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31 August 2018

Four arguments about Frank Field that don’t work

The Birkenhead MP’s exit has triggered some odd arguments. Here are four of the worst. 

By Stephen Bush

Frank Field has resigned the Labour whip – and unleashed a sea of bad takes. Here are some of the worst.

Jeremy Corbyn’s dissent was tolerated by Labour leaders past. Why isn’t he doing the same for his MPs?

There are two big problems here: the first is, look what’s happened the followers of Labour leaders past! Labour’s centre-left/right/moderates/social democrats (delete as preferred), who are firmly out of power internally, perhaps indefinitely. Given that I cannot see why anyone would hold the decisions previously taken towards the centre-left’s internal opponents as a model that anyone seeking to build a hegemonic political project would emulate. To ask the question is to answer it: professional Corbynites are loath to tolerate Corbyn-style dissent because they don’t want a Corbyn-style revolution to happen in reverse one day.

The second problem is it is ahistorical in the extreme: people are comparing Corbyn’s party management to that of Tony Blair, who took power after the party’s social democrats had decisively routed the party’s left. When you compare him to Neil Kinnock, particularly after the latter’s own “brilliant defeat” of 1987, the picture is not one of benevolence but of a bitter internal conflict.

Also, it is impossible to identify in any of Corbyn’s rebellions a moment in which his vote prevented the fall of a Conservative government or precipitated the collapse of a Labour one. One reason why Labour activists are angry with the Labour Leavers is they believe that defeat over customs would have brought down the government. I am not convinced that is correct, but it is certainly arguable. Their anger is legitimate.

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People making this argument are close to making two good arguments: the first is that, thanks to our first past the electoral system and the sweeping powers it invests in a majority government, only backbench dissent stands in the way of a party with a majority sweeping away the institutions of British democracy. It’s an important constitutional safeguard that MPs of all parties rebel against laws and party diktats they believe to be bad. The second is that, on an issue as important as Brexit, Field is right to vote for what he thinks best, not be swayed by public opinion, either in his constituency, which was narrowly pro-Remain in 2016, or by the sentiments of his activists and his leader.

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These are both true, but it’s also true that party activists should feel free to seek to replace those MPs with candidates nearer to their own views. That’s part of the deal, too.

But Frank Field has a huge personal mandate from the voters of Birkenhead!

No, he doesn’t. I’m sorry to be a broken record on this, but the really important thing about personal votes is that even the large and impressive ones are small. There are a number of MPs across the political parties with strong personal followings in their constituencies. But the thing about a strong personal following is what we’re actually talking about in practice is being able to persuade one or two voters in every 100 to vote for you over any national concerns.

This is no small thing given the power a government has, and in close contests – Ben Bradshaw’s narrow survival in Exeter in 2010, Tim Farron’s survival in 2015, and 2017, Johnny Mercer’s 2017 re-election – that one voter in every 100 was decisive. But mostly, an impressive personal vote is only any good to you if it is tied to a party vote, which is shaped not by anything the local candidate does or says.

Field has tended to slightly overperform the national and local swing, and he continued that trend in 2017: across the region, the swing from Conservative to Labour was 9.05 per cent. Field got a swing of 9.2 per cent. To put that into context: that means Field got 200 more votes than AN Other Labour MP “should” have got. Labour got 33,558 votes in Birkenhead and have a majority of 25,514 over the nearest party.

Now, were Birkenhead a hard-fought marginal that personal vote could be the difference between victory and defeat (if Ed Balls had outperformed the average performance by the same degree in his Morley and Outwood seat as Frank Field did, he would still be an MP now).  But Birkenhead is not a hard-fought marginal but a seat that has been solidly Labour since its creation.

A personal vote can be hugely significant when tied to a national party vote – but it isn’t the main force electing any British MP.

Frank Field’s resignation has nothing to do with the deselection proceedings against him

Field’s letter to Labour’s chief whip, Nick Brown, cited two things that needed to change in the Labour party – the problem of antisemitism in the ranks, and a culture of bullying and intolerance.

There is no doubt that these are real problems – indeed, as I wrote yesterday, in March 2018, Field was sufficiently displeased with his own constituency party that he stopped attending meetings, while his local party also voted to turn down diversity training with the Jewish Labour Movement due to its supposed links to Isis.

But it strains credulity to claim that the increasing pressure and threat of deselection which Field and the other pro-Leave Labour MPs whose votes saved Theresa May from defeat in the Commons in July, didn’t play at least some role in his thinking.

Frank Field was jumping before he was pushed

This is in the department of “true, but…”. As I’ve just said, it is magical thinking to claim that the fact that there were ongoing deselection processes was not a factor in Field’s thinking, as of course any rational adult would weigh their own future in the balance one way or another. But that there is a political cost to complaining about party members repeating the anti-Semitic slur that the party’s Jewish affiliate is linked to Isis doesn’t mean that there is no moral problem with party members repeating that slur.