Frank Field: the political maverick appointed to ‘think the unthinkable’

When Tony Blair entered No 10 following Labour’s landslide general election victory of 1997, one of his first acts was to appoint Frank Field as a social security minister with a brief to “think the unthinkable” on the thorny issue of welfare reform.

It was a surprising – and to many onlookers – a bold choice. The MP for Birkenhead had a reputation as an independent voice with a burning commitment both to tackling poverty and to ending benefit dependence.

To the new prime minister determined to curb the ballooning welfare bill while pursuing Labour’s traditional commitment to social justice, it appeared to be the ideal combination.

In the event it proved to be a disaster. In office, Mr Field clashed repeatedly with both his immediate boss, social security secretary Harriet Harman, and the all-powerful chancellor Gordon Brown who bridled at the cost of his proposals.

In little over a year, he was back on the backbenches, choosing to resign rather than to accept a move to another Whitehall department in a ministerial reshuffle.

Frank Field speaking in the House of Commons
Frank Field speaking in the House of Commons (PA)

Looking back in his autobiography, Sir Tony reflected ruefully that Mr Field’s ideas were not so much “unthinkable as unfathomable” – adding that while some MPs were made for government, “he wasn’t. Simple as that”.

It was to be his one brush with ministerial office, but over the course of four decades as an MP he made a far greater impact than many who dedicated their careers to climbing the “greasy pole” of political preferment.

Always highly principled, his belief in the virtues of self-reliance and self-improvement was rooted in his deeply-held Anglican faith, at times lending his pronouncements the air of a 19th century evangelical reformer.

As a highly effective chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee for four years from 2015, he relished holding the powerful to account.

When Sir Philip Green threatened to sue him in the wake of an excoriating report into the collapse of BHS, he told the tycoon to stop “firing off lawyers’ letters” and instead “write a big cheque” to cover the £571 million black hole in its pension fund.

A genuine maverick, he was the least tribal of politicians, numbering Margaret Thatcher – who he always called “Mrs T” – among his friends.

Following Michael Heseltine’s 1990 leadership challenge, he quietly slipped into No 10 to urge her to resign with dignity rather than to suffer the humiliation of being forced out.

Frank Field as director of the Child Poverty Action Group
Frank Field as director of the Child Poverty Action Group (PA)

He later teamed up with the Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames to form a cross-party group on “balanced migration”, citing concerns about the impact of immigration on wages in his Merseyside constituency.

Such alliances did not always sit well with those in his own side, and he spent many years as an MP engaged in a toxic battle with Militant Tendency and the hard left in his local party.

He was nevertheless one of 35 MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 Labour leadership contest to ensure, under party rules, he was able to make it onto the ballot paper, even though he had no intention of voting for him.

Mr Corbyn’s surprise victory was to precipitate his final break with the party: in 2018 he quit the Labour whip over its “toleration of antisemitism” as well as the “culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation” within the party.

Frank Ernest Field, was born in Edmonton, Middlesex, on July 16 1942, the second of three sons. It was not a happy childhood.

He later described how he was subjected to persistent bullying by his father, a factory worker, who “loathed” him from his earliest days.

Aged 15, he finally snapped when his father came at him with a hammer, snatching the implement from him and warning that he would use it on him if he ever did it again. It was an important lesson in the need to stand up to arbitrary power.

Frank Field with David Cameron who appointed him to head an independent review into poverty
Frank Field with David Cameron who appointed him to head an independent review into poverty (Fiona Hanson/PA)

After school at St Clement Danes in Hammersmith, west London, he gained a place at the University of Hull to study economics, becoming the first member of his family to enter higher education.

Initially a Young Conservative, as a teenager he soon switched to Labour over his opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

After university, he took a job teaching in a further education college while gaining election to Hounslow borough council.

In 1969, he became director of the Child Poverty Action Group, a post he held for the next decade establishing a reputation as a highly effective campaigner.

After one unsuccessful attempt to stand for Parliament, he finally secured election as MP for the safe Labour seat of Birkenhead in the 1979 general election.

Frank Field in his Westminster office
Frank Field in his Westminster office (Yui Mok/PA)

He was briefly made a frontbench spokesman by Michael Foot and then again by Neil Kinnock, but neither appointment stuck.

More successfully, in 1987 he became chairman of the social services committee (later the social security committee), a post he held for 10 years until he became a minister.

His idiosyncratic, highly personal set of beliefs did not always sit easily at Westminster, where his views did not fit the traditional left-right divide.

He called for the return of national service to instil “a sense of order and patriotism” in Britain’s young, but also voted for gay marriage and other gay rights legislation.

In 2009, he put himself forward as a candidate for Commons Speaker, but withdrew due to a lack of support among fellow Labour MPs.

Following the 2010 general election, he was invited by David Cameron to head an independent review into poverty, only to experience disappointment once again, complaining that his recommendations had been ignored by the coalition government.

His growing detachment from his own party was underlined by the 2016 Brexit referendum, when he was just one of two Labour MPs to declare for Leave, again over concerns about immigration.

After resigning the Labour whip, Mr Field announced he would be standing for the Birkenhead Social Justice Party at the next general election, only to be roundly defeated by Labour when Boris Johnson went to the country in December 2019.

Following the election, he was made a life peer as Baron Field of Birkenhead.

In 2021, his friend and fellow crossbench peer Baroness Meacher read out a statement on his behalf in the House of Lords which revealed that he was terminally ill and declaring his support for the Assisted Dying Bill which peers were debating.

He subsequently disclosed that he had been suffering from prostate cancer for around 10 years, telling the Guardian: “It’s a strange experience taking so long to die.”