Diary

Frank Field

Diaries play a special role in Protestant culture. Denied the comfort of the confessional, the best of these diarists confront the blank sheet of paper with the intention of recording the day’s events, but also in order to analyse their own motives. Such efforts often make fascinating reading, revealing the author’s struggle to be honest about his motives, while attempting to present them in as favourable a light as possible. From this point of view, the diary of Robert Kilroy-Silk is a great disappointment.[1]

Before embarking on its exploration the reader ought to prepare himself for two shocks. First, there are yet more disclosures about the operations of Militant in Merseyside. In his new book on Labour’s future Eric Heffer misses the significance of these operations.[2] Merseyside has appalling problems, and Eric summarises admirably the extent of the deprivation, and the extent to which the current government’s policies have compounded an already near-intolerable situation. The massive cut in government revenue to Liverpool is particularly well presented. It is, moreover, true that no one should doubt the sincerity of Eric’s commitment to the area. However, nothing, quite simply nothing, can justify either the way Militant is organised or the way it operates in our area. Eric has acted as a cover for Militant, and his dismissal from the Party’s NEC shows what local parties around the country think of this side of his work.

Second, and even more surprising than Kilroy-Silk’s revelations concerning Militant, is the book’s brutal revelation of its author’s own character. This disclosure is so patently unpalatable that, had any friend of the author read the draft, he would most assuredly have begged the author to destroy it. And I write as someone who had looked on him as a force for good and had taken his side in his local battles. Now, weeks after reading Hard Labour, I am still shell-shocked, and find it difficult to equate the figure he cuts in this work with the Robert Kilroy-Silk on whose behalf I was prepared to risk my own candidature. He displays a degree of egotism unusual even among politicians, combined with lust for a life-style which exists, I trust, only between the covers of Harpers and Queen.

Here, to use Parliamentary terminology, I must declare an interest. I, too, attempted to keep a record of my local reselection battles with the Militant Tendency. But the experience was such that, at the end of each day, I could imagine nothing more distasteful than to recall the events of the past 24 hours. All of my efforts went into summoning enough energy to cope with the next round, and the need to exorcise the evils of the preceding day was crucial to this process. Even so, I was very nearly broken by the horror of it all.

It is difficult to describe to the uninitiated what it is like to work in an area where Militant has grown fat on patronage, bullying, lying and aggression. To see good people frightened to speak out is to realise how totalitarian bodies can seize power. I could never understand how decent Germans could have allowed the Nazi state to come into being: I now know. I see it in people’s eyes, as the decent ones look away, knowing they cannot face up to what is involved. Others – those who like to think of themselves as decent people and, more important, who would like others to think of them as such – rationalise their cowardice with the help of some fashionable dizzy talk about accountability.

Having read Kilroy’s account, I am better able to appreciate how lucky I am in having a small core of loyal party members who resisted this evil and who extended to me their friendship and protection. Most of them are Bevanites: they campaigned for the banning of the bomb when it was not a fashionable thing to do, when, indeed, it was almost a crime to do so in the Labour Party. They also believe that an MP cannot be made accountable simply within the framework of a single reselection conference. This group was joined by a few newcomers, who, on entering the Birkenhead Labour Party, were immediately drawn into a civil war. Not only did they fight to have their MP reselected: they also grasped the implications of doing so for the future of the Labour Party. Their view was that, given time and a victory for the Trots in Birkenhead, a precedent would be set whereby Militant could wage a successful onslaught on all local parties. Friendships were forged in this group. But to experience such friendship one has to be around in the constituency. It is noticeable in Kilroy’s book just how often he is talking to his supporters on the phone – presumably from his Berkshire home or from the Commons.

Although even now he doesn’t appear to notice the fact, the diary records one of Kilroy’s major tactical errors. Late in his account he boasts of agreeing to have a TV film made about his reselection battle. The film left it unclear as to whether or not he would call a by-election following his deselection. He wanted his opponents to believe that he would, but he didn’t want the hassle from the party machine or his Westminster colleagues which would inevitably follow a clear declaration. Offering an immediate by-election in the selection stakes is the most powerful weapon an incumbent has – providing the move is made early enough. An early challenge determines who the main challengers will be.

It worked rather too well in Birkenhead, although admittedly I enjoyed a further advantage here over Kilroy-Silk. In Birkenhead we feel as if we belong to a place. The town has been in existence for a long time, and it left me in no doubt as to what it would do. ‘The vote is there when you want it,’ or ‘We’re not having that lot from over the river in our town,’ were comments regularly made to me in the market or shopping centre. Slowly this message filtered back to those in the Party who had nailed their colours to the fence, and it even got back to the Trots themselves.

Tony Mulhearn, who ended up trying to get Kilroy’s seat, was designated by the self-appointed Left caucus (a collection of sanctimonious bores) as their candidate for Birkenhead. Faced with the prospect of the reselection battles escalating into an actual confrontation with the electorate, however, Mulhearn scuttled back over the river to Liverpool. His place was filled by Cathy Wilson, who, so it was rumoured, had succeeded in reducing the Labour vote to below the Labour Party membership figure when she contested the Isle of Wight in the 1983 Election. She campaigned on the footing that, being unemployed, she would make a suitable MP. It requires little imagination to guess the sort of comments which such a campaign induced among an electorate which included some eleven thousand similarly qualified individuals.

