Frank Field not ruling out byelection after resigning Labour whip

Frank Field has refused to rule out triggering a byelection after resigning the Labour whip, saying Jeremy Corbyn has failed to address the reasons for his decision.

The veteran Birkenhead MP, who was due to hold talks on Friday with Labour’s chief whip, Nick Brown, told the Guardian he had yet to decide on his next step after announcing that he had resigned the whip because of antisemitism and a culture of bullying in the party.

“I am very clear in the letter to Nick that I wish to remain a member of the Labour party as I have been for 60 years. But I wish to sit as an independent Labour party member,” Field said.

Asked whether he would stand down if requested to do so by Labour, Field said: “These are early days and I certainly want to fight the seat at the next election as a Labour candidate. If I don’t, I will fight as an independent Labour candidate. The voters will decide. They are the sovereign body.”

He declined to rule out resigning his seat, which would trigger a byelection. “These are early days, I have only just resigned,” Field said.

The MP, who recently faced a vote of no confidence from his local party over his support for Brexit, said Corbyn’s reaction to his decision – a statement thanking him for his service to the party – had been inadequate.

“He seems to be under the impression that I have left a whist club rather than 60 years in the Labour party. I have actually been in the party longer than he has,” Field said.

He added that the vitriolic reaction on social media to his decision had reinforced his impression that there is a culture of bullying within the party. “It illustrates what I am trying to talk about. There is a culture in the Labour party that needs to be addressed and it is not being addressed,” Field said.

In a letter to Brown on Thursday, Field said he was resigning the whip “with considerable sadness”, but had chosen to do so because of a lack of action to combat antisemitism in Labour, and what he said were the bullying attitudes of some members.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said his decision was a “serious loss” that “reflects both the deep divisions in the party and the sense of drift engulfing us. It is a major wake-up call. We cannot afford to lose people of such weight and stature.”

With a number of MPs privately frustrated and increasing rumours that several could resign to sit as independents, or even form a breakaway party, the Ilford North MP, Wes Streeting, said that if the leadership failed to get a grip on the issue, Labour could face an existential crisis.

Field told BBC Breakfast it was “simply crazy” to characterise the decision as an attempt to see Corbyn ousted.

“I believe he has a right to take us into the next election – he’s won two leadership contests. It’s because of that fact I think it’s more urgent that we appear as a party that is the great champion again against racism and that we show that we in the Labour party do not tolerate bullying and thuggery,” he said.

The MP, who is known for his expertise on welfare and poverty issues, has been criticised by some supporters of Corbyn, notably over his backing of Brexit.

He will become the third Labour MP to sit as an independent, after John Woodcock and Jared O’Mara separately resigned the whip over the party’s handling of misconduct claims against them.

In his resignation letter, Field highlighted the controversy last week when comments by Corbyn from 2013 emerged in which the Labour leader said a group of Zionists had “no sense of English irony” despite “having lived in this country for a very long time”.

This was, Field wrote to Brown, “the latest example of Labour’s leadership becoming a force for antisemitism in British politics”.

Corbyn has been forced to issue a series of statements in recent weeks clarifying his stance. The latest said he was using the term Zionist “in the accurate political sense”. Labour also submitted a complaint against several newspapers over a separate story about a wreath-laying ceremony in 2014.

On Tuesday, the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks said Corbyn’s comment about Zionists was the most offensive statement by a senior UK politician since Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

Field told the BBC he felt Sacks “went over the top”, but added: “But it was for me a wake-up call in the sense that we keep saying to the Jewish community in Britain, who are an integral part of our society, ‘Look, you’ve got it wrong, we’re not antisemites.’

“And the group that feels it’s being the target keeps saying, ‘We think you are, we feel we’re under attack from you.’ And I though that as politicians, we ought to begin listening rather than telling people they keep getting the perceptions wrong.”

In his letter, Field said bullying and intimidation were “sadly manifest within my own constituency Labour party 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,” he wrote.

Saying he had first highlighted specific bullying claims 18 months ago, Field added: “No decisive action has been taken.”

Having represented Birkenhead since 1979, Field spent virtually all his career as an MP on the backbenches. He was one of the 35 MPs who nominated Corbyn for the leadership in 2015.

He spent a sometimes frustrating year as minister for welfare reform under Tony Blair, and is currently the chairman of the work and pensions select committee, where he has been a fierce critic of the rollout of universal credit, saying payment delays and other mishaps are forcing many users into debt and reliance on food banks.


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