Lynn Barber

A life apart: an interview with Frank Field

A life apart: an interview with Frank Field
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Frank Field has announced today that he is forming the 'Birkenhead Social Justice Party' to stand at the next election. Field resigned from the Labour whip in July last year. In December he spoke to Lynn Barber and explained why he's used to doing things differently:

Frank Field was given a standing ovation when he won The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year award two weeks ago. Normally there’s polite applause, but he is the hero of the current clash between the Corbynistas and what used to be the Labour party. His local party in Birkenhead has threatened to deselect him so he plans to stand as an Independent next time, and he said in his acceptance speech: ‘If I’m successful in winning the seat again, then in some small way, as with Brexit, we will begin to change British politics.’

I met him in Portcullis House at the height of the Brexit furore when all the commentators were saying they had never known such cliffhanging times. But he is 76 and has been the MP for Birkenhead for almost 40 years, so he has been through previous cliffhangers.

‘But it’s different,’ he says, ‘because there’s clearly a lot of plotting going on but this place is empty. When Mrs Thatcher’s downfall was coming, and we were all still crammed into the Commons, you could see the plotters forming groups, huddling in the tearooms, you could see who put their arms round Heseltine, whereas it’s been like a funeral parlour here while all this is going on. It’s because of the iPhone. They’re all texting each other I imagine. But it’s changed the nature of dagger politics, of changing leaders.’

Does he feel sorry for Theresa May? ‘I don’t know how she gets up in the morning. I mean she’s seriously ill with diabetes and yesterday she was on her feet for three hours. I would expect her to at least bring a ham sandwich. And with all the Tory backbenchers going for her, I’ve never seen the PM having to put up with that sort of thing before. They were saying the most terrible things, and she was replying as if they’d asked what the weather was like.’

Does she remind him at all of Margaret Thatcher? ‘I suppose the doggedness does. But Mrs T went more quickly than this.’ He always calls her Mrs T because she was a friend. But how did he, as a young Labour MP, come to be friends with Thatcher?

‘I’d been a lobbyist for Child Poverty Action Group and my nature is to lobby, to get things done, so I thought it was the most natural thing in the world to ask to see her, to lobby for orders for Cammell Laird, which is our shipyard. She was a wonderful person to lobby because you knew within seconds whether she was going to do it or not.

‘I remember one night towards the end of her reign, she’d come back from meeting President Bush Sr and she was high as a kite, saying, “What can I do to put backbone into this man?”, and I kept saying, “PM will you come and sit down?” And all of a sudden she sat down on the sofa beside me and said, “What do you want?” And I said, “There’s two navy orders going — can we have one for Cammell Laird?” She said, “Yes, is that all?” And up she got and started ranting about President Bush again.

‘Then 36 hours later I saw David Hunt, who was in the cabinet, and he said, “Congratulations, we’ve seen the prime ministerial minutes of your conversation about the order, and well done.” But she was as high as a kite — and yet she must have summoned some poor secretary to take the minute. When she said she would do something, she did it.’

But perhaps Field’s admiration for Thatcher is one of the reasons why he’s never been accepted by hardline Labourites, and why his local party deselected him this summer. He then resigned the Labour whip (over anti-Semitism) and they retaliated by saying he was no longer a member of the Labour party. Did it feel like being excommunicated? ‘No, not at all,’ he laughs. ‘Our clever chief whip says I can draw on all the services of the Labour party. I said, “Should I still pay my dues?” and he said, “It would be a voluntary contribution if you did,” so I do. Here at Westminster it feels no different, but in Birkenhead… I said I would not meet them till they apologised for the hatred they’d shown, and I haven’t.’

Does he blame Jeremy Corbyn for what he calls the ‘culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation’ that has taken over the Labour party? ‘No, I blame horrible people. But the fact that he has let them into the party is something he has some responsibility for. And of course I bear a great guilt here because I was one of those who nominated him. Thinking — as he did — that he had no chance whatsoever of winning. But there was such widespread disillusionment with Blairism we thought we ought to have as wide a debate as possible. And then Jeremy got in and the nature of the Labour party has changed.’

Were he and Corbyn ever friends? ‘Not really. For nine years we were on a select committee together but he’s a man of few words. He came up to me in the very early stages of the leadership contest and said, “Thank you for nominating me.” And I said, “But I won’t be voting for you, Jeremy,” and he said, “I wouldn’t expect you to.” But that’s about all the conversation we’ve had.’

John Rentoul, in his biography of Tony Blair, called Frank Field ‘the heretical moralist’ — is that fair? ‘I think the heretical bit is wrong, but moralist is fine. If you look at the history of the Labour party, its strongest wing has always been the ethical wing — we were going to build the new Jerusalem. We would never achieve it but it’s part of this great journey which other people will continue after we’ve gone. As for heretical — no. Blair said to one of my friends, “He’s so difficult,” and she said, “But Tony that’s his whole point.” ’ It meant, though, that when Blair appointed Field minister for welfare reform and urged him to ‘think the unthinkable’, he found Field’s thoughts ‘unfathomable’ and sacked him in little more than a year.

