Terry Fields: Labour MP from the Militant Tendency who was jailed for 60 days for refusing to pay the poll tax
Wednesday 02 July 2008
The Terry Fields that I knew in the House of Commons was a gentle, reflective, neatly dressed, pipe-smoking friend and colleague, who in no way fitted the stereotype of some caudillo of the Militant Tendency. Neil Kinnock once came into the Members' cafeteria where I was having lunch with Fields and exclaimed: "I don't know which of you is more of a nuisance – the Militant Tendency or the old Etonian tendency."
For all Fields's extreme opinions, his personal behaviour was impeccable and that of a gentleman – at any rate during the 11 years he represented Liverpool Broadgreen in Parliament. His detractors – who represented most of the conventional wisdom of the day – had to face an awkward fact: that Terry Fields won a Conservative-held seat in 1983, the nadir year of Labour's electoral fortunes, and lo and behold nearly doubled his majority from 3,800 to over 6,000 in 1987. Those who knew Fields, formerly a fireman, and those who knew Liverpool were not in the least surprised.
Doris Heffer, widow of the left-wing MP Eric Heffer, confirms what the broadminded in the Parliamentary Labour Party already know. "Fields was an enormously principled man who kept his promises. He promised to live on a fireman's wage and donate the balance of his MP's salary and allowances to the party causes or, frankly, also to the coffers of Militant Tendency. But he also retained something else in all his troubles and his expulsion – the friendship of my husband Eric Heffer, of the dockers' MP Eddie Loyden, of Bob Parry, the MP for Liverpool Riverside and other long-serving Labour MPs."
Bob Wareing, MP for Liverpool West Derby since 1983 (formerly Labour, now Independent), told me: "Even though we might disagree on the methods used by Militant Tendency, we in Liverpool could not but respect the sincerity and principled behaviour of Terry Fields."
Terence Fields was born in 1937, the son of a Liverpool docker. He told me that what really radicalised him and made him into a politician of the extreme left was his National Service period as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps. On demobilisation, he joined the Merseyside fire brigade, serving as a fireman for the next 25 years. In the 1970s he was among the originators of the Militant Tendency within the Labour Party. The Militants were actually far more dangerous to the Labour establishment than either the Trotskyists or the Communists because they understood the value of "entryism": of joining the Labour Party and seeking to change it from within.
Anyone who knew Liverpool at that time would not have been surprised at the increasing influence of the Militant Tendency. A once-proud city was experiencing widespread unemployment and poverty. The context for Fields' election to Parliament in 1983 may be illustrated by the 1979 Liverpool Edge Hill by-election caused by the death of the Labour MP Sir Arthur Irvine, the tall, gangling ex-Solicitor General, a devotee of the fearsome judge Lord Goddard. Irvine, a most clubbable and congenial companion in the Palace of Westminster, had the habit, quite prevalent in those days, of visiting his constituency in a deprived area of Liverpool with huge social problems and staying at the luxurious Adelphi Hotel, where he also held his quarterly surgeries. No wonder David Alton as a Liberal was elected, rather than the Labour candidate Bob Wareing.
I first became aware of Terry Fields at the special conference of the Labour Party following our defeat in 1979, held in the spring of 1980. Fields gave an extreme speech, preceding that of Denis Healey, but there were many in the hall who found his principles (such as having worker MPs on worker wages) attractive. Of course, many of us also thought that too much of this would make a Labour government unelectable.
When the 1983 intake of MPs arrived, which included Fields, the House of Commons Serjeant at Arms Department allocated one of the small double offices to two new Members by the names of T. Blair and D. Nellist. One was an unabashed member of the Militant Tendency, the other definitely not. It was soon decided that Dave Nellist should go into the same accommodation as Terry Fields (and the two would later be expelled from the party for their Militant leanings). This meant that the Serjeant at Arms Department had to find someone else with whom Tony Blair could share an office. They alighted on a Scots MP, Gordon Brown.
Fields was extremely active in gaining support for the miners during their 1984 strike and enraged Neil Kinnock by his various pronouncements. At this time he was the butt of all sorts of unwarranted gibes, in particular that he was sinister because he always wore heavily tinted glasses. Doris Heffer, who was a school friend of Fields' sisters, confirmed to me that Terry Fields had suffered from eye trouble ever since childhood.
In 1986, I was elected by the constituency section to the National Executive Committee of the Labour party. It was the agonising year when the NEC was immersed in the thorny problems of expulsions from Liverpool. I talked a good deal to Terry Fields because, though I voted against the expulsion of the Labour councillors Tony Mulhearn (then president of Liverpool City Labour Party) and Felicity Dowling, I did vote in favour of the expulsion of the deputy council leader Derek Hatton, thus enraging colleagues on both sides of the argument. It was on this account that Fields was very willing to talk to me and I was greatly moved by the way in which he obviously reflected the aspirations of so many in Liverpool in that unfortunate decade.
On 11 July 1991 he was sent to jail for 60 days for refusing to pay a £373 poll tax bill. Neil Kinnock took the view that he was breaking the law and that, whatever the law might be, it must be obeyed until such time as it could be changed; Fields was expelled from the Labour Party. In 1992 he stood as an independent candidate but his share of the vote was reduced to 14 per cent by the popular trade union officer Jane Kennedy, who was to have a long ministerial career. Having accepted a fireman's wage, Fields did not have a nest egg and after losing his seat he ran the Mayflower Pub in Liverpool for a time.
In 2002, at the age of 65, he returned briefly to the limelight – for precipitating himself into a dangerous house fire in order to rescue a woman trapped inside. "I suppose the old instincts just took over," he said. His personal courage was exemplary.
Terence Fields, fireman and politician: born Bootle, Lancashire 8 March 1937; fireman, Merseyside County Fire Brigade 1957-83; MP (Labour) for Liverpool Broadgreen 1983-91, Independent 1991-92; married 1962 Maureen Mongan (two sons, two daughters); died Netherton, Merseyside 28 June 2008.
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