Profile: A holy man in a wicked world: Frank Field, maverick champion of the poor

Saturday 06 February 1993 00:02 GMT

In Durham this week, Frank Field delivered four magisterial speeches on social policy - its philosophy, future and imperatives - that were widely reported. They may well have more influence on future decisions about the underclass than anything else Labour has to say on the subject.

Frank Field's mission is to create a Labour Party that is electable and speaks to ordinary working people. He wants to get the poor off welfare, to see total spending reduced, individual dependents' incomes increased, and full employment retained as a Labour goal. He proposes to give people control of their own pension capital. His denunciation of what he regards as the calculated creation by the Government of an impoverished and excluded underclass is made all the more powerful by its combination of intellectual rigour and moral outrage.

The attention focused on these four speeches has been extraordinary, given that Field is a Labour backbencher, albeit one who chairs the Commons select committee on social security, and has never held high office, let alone been in government. Is it because of what he said, the timing of the pronouncements, or is he listened to because of who he is?

The answer to all three is yes; but the peculiar nature of the man must weigh most heavily in securing him such a wide and respectful audience. Why do people from all shades of the political spectrum speak so highly of him?

'Frank Field is remarkable,' says a staunch admirer, 'in being one of a handful of people in the Labour Party and Conservative Party who are highly intelligent and who think; and that and the courage to express those views is quite rare. Being a politician, he sees the need to influence policy, and is regarded as a man of high integrity, honesty and intellect. He is a vital organ of our democracy. He's gold.' Yet he is not, and may never be, a member of the Shadow Cabinet.

By general agreement, Field understands poverty better than almost any other MP. 'His analysis ,' says a Commons insider, 'is much more sophisticated than many people's because he knows the constituency of poor people very well and also the benefit system: the way it oppresses and denies people and how it can be turned to advantage.'

At the 1979 general election, Field became MP for the Wirral constituency of Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. Once dominated by the great Cammell-Laird shipyard, which used to turn out a ship every 20 days, it is now an area of high unemployment (on some estates the figure rises to 70 per cent) and extreme poverty. Field rents a flat in Hamilton Square, one of the town's most fashionable addresses. But the area is close to some of the worst unemployment spots in the country. One of his supporters in the constituency says: 'This central area has enormous problems with drug abuse and the long-term effects of unemployment. Frank's concerns are informed by day-to- day encounters with the problems; they are not merely theoretical.'

Frank Field was born in 1942 to Tory-voting, working class parents and attended St Clement Danes, a good, but authoritarian, London grammar school for boys. At 17, he joined the Labour Party, but the greatest influence during his formative years was his mother, Annie. 'She is a very religious and very good woman, but not an intellectual influence,' says a close friend. His mother instilled the High Church Anglicanism that has governed his life since. His faith comes first, and from it stems his vision of moral and social duty, particularly to the poor.

Field graduated from Hull in 1964 - the first member of his family to attend a university - with a degree in economics and politics. He wanted to become a trade union official, but 'there weren't many jobs going' and he settled for teaching instead. He was a Hounslow councillor by the age of 24 and three years later was director of the influential Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

It was here that his moral fervour, economic expertise and concern for the poor coalesced into a fiercely practical crusading energy. Field soon turned the CPAG, and himself as its director, into high-profile campaigners. But the group was more than just a step-ladder on the way to a seat in parliament, as his 10-year tenure proved. The problem of poverty - what he called 'the age-old inequalities' - always exercised Field's conscience. He attacked Lord Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite ministers, for an ill- advised speech on birth control among the poor, calling him 'a leading member of the Jewish community applying Nazi attitudes towards the poor'. Field's courage and obduracy were both noted.

They were demonstrated again in 1976 when he leaked Labour cabinet plans to renege on its manifesto commitment to introduce non-means-tested child benefit for all mothers. He won, and the benefit was introduced by the Labour government in 1977. It was a significant victory.

In 1974, he also became director of the Low Pay Unit, while at the same time producing some brilliant polemical writing on social policy. In the Seventies, he wrote and/or edited 10 books and pamphlets, and in the Eighties, a further six.

