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30 August 2018

Frank Field quits Labour whip over anti-Semitism and bullying

The veteran Corbynsceptic MP for Birkenhead will now sit as an Independent Labour MP. 

By Patrick Maguire

Frank Field has resigned the Labour whip in protest at the leadership’s “toleration of anti-Semitism” and a “culture of nastiness, bullying and intimidation” among grassroots members.

The veteran MP for Birkenhead will now sit as an Independent Labour member in the Commons and has not resigned his party membership.

In a letter to Nick Brown, the opposition chief whip, the work and pensions select committee chair said he had made the decision “with considerable sadness” and stated his intention to rejoin the parliamentary party in the future.

Field’s decision is not especially surprising. He first floated the idea of sitting as an Independent Labour MP in New Statesman interview in the early months of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. His relationship with his local party on Merseyside, where colleagues say he is an infrequent visitor rather than a full-time constituency MP, has long been strained. 

Last month its members passed a motion of no confidence in him after he voted with the government on a key amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, averting a humiliating defeat for Theresa May and a possible early general election.

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 A longstanding antipathy towards Field, who is among the most right-wing MPs in the PLP and was a key opponent of Militant, also endures from Labour’s internecine struggles on Merseyside in the 1980s. It is clear from his letter to Brown that personal disagreements he had locally played as much a part in his decision as Labour’s malaise nationally.

But the nature of his departure differs in several significant respects from that of John Woodcock, the only other Labour MP to have quit the PLP so far. Unlike Woodcock, who claimed an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment was rigged against him for factional purposes, and said Labour was unfit for government, Field remains a member of the party, although sources close to the leadership are claiming it is not possible to resign as a Labour MP and do so.

He has also made clear he would like to seek the whip again. Whether he ever will is another question entirely. It is likely that the bar he has set for doing so – “great changes in the leadership’s stance” on anti-Semitism and bullying by grassroots members – is too high to ever be met, or otherwise politically unquantifiable. Even if he did, Field, who is 76, is now an even bigger target for deselection than previously.

Nonetheless, his letter and its tone is a sign of things to come. It is written more in sorrow than anger and does not adopt the scorched earth tone of Woodcock or Corbynsceptic MPs who appear to be on their way out, like Ian Austin. The likelihood is that most of the resignations that are certain to follow will look like this.

In the meantime, Field’s departure will trigger a new bout of factional infighting. Jeremy Corbyn said: “Jeremy Corbyn thanks Frank Field for his service to the Labour Party.” A Labour source sought to downplay its significance, stressing that the majority of his letter cited local issues and claiming he had been looking for an excuse to resign “for some time”. 

Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, has already issued a thinly-veiled criticism of the leadership. “This is a serious loss to the party and I deeply regret Frank’s decision,” he said. “It reflects both the deep divisions in the party and the sense of drift engulfing us. It is a major wake up call.”

Read Frank Field’s resignation letter in full

Dear Nick,

I am writing with considerable sadness to inform you of my intention to sit as an Independent Labour Member of Parliament. I am resigning the whip for two principal reasons.

The first centres on the latest example of Labour’s leadership becoming a force for anti-Semitism in British politics. The latest example, from last week, comes after a series of attempts by Jeremy to deny that past statements and actions by him were anti-Semitic. Britain fought the Second World War to banish these views from our politics, but that superhuman effort and success is now under huge and sustained internal attack. The leadership is doing nothing substantive to address this erosion of our core values. It saddens me to say that we are increasingly seen as a racist party. This issue alone compels me to resign the whip.

The second reason is that a culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation now reigns in too many parts of the Party nationally and is sadly manifest within my own Constituency Labour Party (CLP) in Birkenhead. This is, I fear, just one example of a phenomenon that has tightened its grip on CLPs across the country and is being driven, in part, by members who in previous years would never have been able to claim Labour Party membership.

My original submission to the Party on a specific bullying issue goes back eighteen months. Many submissions have since come from me as well as from loyal Party members. No decisive action has been taken. At best, the Party’s failure to act on these numerous complaints about the thuggish conduct of some members demonstrates a wilful denial. At worst, it serves to legitimise appalling levels of bullying and intimidation of lifelong Labour supporters.

You know that I wrote to the Labour Party nine months ago about the atrocious behaviour of the then councillor Louise Reecejones. That Ms Reecejones should not be a member of the Party, let alone represent us in public positions, has been underscored by decisions taken by Wirral Council.

As you know, she was found guilty of using her position as a councillor to intimidate members of the public. She has refused to apologise properly for her behaviour, and for breaching the Council’s code of conduct, even though one of those on the receiving end of her attack has only now a precarious hold on their livelihood.

The charge sheet against this individual’s suitability ever to hold office, let alone represent the Labour Party, has been detailed to you in separate correspondence. While she was withdrawn as a Council candidate in Wallasey, she has still been able to join the Party’s shortlist for another seat and continues to hold an official position within the local Party.

I intend to continue to represent Birkenhead in Westminster, as I have had the honour to do so for almost 40 years, and I will continue to do so as an Independent Labour Member. I shall of course remain a Party member as I have been since 1960. The values I have espoused during this time will be same that will continue to govern my conduct and I also intend, providence willing, to represent those views when the next election is called.

Few events would give me greater pleasure than to apply to the Parliamentary Labour Party for the whip. But great changes in the leadership’s stance on the issues outlined in this letter will need to take place before I will be able to do so.