Kilroy recalls in his book another event where our paths crossed. A journalist phoned to ask what I would do in the event of Kilroy’s triggering off a by-election after being deselected. This was at a time when his reselection was pending. ‘I will go and help him and will try and get fifty Labour MPs to come with me’ was my reply. Months later Kilroy told me how he had written this event up as Field shooting his mouth off in an attempt to bring about the by-election which failed to materialise in Birkenhead. He is right to think that I was looking forward to winning a by-election, and thereby to helping the Labour Party to challenge directly one of the principal reasons for the erosion of our support. Instead of a direct engagement with Militant, the fight against the Trots is carried on in a more spasmodic and a more low-keyed fashion. A few prominent members of the Tendency have been selected for expulsion. But the Party is riddled with various Trotskyite factions, and the rot runs deep, not only in Liverpool and London, but in other big cities too. Read Michael Crick if you need convincing – and he is concerned only with Militant’s structure within the Labour Party: The March of Militant[3] is a brilliant piece of detective work, cool and dispassionate.

How will the political future look from Kilroy’s new seat in front of the auto-cue? There seems to be an insurmountable barrier which prevents Labour’s support from rising above the 40 per cent level, and the current level of support is probably too low for an outright majority. But unless we demonstrate that the Labour Party is a collection of decent people motivated by ideals as well as by ambition, there is not much chance of increasing the Party’s support. Enter here the SDP. I don’t share the conventional view of the split, which, while conceding that the departure of some of the Labour Party to form the SDP has made the task of fighting the nutters that much more difficult, nonetheless maintains that the SDP hasn’t split the Left vote; that it is largely a haven for disgruntled Tories who would never vote Labour; and that a high enough Alliance vote could put Labour in, and an effective Labour Government could then act as a recruiting sergeant for new voters ... It seems to me that, after the Liberal Conference, that scenario looks more shaky than ever. In the event of a hat-trick for the Conservatives, the Nuffield study of the next election may well conclude that Simon Hughes’s Conference intervention was the first decisive move towards the result. This prognosis could be a reason for opting out, but it isn’t one that Kilroy gives. If you think you have won – and Kilroy, after all, claims a victory – why leave? Could he not have been more truthful? Why not admit that the buggers were wearing him out and that the lure of a grand TV job proved irresistible?

It is a sorry end to his Parliamentary career. Parliament itself has lost a formidable penal reformer who bravely took up practically every unpopular cause. In so doing, Kilroy turned the Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group into a kind of Royal Commission issuing endless magisterial statements by the chairman – one Robert Kilroy-Silk. This is quite an achievement, since Lord Longford, himself no mean practitioner of PR, is a member of this group. It was, after all, Longford who stage-managed the coverage of the Beveridge Report – possibly the single most effective piece of promotion since the Corn Law campaign.

The manner of Kilroy’s going strengthens the position of the Merseyside Trots immeasurably. Because they always predicted he would do something like this, they have gained credibility for their actions against the remaining non-Trots. Kilroy has also deserted Merseyside, and I guess he knows it. Coming home to Merseyside each week is like stepping into a time-machine and being taken back twenty or thirty years. The vast majority of people have seen much of their livelihood snatched away, particularly during the past seven years. Mrs Thatcher says that crime doesn’t pay, but immediately pours money into Toxteth after the riots. Birkenhead, despite the fact that unemployment here is just as high, didn’t riot, and in return got not one penny more. How then does one preach against violence when the Prime Minister so ruthlessly undermines the case? One of the major charges against her is that she has no idea how important hope is – simple hope – to the proper running of our democratic system. Take that away and how should we expect people to react? Linked to hope is faith – a faith in the people who put themselves forward for the privilege of becoming an MP. What happens to this force for good if MPs show themselves to be unwilling or unable to live up to their responsibilities, running after the nearest TV camera like some mongrel on heat? In the mire of cynicism flourishes extremism, of which Militant is only one manifestation.

And what are Labour Party members to make of this? Doesn’t the devotion of members past and present, who have never wanted their names remembered beyond the circle of their own family and friends, count for anything when Labour MPs come to make decisions about their careers? Kilroy appears to believe the Labour Party is dying, but this is no excuse for walking away from it. One wouldn’t desert a friend in such circumstances, and the Labour Party is still a friend to millions of people, many of them as poor as Kilroy-Silk tells us his parents were back in Birmingham. Who is to voice their worries, angers, hopes and despair? Who is to promote their interests if the TV journalist’s chequebook becomes dominant in a political career?

[1] Hard Labour: The Political Diary of Robert Kilroy-Silk. Chatto, 176 pp., £9.95, 29 September, 0 7011 3092 X.

[2] Labour’s Future: Socialist or SDP Mark 2? by Eric Heffer. Verso, 159 p., £18.95 and £4.95, 25 September, 0 86091 166 7

[3] The March of Militant by Michael Crick. Faber, new edition, 280 pp., £4.95, 22 September, 0 571 14643 0.