He may command universal respect, but although his abilities have always been recognised, Field has not been an unqualified asset to his party. Within six months of winning a seat, he was appointed to the select committee on social services (today he chairs its successor), and a year later became Neil Kinnock's deputy as assistant spokesman on education, but it soon became apparent that Field was no docile backbencher. A former Labour MP recalls: 'He is not very political. He annoys his colleagues by being one step away from them, a bit distant, doing his own thing. He is seen as a bit of an oddball. He makes very pure decisions without giving much thought to the implications of trying to push them through. But a House of Commons that couldn't accommodate him would be a worse place for it.'

In his own constituency, he has trodden an exceptionally hard road. Despite his effectiveness and popularity, Field was at the centre of three deselection rows detonated by extreme left-wingers in the Eighties. His nightmare, he once said, is 'sitting in a smoke-filled room confronted by rows of staring eyes and faces contorted by hatred'. He confessed that sometimes, before going out to face them, he vomited with fear.

The most serious threat was the last, in December 1989. 'I am prepared to take what comes, but Labour will not win while we have this riff-raff in our ranks,' he said as his local party split asunder. The outcome seemed a disaster for Field. Paul Davies, a Transport and General Workers' Union activist, won 50.6 per cent of the vote against Field's 45.6 per cent.

Exhausted and angry after six years of in-fighting, Field submitted a 150-page dossier alleging Militant infiltration into the local party and irregularities in the selection process. He said his main concern was 'the collapse of traditional democratic Labour politics on the Wirral'. He harangued and vilified anyone who disagreed with him, causing extreme embarrassment to Kinnock. No other MP could have behaved so high-handedly, or made so many demands, and had the national executive agree to all of them. It was evidence of how indispensable he is to the Labour Party. The national executive agreed to re-run the election.

His opponent hit back savagely. 'Frank and poverty go together,' Paul Davies said. 'He likes to study it. If I have a strike about low pay, he thinks it's scandalous. If I have a demo about council pay, he won't turn up. He thinks you just write books about poverty. He comes up here from time to time and says, 'Isn't it terrible?' '

Field won the final round in June 1991 with 53 per cent of the vote, but the episode left deep scars on all concerned.

Although Field had described Mrs Thatcher's social policies as early as June 1980 as 'apartheid towards the poor', she called him 'a good man' - a tribute accorded to no other Labour member. In an earlier century, Field would have been revered as a saint. He has many of the necessary qualities - an abiding concern for the poor, a desire to live among them and improve their lot, and a rock-solid morality based on traditional Christian virtues. For years a text hung on the wall of his office: 'Thou, God, seest me.' His religious fervour is backed by intellectual rigour and physical austerity. He does not smoke or drink; he does not even drive.

Like most people committed to virtue, he would not be an easy man to live with - and, indeed, he has not lived with anyone since leaving his parents' home. His pride and obduracy, his unyielding certainty of being in the right, would make him a demanding partner or colleague. Certainly, since he first won Labour for Birkenhead these qualitites have made him a maverick and opinionated MP.

Good men do not have to be perfect, and Frank Field is flawed by the sin of pride. The fact that he is holier than most of us does not make it any easier. He cannot bear to be wrong. Somebody who has worked closely with him in Birkenhead for many years says: 'It's not easy to change his mind. He is inclined to dig in if he gets the bit between his teeth.' Those who oppose him are not forgiven. After the re-selection rows with his local party in Birkenhead, he drove Labour's national executive committee to exasperation with his insistence that his opponents should be not merely defeated, but humiliated, flayed, obliterated.

In the end, this flinty, fastidious, ascetic and saturnine loner may have been debarred from office as much by his virtues as by his faults. He has no close allies and few friends (although those he has are fiercely protective). He gives no quarter and accepts no compromises. Yet, paradoxically, his long-term effect upon social policy, as chairman of the select committee on social security and one of the most radical political thinkers in the House, may be all the greater precisely because, rather than high office, he occupies the high moral ground.

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