Bad as the right-wing press is, the world of socialist papers and journals is too often a dispiriting and unappealing alternative.
The left press is usually tightly controlled by political organisations which discourage any debate. The result is lifeless, dreary publications with little or no influence. And it is a peculiarity of many left publications that their readership is smaller than their circulation, as so many purchases are expressions of solidarity rather than genuine interest in content.
There have been honourable exceptions to this picture. The Miner newspaper was eagerly gobbled up by workers in mining communities and their supporters throughout the 1984-5 strike as the only reliable source of information on the dispute. As the strike progressed the Miner broadened its coverage to issues beyond the immediate dispute, teaching supporters and miners much about wider class politics. Its popularity was, nevertheless, dependent on the course of that struggle and fell with the heroic defeat in 1985.
But for around half a century the labour movement left had a paper which combined unashamed support for workers in struggle in industry and politics with genuine influence. Tribune, established in 1937 as the paper of the Labour left, supported nuclear disarmament, workers’ rights and public ownership and was not at all shy of attacking Labour leaders in power who fell short of its socialist standards. At its peak (1945 to 1950) Tribune had a circulation of around 40,000, and among its regular contributors was George Orwell, who had been its literary editor from 1943-5.
At the end of last month Tribune was narrowly saved from closure by a last minute deal to re-establish the title as a workers’ cooperative. The existing owner, Labour-supporting millionaire Kevin McGrath, will pass it on without its debts.
Now would be a good time to review Tribune’s record.
Throughout its history Tribune has walked the tightrope between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary socialism, blown this way and that by the contrasting winds of Labour loyalty, the influence of Stalinism, and the tension between Little Englander nationalism and internationalism.
For long periods and at some crucial times Tribune’s record was not at all bad. Established to campaign for a united front of socialist parties against the threat of fascism in the late 1930s the paper argued, during the Second World War, that “the fight for socialism must be fought alongside the fight against Hitler”. The Communist Party, in contrast, argued that the first should wait until the second had been won.
Despite various changes of editor and “line”, it opposed both the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising and Eden’s invasion of Suez in 1956, and went on to support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
When a Labour government tried, in 1968, to shackle the unions with laws to restrict the ability to strike Tribune led the opposition in the Parliamentary Labour Party, linking with unions and party members to help force the withdrawal of the plans.
Many of the writers behind this paper went on to become very prominent figures in the Labour Party, most notably Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot.
If circulation is any measure then Tribune’s fall from influence has come in two stages.
In the late 1960s a new young left emerged which, at least initially, rejected existing mainstream parties and invested energies in the anti-Vietnam war movement and the growing ranks of the revolutionary left. To this movement Tribune seemed fairly irrelevant and staid.
In the 1970s extra-parliamentary struggle, particularly in the workplace, became the dominant form of socialist politics. It appeared, wrongly as it happens, that mass strikes and picketing could save us the bother of thinking about the boring and mundane business of government and party. In the longer term Tribune’s patience and tenacity in relating to Labour politics could claims some vindication. Yet, during one of the most rebellious and radical periods in political history, Tribune’s circulation dropped from 20,000 in 1960 to 10,000 in 1980.
As the focus of working class politics shifted in the 1980s to the political fights in the Labour Party, Tribune was boosted. And as Labour activists became increasingly disillusioned with the experience of the 1974-9 Labour government and resolved to “never again” repeat that experience, Tribune became part of the campaign for Labour Party democracy and socialist policies. By far the biggest and most important fringe meetings at Labour Party Conference throughout the 1970s and 1980s were hosted by Tribune. Thousands of delegates would pack in to hear Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner and Michael Foot.
The Tribune Group of MPs, first established in 1964, had been the organising centre for parliamentary opposition to right-wing Labour policies in government.
But then came the second stage in Tribune’s decline.
On the back of the huge left-wing upsurge Michael Foot was elected Labour leader in 1980. A year later Foot’s losing opponent Denis Healey, the right-wing Chancellor of 1976-9 and architect of an IMF deal which imposed wage cuts and led to the Winter of Discontent, stood against Tony Benn in a Deputy Leader election.
Benn represented and was the most articulate and charismatic spokesperson for the growing Labour left. But the Tribunites split over the election.
Foot and his supporters were inclined to support Healey as a means of healing internal divisions. They were partly influenced by the simultaneous departure of a group of right-wing Labour MPs to form a new and briefly quite successful party, the Social Democratic Party.
A larger group, including the new editor of Tribune Chris Mullin, argued for supporting Benn (the eventual line of the paper).
In the past any serious left candidate for election in the Labour Party would have relied on Tribune’s support. By 1982, however, there were a plethora of socialist organisations (the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, etc) fighting for Labour democracy, left-wing policies and a transformation of Labour which would go beyond the limited programme of Tribune.
In the end Benn’s supporters set up their own parliamentary group, the Socialist Campaign Group, which leaned toward extra-parliamentary struggle, and trade union action. The Tribune Group and its newspaper were no longer the sole voice of left-wing politics in Parliament.
When Foot was followed as Labour leader by Neil Kinnock, another Tribunite, the paper became more clearly part of a “soft left”. Although it objected to particular policies, most prominently the abandonment of nuclear disarmament, Tribune was no longer part of any active mobilisation of party members against the leadership.
When Mark Seddon took over as as editor in 1993 it was hailed as a a “return to the left” for the paper. But it became more of a coming to terms with the destruction of Labour as it had previously functioned, a recognition of the Blairite coup and the creation of New Labour. Neither the Tribune Group nor the paper played any significant role in fighting Blair’s coup, despite the election of Seddon to the National Executive Committee as a candidate of the Grassroots Alliance. By the 1990s Tribune’s circulation was below 3,000.
The survival and strength of a paper such as Tribune depends on the movements within which it exists. It was at its peak when the Labour left was a powerful and combative force; it inevitably declined when that left was suppressed and excluded by open and unapologetic advocates of neo-liberalism.
It would be entirely wrong, however, to portray Tribune as a helpless victim of the Blairite juggernaut. Tribune and its supporters were for the most part the diggers of their own grave. Faced with the choice between the demands of a militant left-wing movement for a politics which broke from capitalism and relied on working class organisations and a return to “politics as normal” in the Labour Party, they chose the latter.
They did not understand that the right had their own version of “never again”. Never again must there be a left which can hold Labour governments to account, organise against them and reflect the demands of the class that Labour purports to represent.
The recent history of Tribune is an indirect vindication of the famous Pastor Niemoller warning, adapted to say “when they came for Militant, Socialist Organiser, etc, I said nothing, for I wasn’t in those groups. When they came for me there was no-one left to speak out for me”.
Indirect, because the paper is not being suppressed but instead reaping the whirlwind of the marginalisation of the serious Labour left. It is a marginalisation Tribune supporters did little to prevent and much to encourage.