Frank Field thinks of his new book, Politics, Poverty and Belief, as his “death mask”. Partly because the memoir is his last word on the highly distinctive features of his singular, principled career. But also, awfully, because doctors told him that cancer would likely finish him before he finished it. When we met last week he was full of different emotions, but the principal one he expressed was perhaps blessed relief; that writer’s relief of having met his deadline, of having got it done.
We sit in the book-lined living room of the flat, on the top floor of the four-storey postwar block, half a mile from the House of Commons, that Field, now 80, has lived in since he first won his seat as Labour MP for Birkenhead in Merseyside in 1979. The cancer has affected his jaw and he finds it a struggle to talk, though the cheery determination of his voice is still very present. I ask him first, as you do, how he is.
“I’m pretty tired,” he says. “It’s a strange experience taking so long to die. But there we are. It’s affected my mouth, as you can see. It began about 10 years ago, when I was told I had prostate cancer. The hospital said, we must keep a watching brief on this. And they didn’t. It spread everywhere.”
He was in a hospice for a while in 2021?
“Yes, it was jolly good. They sorted out my medicines. And I wanted to go and see what the place was like. I expected to be gone then, within weeks. And the doctors that spoke to me did as well. But life has gone on.”
He remains actively involved in the work he has always been involved in: campaigning on behalf of those in most need, from a social supermarket project in Birkenhead to lobbying for the international charity Cool Earth, which provides funding to help Indigenous and local communities protect the rainforests in which they live.
Field was made a cross-bench peer in 2020, and subsequently a companion of honour. He hasn’t made it yet to the Lords for the oath to the new king, but he is determined to do so. He had no qualms about accepting the titles.
“I’ve always thought the House of Lords should be manned by good people,” he says with a smile in his voice. “I’m going to get there soon with the help of Daniel [his assistant who sits with him during our interview]. I’ve been out now in a wheelchair. It’s too cold this week. But when it warms up we will make it over there.”
His book is a primer in the apparent contradictions of his political life: the tireless activist on the Labour benches, who believed in the spirit of the self-help market philosophy of his friend “Mrs T”. He completed it with the help of old sparring partners Brian Griffiths, former chief policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and Griffiths’s wife, Rachel. The dialogue, he says, forced him to back up the arguments he makes, devil’s advocate built in.
The analogy is apt because the book examines the ways Field’s Anglican faith has underpinned his contrarian thinking. He formed the conviction early on that humans were fallen creatures who must be saved from baser instincts. Some of that sense came from his tyrannical father, some from the local priest in Chiswick who gave weekly sermons on the certainty of hell for the sinners of his corner of south-west London. The philosophy that has made most sense to Field, he says, came from the British Idealist movement, followers of the temperance reformer TH Green, who “tried to take the honey out the Christian hive and put it into new hives. The key idea was each of us being required to seek our best selves. I see politics as about trying to enable people to achieve their best selves.”
To this end, Field started out as a Young Conservative until he was thrown out of the party for opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He joined Labour aged 16 before university at Hull. He first came to the notice of the parliamentary party when, during his term as director of the Child Poverty Action Group, he published a paper titled “The Poor Get Poorer Under Labour” before the Conservative victory at the 1970 general election. He maintained the reputation for “thinking the unthinkable” (as Tony Blair memorably asked him to do on welfare) in the party, right up to the point he resigned the whip in 2018, citing bullying and antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
The book argues that in all of this he was mostly following his Christian conscience. Did he ever think about the priesthood as a vocation rather than politics?
“No, I never thought that I was good enough.”
Good in the broadest sense?
“Yes, in those days I had naive ideas that priests were all virtuous people.” He smiles. “I suppose overwhelmingly they are.”
He wonders if I have any faith, and I explain that any tiny sentimental attachment I had for the Church of England disappeared with the synod’s cruel muddle on same-sex relationships.
