said, ‘Oh, that’s really why they want me on board, this is not going to be serious at all.’ But I made a mistake about him – I thought he would stand up to Gordon.”

Frank Field on… accidentally starting a crusade on modern slavery (41 mins)

“I was at an event with the editor of The Spectator and – he disputes this, but he spoke for too long. And for once in his life, he was boring. And then there were other speakers. So I thought ‘What can I say in 30 seconds?’ And I said: we must call trafficking by its true name, slavery. And we must have a Bill. And I spent the summer trying to get Fiona Hill to persuade the Home Secretary that it was an important issue, and important for her image as well. And we got the Bill. Lots of issues take 30 years to get across. That took three months…. and now the Prime Minister says it’s the thing she’s most proud of, which is a terrific thing.”

Frank Field on… poverty and dependency (47 mins 30)

“We’ve got a whole group of males who cannot fulfil their historic role – and women who wouldn’t be particularly interested in it. And we’ve fallen out of love with nurturing children. How can you lie in bed, expecting your kids to get themselves up, washed, dressed, get breakfast, get to school? It’s unimaginable… You’ve got huge armies of children, everywhere, in every constituency, hungry. And teachers laying on breakfast clubs and supper clubs because they will go home to cold, empty houses.

“I was struck by one little fella who’d been adopted. And I asked him what the difference was. And he said it was warm, and there was food in the cupboards. Quite chilling, isn’t it?”

You can listen to the full episode here:

Or catch up with our recent interviews with Nick CohenDaniel HannanPeter Oborne and Lord Lawson.

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Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX and author of 'The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster' (Bloomsbury)