Field used to have a sign on his office wall saying ‘Thou, God, seest me’. It was a joke, he says — but he is a committed Anglican. ‘The Christian story just seems to me to make more sense than any other. But I’m not like evangelicals who say their lives have been touched, they know Jesus personally. I haven’t got any of that feeling at all. I struggle all the time to think, is this believable?’ Does he go to church every Sunday? ‘Yes, most Sundays I go to evensong at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, because it has a choir and sings the most beautiful music.’ Does he believe in life after death? ‘I would hope there is. I’ve no certainty about it.’

Many profiles have said that Field lives like a monk. ‘I know. It’s extraordinary. I’m nothing of the kind. One friend who is the dean of Trinity said, “I get fed up with reading all these stories about how you don’t drink, whereas the Fellows have decided that when you visit we should lock the wine cellar.” Anyway, do I look like a monk?’

Actually he does rather, but he insists he is not an ascetic. He loves classical music, especially Haydn, he visits art galleries and goes to the theatre when his friend Patricia Routledge takes him, ‘because one of her aims in life is raising my cultural awareness’. He is also friends with Sir Nicholas Soames MP and I told him I had an enjoyable mental image of them lunching together, with Soames ordering a dozen oysters and a brace of grouse and Field picking away at a rocket salad, but he says, on the contrary, ‘Nicholas is not now the bigger eater. He’s slimmed himself down brilliantly.’ But people say that you, too, have lost weight, so much so they wondered if you were ill? ‘No I’m not. Look,’ and he squeezes a tiny roll of flesh around his waist.

He will spend Christmas alone, as he does most years. He used to go to his mother’s, but when she went into a care home at the age of 88, she would come to him every weekend but then go to his brothers’ for Christmas and Boxing Day, ‘So I got used to having those days alone.’ His brothers are married, with children and grandchildren, but he never contemplated marriage and has never had a partner. Why not?

‘Partly because I grew up a loner, and I’ve remained a loner.’ But he was one of three brothers? ‘Yes, the middle one. But I did most things alone from those very earliest days.’ Even at school and university? ‘Yes. I could have had friends but, looking back, I can see I did most things by myself.’ Is that a good thing? ‘It’s a different thing. It’s unusual. And it makes one conscious that you have to pick up experience in different ways.’

What would he like it to say on his gravestone? ‘Oh I’ve decided all that. I was on a train journey years ago and someone bowled up and said, “I’m one of the Laird family [who founded Cammell Laird] and is there anything our family could do for you? Do you want time to think about it?” And I said, “I don’t have to think, I know perfectly well.” The oldest part of Birkenhead is the ruined Priory and there’s a closed graveyard which you can only get into if somebody gives you access to an existing grave. “And,” I said, “the Laird grave has three plots unfilled — could I have one of them?” He said, “We’ll have to have a family conference,” but he wrote back and said, “Yes, you can have a plot but you’ll have to put the gravestone back.” As if I would bloody well leave it off! I was so annoyed I thought, “Well, I’ll be cremated and then I can go under one of the ordinary paving stones in a very beautiful part of the Priory ruins which is a 13th-century chapel.” It’s taken me ten years to get permission from the local authorities, but it’s all been agreed, it’s in the death file, so nobody after me will have to say, would he like this or would he like that. And all I want on my gravestone is ‘Frank Field, Member of Parliament for Birkenhead’ and the dates. Being MP for Birkenhead has been a huge part of my life — 40 years coming up and I hope a lot more years. Birkenhead has never had an MP that’s been able to keep the seat for so long.’

What makes people want to become MPs? ‘Pushy mums,’ he says promptly. Most of the people here had pushy mums. I think that’s crucial.’ Did he have that? ‘Yes.’ And a rather weak father? ‘Oh no, a bullying father.’ What — physically violent? ‘Yes. When you were asking about how I was able to be on my own… I remember taking the hammer away from him when I was 15 and I said, “Next time I’ll use this on you.” It was a huge lesson about power.’ Was his mother a really remarkable woman? (She died in 2005, aged 93.) ‘Well, obviously I think she was, but others did, too. She was one of these great givers of life, thinking that the glass was half-full instead of half-empty. For the last five years of her life she was looked after in Vauxhall by the Little Sisters of the Poor and it was a stunningly good home, one of the best places to go if you have to be looked after. She had the time of her life really, towards the end.’ Would he go there if he needed a care home? ‘I certainly would, yes, if I could get in.’

He talks about all the projects he has on the go: setting up citizens’ supermarkets where people on low incomes can buy food for half or a third of its usual cost, and where there will be advisers to help them with practical problems. Then there are free school meals during the holidays and boxes of girls’ sanitary products given out to schools.

That’s all in Birkenhead, but he’s also involved in an international project, Cool Earth, founded by Johan Eliasch, with Viv Westwood as its patron, which buys strips of rainforest to be maintained by local tribes. He is trying to get the Commonwealth involved, and suggested the idea of the Queen’s Rainforest Canopy, ‘which she took up with huge enthusiasm’. He is also chairing a review of modern slavery law.

So he’s not slowing down? ‘No I’m not. My father had a factory job and hated every day. I get up and love every day. And that is such a privilege, compared to people who work in a job they loathe.’