Saturday, 14 March 2015

Frank Field and the battle for Labour's Liverpool Soul

I was saddened today to read that the Labour MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, has been hospitalised after collapsing in Merseyside. My brief "get well" message on Twitter being retweeted by as many Conservative as Labour MPs is testament to the reputation in which he is held across the political spectrum.

I first met Frank in the mid 1980s. His Birkenhead constituency was the neighbouring one to where I grew-up and first cut my political teeth, Wallasey. The early-mid 1980s in Merseyside was a tough and at times physically intimidating place for a Conservative. The rise of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency brought an aggressive, nasty and often violent edge to political debate. Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and Terry Fields were running Liverpool and using it as a base to expand their influence and control into the neighbouring Boroughs, including my own. This was the height of their power, both within the Labour Party and the major industrial cities of the north. Talking to younger activists today it is hard for them to believe what politics then was like then. Canvassing for the Conservative Party in Wirral I would be regularly spat at, my car was once turned upside down, we had "Tory Scum" painted on our front door and hate mail and razor blades sent in the post. Neil Kinnock's leadership of the British Labour movement achieved little of lasting value, but when he started the process which ejected Militant from the Labour Party, he performed his greatest ever service to politics in the UK.

At the time of Militant's dominance I helped form a group called "Liverpool Against The Militants". It was a cross party co-ordinating group including Conservatives, the sensible wing of the Liberal / SDP Alliance, business and taxpayer groups and many thousands of concerned residents.  We provided resources, training and support to whichever moderate political party was standing against Militant-backed Labour councillors, including at times helping moderate Labour councillors fight-off deselection. At the height of the campaign we released a record (don't ask) and held a rally at the Pier Head attended by 5,000 people - though I am not sure if they came for the politics or to see Ken Dodd. 

Throughout this time, despite facing a fierce deselection attempt from entryists in his own CLP, Frank Field was steadfast in his opposition to Militant Tendency.  Along with an decent and patriotic group of traditional Labour moderates, led by two local Labour councillors Ken Fox and Jim Edwards, Frank was the bulwark against Militant's attempted take-over of the Wirral Labour Party.  Frank Field was obviously reselected - but his fight did not stop with his own survival. At the 1987 General Election my own MP, Lynda Chalker, was opposed by a Militant-backed Trotskyist named Lol Duffy. It was a dirty and bitter fight right to the end. Lynda's majority in that election was just 279. I have no doubt that the many letters written by Labour moderates to the local press exposing Militant did a great deal to secure those 279 votes. 

I have not seen nor spoken to Frank Field since, but I have always held him in the highest regard. Along with a small but determined band, he showed remarkable strength, dignity and personal courage in the mid 1980s. I wish him a full and speedy recovery.

1 comment:

  1. The militant tendency should have been allowed to lead the Merseyside Labour parties in the 1980s. This would have put a stop to accepting the Thatcherite policy on converting building societies into public companies leading to the takeover of the building societies by the banks. This would have prevented the Labour Government from introducing the Bank of England Act 1998 removing the Bank of England's responsibility for the solvency of the banking system, and would have prevented the investment of American mortgage backed securities into the British banking system. This would have prevented intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. All these were the crackpot policies of the Labour moderates led by Tony Blair, not the extremists.