Underrated: Frank Field
Frank Field: Forsaw his party's predicament long ago (Noorthern Ireland Executive CC BY-SA 2.0)
Frank Field is an idealist. That is a very unfashionable thing to be in politics, especially among his fellow Labour MPs. So the last time the office of Speaker was contested, in 2009, Field recognised that his own colleagues would block him, and decided not to let his name go forward.
And yet he would have been an excellent Speaker. Even his severest critics acknowledge his independence of mind: indeed, they find it intolerable. He has been in the House for almost 38 years, is deeply versed in its procedures, and has the moral authority required to preside with success over its deliberations. He saw the reforms which were needed to rescue it from the deeper than usual contempt into which it fell during the expenses scandal. The grotesque lapses of taste committed by the present incumbent would not have occurred to him.
So Field more than deserves to be described as underrated, especially on his own side of the House. But this is a point that goes far beyond the Speakership. He stands for an idea of socialism which is in harmony with the best instincts of the working class from which he sprang. His father was a labourer in the Morgan Crucible factory in Battersea, his mother a teaching assistant. They were Tories “who believed in character and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”, as their son, born in 1942, later put it.
His hero is Clement Attlee, who in Field’s words showed “extraordinary personal radicalism” by “building a legislative programme with the aim of ennobling the character of the citizenry”. Attlee did not just aim at institutional reform: he wanted “moral regeneration too”. The welfare state was to be an insurance system: you would be rewarded for contributing to it. The system would work because it was the expression of a national moral community in which poverty was regarded as intolerable.
A few years ago, Field edited a volume called Attlee’s Great Contemporaries, in which he rescued from oblivion some of the journalism written by Attlee after retiring from the Labour leadership in 1955. In his introduction he wrote:
The failure of the political classes to offer an Attlee-style leadership has much impoverished public life in Britain, to the regret of many voters who are thereby denied a real choice at the ballot box.
Field’s entire career can be seen as an attempt to rescue Attlee’s socialist ideals and apply them to present-day conditions. For ten years from 1969 he served as Director of the Child Poverty Action Group. In 1979, he was elected MP for Birkenhead, and in his maiden speech attacked the plans of the new Conservative government for increasing economic incentives: “I wish to describe the incentives that could have been given without making society more unequal.”