“Yes,” he says, “the church is wicked on that. I’m speechless about it. I remember having an argument on it with Mrs T [who conflated homosexuality with sin]. Surely, I told her, it is faithfulness one is after. And integrity. Not all those kinds of categorisations…”
His faith must often have been challenged?
“I’m in doubt now,” he says. “I’ve been thrown into doubt talking to you about that. But I imagine at some stage I will resume my happy equilibrium that [Christianity] is the best argument in town.”
The book – and his politics – is full of the will to keep pursuing a New Jerusalem in the knowledge of human failure. When did that conviction form?
“From the very word go, I’ve been conscious that we’ve been fallen, but from my mother I got this sense of the possibility of redemption,” he says. “One of the reasons why there has been tension between me and the Labour party is that in the 1970s and 80s, they developed a very highfalutin view of human nature. And a growing part of our electorate ceased to believe in the Labour cause because they knew damn well how people behaved. They could see it in people in their own street.”
Hence the attraction of Thatcherism, which worked with that belief in self-interest?
“She was wrong because she didn’t balance it. There was too much of the Fallen and not enough of the Redeemed. But what she said [about self-reliance] spoke to the nation during much of that period.”
What about the overall effect of her philosophy?
“The economic side has been, for areas like Birkenhead, a wasteland really. The Thatcherite revolution did not produce the new jobs one hoped for.” And New Labour too, he suggests, failed to equip workers and families for that changed social landscape.
There was a short time when it looked like Field might be the philosopher king of Blair’s third way politics. In 1997 he was asked to be radical in his ideas for reform of the welfare state; when he was, Blair promptly sacked him. “He used me, which was OK, I was perfectly happy to be used,” he says now.
Did they ever discuss religion?
“No, he didn’t talk about [belief] to me. If I sent something I’d written to him, he would say, ‘Of course, I agree with a lot of this, Frank.’ But he wouldn’t be specific. I don’t suppose he bothered to read it.”
He quotes Blair’s frustration at his “awkwardness”, voiced to a mutual friend, Ruth Runciman. “But being awkward is the point of Frank,” Runciman replied. Does he recognise that contrariness as his defining spirit?
“Yes,” he says. “Most of my life, I’ve been on the outside, although I often longed to be on the inside. But I mean, in cabinet subcommittees I would take on Gordon [Brown] and nobody else would. I remember on one occasion we were talking about pensions and I kept saying to Gordon: ‘Where’s your paper on this?’” He grunts a funny impression of Brown’s towering umbrage. “Nobody else spoke up. I realised that they knew Gordon would just do ’em later.”
* * *
In his memoir he ascribes some of that freedom to speak his mind to the fact that he had never had a partner or family to worry about. “Many of the cabinet were anxious about their mortgages or supporting their kids,” he says. “Ministerial salaries were worth keeping if you could.”
Another part of that intransigence in the face of authority came, he suggests, from finally standing up to his father. In his book he recalls the day his old man came at him with a hammer when he was 15 and he wrestled it from him and told him: “‘Next time I’ll use this on you.’ It was a huge lesson about power.”
Field’s father was a working-class Tory, a labourer in a crucible factory. “He went there from school as a labourer and retired as a labourer. He was building kilns with carbon blocks. It did his lungs in, and in the end, it did him in. He was bitter because he’d won a scholarship to the Blue Coat school and his parents were having none of it. Instead he left school at 14 and went to work.”
And he took it out on his lippy middle son?
“I was probably very annoying. I can guess why he had a few goes at me. There weren’t that many, but they are shocking, those moments. It was the same at school. I’d be called to the front of class and a teacher’s fist would come over in my face. When I first told my father I’d been hit, he said: ‘If you tell me any more of that, I’ll take you back and get him to do it again.’”
When he came up against the Militant tendency in Birkenhead, he recognised the bullying and knew to stand up to it. It was the same with Momentum, which took over the constituency party and tried to have him deselected after Corbyn became leader in 2015. It was eventually because of his belief that “Jeremy Corbyn was cultivating a national tolerance of the thuggery that we were experiencing locally from Momentum activists”, that he resigned the whip.
