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  • Published in Opinion
Frank Field MP stands smiling and shaking hands with a man dressed as St George - celebrating St George's day at a school in his Birkenhead constituency in 2015.

Frank Field MP celebrates St George's day at a school in his Birkenhead constituency in 2015. Photo: Twitter/frankfieldteam

Destined for deselection, yet citing antisemitism, the nationalist Leaver's parting shot has been supported by Blairites whose only principle is to smash the left, writes Kevin Ovenden

Frank Field has resigned the Labour whip because he was going to be deselected by his own Constituency Labour Party members on Merseyside.

Among many reasons for their antipathy to him were the influx of new members wanting radical change and Field choosing on a tactical vote in parliament to support the Tory government, not his own party, thus helping Theresa May to live to wobble another day by the slimmest of margins.

Everyone knows this. But in this summer of the big lie and the most serious Establishment offensive against Jeremy Corbyn to date, Field has been given airtime – all the way down to reports splashed in the media over whether he will trigger a by-election (at which he would be obliterated). 

The corporate media dutifully trumpeted his claims that he had resigned because of antisemitism in the Labour Party, obliging with front page headlines.

Rancid, but good enough for Corbyn’s enemies

This is a man who praised Enoch Powell and whose racist outbursts against immigrants are so extreme that a Church of England bishop likened him to the rancid old “Rivers of Blood” racist himself.

That informed why he supported a Leave vote in the EU referendum but wanted nothing to do with the left Leave campaign that sought to put an internationalist position (and none of us wanted anything to do with him either).

So he voted in parliament against the Labour leadership and against the views of most people, including Leave voters, to deny full and equal rights for EU nationals in Britain.

You might expect, then, the Blairite ‘Continuity-Remain’ MPs on the Labour benches to point this out – particularly as his support for the Tory government on Brexit votes has strongly antagonised Labour Party members. Not a bit of it.

Wes Streeting MP leapt to his defence, claiming that his letter resigning the Labour whip ought to be a wake-up call for the party to adopt a full-on pro-Israel position. Is there a principle here? Yes – it is to use any instrument, even someone supposedly on the opposite side of the “great dividing line over EU membership” in order to undermine the Corbyn leadership and smash the left.

This shows how squalid the Labour right and time-servers are. Field has evinced no great interest in these matters nor in foreign affairs before.

No quiet path for the left

It shows something else also. If you thought there was a quiet, behind the scenes path to deselection while avoiding the confrontation over things like the antisemitism smears and witch-hunt, then think again.

As soon as a head of steam builds in a constituency against a Field or - yet to happen – a Chuka Umunna, then they will respond with the utmost political violence aimed at wrecking the party.

That is what they did over Bermondsey at the by-election in 1983.

So it is not possible to disentangle a clever internal strategy of deselection, for whatever constellation of reasons, from the full-on public political battle of the left against the right.

The other side know that. And they will defeat efforts to oust them internally and democratically if the left does not recognise that also - and fight accordingly so that these people are destroyed politically in the minds of millions of people.

The “cosmopolitan” Blairite-Remainers will rally to the pound-shop Powell or cut-price arch-Thatcherite Keith Joseph (with whom Field is approximating a physical likeness in later years) if that is necessary to stymie the left.

On the workhouse wing

Field has always had a bit of the Keith “mad-monk” Joseph about him. He is from that most reactionary of family backgrounds: the lower status but aspirant Tory household. Unable to advance in the Tory party, he switched to a career through Labour, able to get a Westminster seat when the huge anti-left witch-hunt of the mid-1980s cleared out socialists from the party on Merseyside.

He’s a kind of reactionary Protestant, anti-socialist moralist. If he were a Dickens character then he’d be on the workhouse wing – not primarily for the cause of business, but for beating obedience and ethics into the poor.

And equally to keep the poor in place and reconcile them to the needs of Empire, he is deeply xenophobic and misogynist – an opponent of abortion rights as strongly as the most reactionary Catholic prelate, despite his sectarian opposition to that religion.

Uncomfortable as some may find it, he is in fact a part of the weirdly contradictory dysfunctional family that is the historic British Labour Party.

Field is a hangover of the 19th century, pro-Empire national-liberalism of Joseph Chamberlain in Britain. That meant he clashed on occasion with Blairite neo-liberalism when he served the war criminal as a minister responsible for “welfare reform”.

But above all he sought the salvation of the poor and the resolution of class antagonism in a national, organic unity, founded on strict protestant morality - including the appropriate earthly sanctions and punishments.

Blair and Gordon Brown would dress that up in the language of empowerment. Field was having none of that modern rubbish – especially when it came to single mothers, whom he viewed as fallen women.

His was the political philosophy that Theresa May tried to reheat when she had Nick Timothy as her Rasputin-esque adviser.  An earlier iteration was under David Cameron and the embrace of the unhinged Victorian ideology of Iain Duncan Smith over welfare.

Field's passing shows that that avenue is dead. Totally dead as a serious political pole in Britain.

But somehow he is taken seriously in the media this weekend. And that is thanks to the backing of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs who profess a passion for the rights of women and of immigrants that Field utterly disdains.

From timeserving to transformation

There’ll be more of this as the battle over the future of the Corbyn leadership intensifies.

You can see the macho-thuggish John Mann rallying to Jess “I’d stab Corbyn in the front” Phillips, who parades her purportedly feminist credentials at every opportunity – and certainly vice versa.

There’s no honour among thieves – nor among this lot. And the false accusations of antisemitism do not cover their dishonour.

For the thinking left there is, as well as coming together to fight this politically, something serious to consider.

Frank Field is essentially what the labour movement would have looked like had there not been in the late 19th century the New (Trade) Unionism of the precarious and unskilled, of women and immigrants, and the influence of anti-capitalist, socialist ideas. Both processes were embodied in the person of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor.

It would have been narrow minded, deferential, reactionary in politics and morals – and ultimately the corrupt timeserving of sitting atop a pile of working class votes while palling around with Tories who you aped and desperately wanted to be.

The transformation of the labour movement into something better a century later is not complete.

Field’s resignation for the left ought to be a “wake-up call” to try to do so.

Defeating the right, by all means, but forging a positive and truly radical labour movement above all.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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