“I also made another error,” he says, looking back. “I don’t know why I did it. But I did a piece on unemployment for the Sun on Sunday [the paper remains outlawed in Liverpool over its unfounded allegations about the Hillsborough disaster]. And that changed the balance of support in the local party. I think some decent people understandably went away from me.”
One irony of those events is that Field had been among those who nominated Corbyn for the leadership race. Did he regret that?
“I didn’t agree with his views. But I felt that they should be heard. No one thought he could win.” As he sets out in his book, the pair hardly spoke to each other, though they served on the same select committee for nine years. “Jeremy is 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.’”
Field ran unsuccessfully against Labour in 2019, as the sole candidate of the Birkenhead Social Justice party. He doesn’t dwell on how his 40 years as an MP ended. “It’s strange, I just got on straight away,” he says. “I thought I could have been overwhelmed with despair but I wasn’t.”
He takes some solace from the fact that some of the great campaigns he championed over the years – for child benefit and a minimum wage – have a legacy on the statute book. He was also a Brexiter, on the basis that freedom of movement undermined wages with cheap labour, and placed great strain on social services in constituencies like his own. If the left did not have that debate, he always argued, then the far right would.
It gives him no pleasure, he says, to have been proved partly right in that prophecy. “I think there’s always a case for controlled immigration. I was furious with Labour that they wouldn’t discuss it. I had seen it in my surgeries in Birkenhead in 2005, 2006; suddenly there were lots and lots of Polish people asking how to access Gordon Brown’s working tax credits. People would say you’re a fascist raising these things.” But ignoring them made Brexit inevitable, he suggests. “People who voted like I did assumed that there had to be a controlled immigration policy and a massive drive to train people. What we have instead is Suella Braverman letting piles of people in, but not of her choice. I thought we would be free to strike good trade deals. But we’ve done none of the hard work…”
He seems suddenly wearied by the complications of that debate. “I’m getting a bit tired,” he says, “perhaps a couple more questions.”
The circumstances seem to demand to make them significant ones. Has he ever been in love?
“No,” he says, “sadly, I haven’t.” And then: “But this is not an interview on [Prince Harry and] Spare. It’s been a great sadness but I don’t want to poke a stick in it now. I’ll leave it at that.”
Is he fearful of what is to come?
“I’m blessed that I don’t keep thinking about it. Each day when I lie down and my back is playing up, I realise again that unless something else happens first, I’m going to be paralysed from the waist down at some point soon. I don’t look forward to that. But to be honest I hadn’t thought about it – dying – today, until you asked.”
Does his faith allow him a feeling for something afterwards?
“I think it would be jolly nice if there was. My friend Barbara Wootton used to say the worst of it was that if you argued with bishops that this is all there is, and you were right, you would be denied the pleasure of ‘I told you so’. I feel a bit like that.”
Did setting out his life’s work in his book give him a sense of achievement?
“No,” he says, with feeling. “None at all! Thank goodness! I just think of the next thing. I fear the government’s going to be up to no good wrecking the Modern Slavery Act, which I played a part in bringing forward. So I will be fighting for that. And then I’m trying to do something with Ros Altmann, the former Tory minister, about how on earth poor people are going to pay for their heating.” He pauses for a breath. “It doesn’t stop,” he says.
• This article was amended on 29 January 2023 because an earlier version referred to “Birkenhead in Liverpool”; it is in Merseyside. It was also amended on 6 February 2023 where it had said Cool Earth “buys strips of rainforest to be maintained by local tribes”. Cool Earth has explained that it does not buy rainforest but rather provides “unconditional cash payments” that recipient communities use as they consider fit; this could be to secure the rights to their land but may be used to protect the forest in other ways.
• Politics, Poverty and Belief by Frank Field is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply