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Ian Birchall

Tribune: Fifty years on

(February 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 95, February 1987, pp. 16–19.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Tribune, the paper of the Labour left, this year celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. Fifty years of more or less uninterrupted production is no mean achievement for a paper of the left.

During that time Tribune has been associated with some worthy causes – from anti-Fascism to nuclear disarmament – and it has had some distinguished contributors.

Among Labour politicians it has been closely associated with such noteworthy figures and talented writers as Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot, and others who began their journalistic careers with Tribune include the cartoonist Cummings and the novelist John Braine. Ian Birchall looks at the paper’s history.

* * *

ON the occasion of Tribune’s tenth birthday in 1947 George Orwell, perhaps the best writer ever to serve on its staff, wrote that Tribune was “the only existing weekly paper that makes a genuine effort to be both progressive and humane – that is, to combine a radical Socialist policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilised attitude towards literature and the arts.”

It would be pleasing to be able to make a similar judgement in 1987. Unfortunately the historical record tells a rather different story. It is only by examining Tribune’s failures and defeats that we can learn something of the inadequacies of the Labour left over the last half century.

1936, the year in which Tribune was conceived, was one of deep crisis for the left. Mosley was on the streets at home, while in Spain civil war was raging; a new world war was already looming on the horizon.

At Labour’s Conference in Edinburgh the left, seeking unity against fascism, had called for aid to the Spanish Republic and the right of the Communist Party to affiliate to the Labour Party. But the bureaucrats of the right held the line and these policies were defeated.

In the aftermath a number of Labour politicians – Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps, George Strauss and William Mellor, met to discuss the founding of a new paper. Cripps and Strauss provided £20,000, no mean sum in those days, and on 1 January 1937 the first issue hit the streets. The cover, showing the British working class as a lion being subdued by a fascist, indicated the grim urgency of the period.

The campaign for left unity was central to Tribune from the beginning. But this was couched in a language of class struggle which few of Tribune’s supporters today would dare to use. In the first issue William Mellor wrote:

“The defeat of capitalism depends upon the unity of the working class. If its forces are divided, as in Italy and in Germany, it is defeated in detail. A united working class can take the offensive ... A united working class can go forward to a defined goal.”

The goal of unity in action between workers belonging to the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the ILP was indeed a worthy one. But a real United Front must always combine the broadest possible unity in action with political clarity in analysing the situation and selecting objectives. From the beginning Tribune allowed the need for unity to blur its concern for clarity.

The thirties were a time of high hopes. But they were also a time when the politics of Stalinism led to a squandering of those hopes. The monstrous perversion of justice in the Moscow Trials disgraced the name of socialism; while Communist policies led to the loss of the Popular Front gains in France and the defeat of the Republic in Spain. In the name of “unity” Tribune failed to expose these disastrous policies. The Moscow Trials were passed over in embarrassed silence and even partially justified; Mellor enquired in February 1938:

“Who can believe that the transformation of old Russia into a socialist society could proceed without severity or without error?”

Barbara Castle wrote a series on women in Russia, “where women live with new assurance”, while Trotsky was slandered as “the madman in Moscow”. Certainly contributors like Bevan were not themselves naive about Russia, but they ducked the issues in the interests of unity.

Yet the compromises did not serve to win the unity that was needed. Tribune failed to defend the position of the Labour left and on the eve of the war Bevan, Cripps and Strauss were expelled from the Labour Party. Bevan and Strauss were readmitted only after making major concessions to the right.

DURING the Second World War Tribune’s line was one of critical support for the wartime coalition. Churchill and his cabinet could be criticised, and on occasion were sharply criticised, for particular tactics and policies, but there was overall acceptance of the idea that it was possible to fight fascism in alliance with one of the most ruthless champions of British capitalism.

Certainly Tribune’s line was considerably more healthy than the slavish admiration of Churchill shown by the Communist Party between 1941 and 1945. In May 1942 Tribune published an article under the provocative title Why Churchill?, which accused the Prime Minister of delaying military action against Germany in the interests of his own ambitions.

Since the author, who used the pseudonym Thomas Rainboro’, was a serving soldier, his articles soon attracted the attention of the War Office. But even here Tribune’s radicalism was part of a rather bizarre “united front”.

Tribune’s campaign for a “Second Front” – a land invasion in Western Europe to take the pressure off Russia in the East – echoed the policy of the Communist Party. But it was also the policy of Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper tycoon.

Beaverbrook, as a member of the War Cabinet, could not criticise Churchill in public, but he masterminded the campaign through his paper The Evening Standard. And Tribune’s “Thomas Rainboro’” was in fact one Frank Owen, until recently editor of The Evening Standard.

Tribune greeted the accession of a Labour government in 1945 with enthusiasm. While reserving its right to criticise, it placed its main emphasis on praising the achievements of Attlee’s government. In November 1946 Tribune went so far as to claim that

“… the first session of the Labour Government’s Parliament which ended on Wednesday did more revolutionary things to this country than the first three years after the 1917 Revolution did for Russia.”

Whatever criticisms there might be in detail, there was certainly no inkling of a notion that Labour’s nationalisation and welfare policies were designed to prop up capitalism, not to undermine it.

Certainly Tribune’s initial enthusiasm for Attlee mirrored a widely shared feeling in the working class. But as the Attlee government went down the slippery slope to wage restraint, spending cuts, strike-breaking and the Cold War, there was a place for a voice on the left which could rally a socialist opposition to Attlee. But Tribune was not to be that voice.

In the last years of the Labour government its influence was on the decline, and in 1950 it was forced to move from weekly to fortnightly production. Transport House paid for two pages a week to put across official party policy, and the rest of the paper often differed very little from this.

Tribune went most of the way with Labour’s capitulation to anti-communism and Cold War politics in the late forties. After initial hesitation Tribune supported the establishment of NATO, though Ian Mikardo did resign from the editorial board on this issue.

In 1949 Tribune gave a platform to American trade unionist Walter Reuther, who had come to London to engineer a pro-American split in the World Federation of Trade Unions. When the Korean War broke out in 1950 one of Tribune’s rising stars, Michael Foot, defended the American intervention saying that

“American soldiers are fighting in Korea … to uphold the principles of collective defence against wanton aggression.”

BUT in the early fifties Tribune took on a new lease of life. Aneurin Bevan resigned from the Labour government in protest at health service charges and when the Tories returned to power in 1951 Bevan became the focus for a frustrated left.

”Bevanism” as a political current rapidly gained support, and Tribune, once again a weekly, became its public organ. For a while the paper was a public focus for labour left organisation; the famous “Tribune Brains Trusts”, with panels of well-known personalities, were held in constituencies up and down the country, an effort described by one journalist as “the biggest, most continuous and widespread propaganda effort ever conducted within the Labour Movement.”

Tribune intervened in the campaign against German rearmament, but in so doing allowed itself to lapse into some crudely nationalistic anti-German statements, accusing Germany of overrunning France “three times in sixty years”. And in 1954 Tribune took a step that was virtually unique in its history, either before or since; it intervened directly in a trade union dispute lining up with the rank and file against the bureaucracy.

Normally Tribune respected the division between “political” and trade union issues, and was careful not to give offence to the bureaucracy.

In supporting northern dockers who joined the stevedores’ union out of opposition to right-wing domination in the T&GWU, Tribune infuriated the right wing. But its motives were primarily to further its struggle against Arthur Deakin, the T&GWU’s right wing leader who wielded a massive block vote in the Labour Party. It was certainly not a conversion to the primacy of workplace politics.

But in 1955 Bevan was threatened with expulsion and was forced to “apologise” for his criticisms of Attlee. From now on Bevan set out to refurbish his position as a future cabinet minister, and his utterances became increasingly statesmanlike.

At the time of the Suez crisis Bevan treated Tribune readers to a ringing denunciation of the Egyptian leader Nasser for “stirring the pot of nationalist passion”. As Bevan cut his links with the left, Tribune, which had linked its politics all too closely to Bevan’s ambitions, was left disoriented.

FORTUNATELY for Tribune a new campaign was to emerge. Tribune, to its credit, had taken up the issue of nuclear weapons and the threat they posed from the early fifties, and when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament started to put thousands of people on to the streets, Tribune was there to welcome its new audience.

The front page carried a banner “The paper that leads the anti-H-bomb campaign”, and the paper gave extensive coverage to the issue.

Bevan had now defected to a pro-nuclear stance and the paper’s guiding spirit was Michael Foot, who, however, idolised Bevan and was unable to carry through a clear critique of his position.

Moreover, Tribune’s commitment to nuclear disarmament did not lead it to break with its parliamentarism and deferential attitudes to the trade union bureaucracy.

Tribune contributed to the movement which produced the pro-unilateralist victory at Labour’s 1960 conference; but when the block votes swung the other way and the policy was lost in 1961, Tribune had no strategy to offer.

It certainly had no sympathy for the wing of CND that turned to non-violent sit-downs; in April 1961 Tribune editorialised:

“The group of demonstrators who broke away from the massive CND demonstration in Trafalgar Square to stage their own ‘direct action’ protest outside the American embassy and Savile Row police station could not, if they had been Empire Loyalists or Mosleyites, have done the nuclear disarmament movement greater disservice.”

There were indeed criticisms to be made of the “direct action” strategy, but to compare its proponents to fascists was to display a sectarianism towards the far left to which Tribune was to become increasingly prone.

In any case, as the chance of a Labour election victory appeared on the horizon, nuclear disarmament became an increasingly embarrassing issue. Tribune dropped its front-page anti-H-bomb banner and instead identified itself with the rather more respectable campaign against the Common market. Here again the nationalism which had marked the campaign against German rearmament became all too apparent.

HAROLD WILSON’S election victory in 1964 was greeted with a “celebration issue” of the paper. Under the headline “TRIBUNE takes over from ETON in the Cabinet” there were pictures of former Tribune contributors (Crossman, Cousins, Castle, Lee) now in Wilson’s government.

Wilson had been, at one time, a half-hearted Bevanite, and when Bevan was safely dead he delighted in quoting his name. In the run-up to 1964 Tribune had backed Wilson for the leadership and praised him fulsomely when he won it.

As Wilson’s government moved from compromise to capitulation to betrayal, Tribune reacted sluggishly. Certainly there was sharp criticism on individual issues. When Wilson slandered the striking seamen, Tribune supported them, and when health service charges were reintroduced, Tribune headlined “The Shame of it all”. But all this was within the framework of “critical support”; in 1966 Tribune warned:

“Every socialist has the right to criticise the design and performance of the Labour automobile – so long as he also helps to put some petrol in the tank.”

Tribune was unable to mobilise against Wilson’s policies. As a new, harder left emerged out of the Vietnam movement and the events of 1968, Tribune remained stuck in its obsessive parliamentarism.

From now on it was downhill all the way. The 1974–79 government was even worse than that of 1964–70, and Tribune’s response was even feebler.

A brief flurry of activity on the anti-Common Market campaign led nowhere, In 1974 a rising star of the Tribune group in Parliament, one Neil Kinnock, proclaimed that Tribune supporters

“like millions throughout the world, refuse to accept the permanence and desirability of the ‘realities’ of capitalism and totalitarianism or even concede the ‘realism’ of changing those systems and removing the stupidities and injustices which spawn by feeding and appeasing them.”

Unfortunately when Labour moved to control wages and cut public spending these fine words meant little. In October 1974 Tribune had expressed enthusiasm for Labour’s proposed “social contract” with the unions; but when, in 1975, the “social contract” turned into good old-fashioned wage control, Tribune merely mumbled:

“The aim, we would submit, must be, with justified exceptions, to hold living standards for a year or two while we move ahead with our massive investment programmes and socialist policies.”

The Tribune group in parliament was split down the middle and as long as the “social contract” was backed by left union bureaucrats like Jack Jones, Tribune would not fight it. Instead its columns were filled with mealy-mouthed equivocations. For those on the left, like the Right to Work Campaign, who sought to organise against Labour policies, Tribune reserved some of its most sectarian sneers and vituperations. Only the Anti-Nazi League proved too big to oppose.

At the beginning of the Thatcher government Tribune’s response was equally feeble. In 1980 it warned the TUC that a day of action against Thatcher must not offend “the public at large”, and during the 1980 steel strike Tribune was guilty of what can only be called scabbing by printing a full page advertisement for the British Steel Corporation, urging participation in the strike-breaking ballot.

Tribune was not, however, immune to the rise of Bennism in the early eighties. When Benn ran for deputy leader in 1981, John Silkin, backed by Neil Kinnock, stood to split the left vote and ensure Benn’s defeat.

Tribune took a line of neutrality between Benn and Silkin, but published an editorial headed “The labour movement is more important than its leaders”, implicitly criticising the Benn cult.

CHANGES came in May 1982, when Chris Mullin took over as editor from Richard Clements. Mullin was close to Benn’s politics, though he denied that Tribune had become a Bennite organ.

While he remained committed to a parliamentary road to socialism, he saw the value of extra-parliamentary action and pressure more clearly than previous Tribune editors had done. He was also prepared to engage in reasonably fraternal discussion with the revolutionary left, a sharp break from his predecessor’s sectarianism. Mullin proclaimed sharp opposition to the Falklands War and introduced some new and livelier features to the paper – notably an “Extra-Parliamentary Column” which was open to anyone except MPs.

The new line brought a prompt rebuke from Michael Foot, who sent an open letter accusing Tribune of “infantile leftism”. More seriously Kinnock’s friend John Silkin launched a bid via share control and legal action to take Tribune out of Mullin’s hands.

After the 1983 election Tribune backed Eric Heffer for the Labour leadership. If Kinnock was its second – and more realistic – choice, it urged that support for Kinnock be “without illusions” in view of his visible drift to the right.

Mullin, a talented novelist and investigative journalist, saw no long term future in the dwindling pool of Tribune; and after his resignation he left behind no political heritage.

Tribune soon swung back to its old traditions under Nigel Williamson’s editorship. In October 1986, after Kinnock’s vomit-provoking promise to Labour conference that he would “die for his country”, Tribune published an editorial eulogy of the labour leader:

“He has set about rebuilding the party in a principled way. On nuclear weapons and international issues he has stood as firm as anyone could hope or desire. On issues such as social ownership, the policy has been modernised and made more attractive, but the basic principles remain.”

And in January 1987 Tribune carried a half-page article by Mullin’s former adversary John Silkin, denouncing the Campaign Group as the “authoritarian Left”, an article replete with dishonest references to Aneurin Bevan.

In the same month, fifty years on from Tribune’s founding, its editor, Nigel Williamson was with a Labour Party delegation to NATO headquarters, aimed at stressing Labour’s loyalty to the nuclear alliance.

So, in this anniversary year, Tribune’s future looks bleak. If New Socialist has gone down the road of pursuing style without content, Tribune has remained resolutely on the side of the “drabbies”. Its clumsy layout succeeds in making even the odd interesting article look boring.

By the early eighties its claimed circulation was only twelve thousand; the reality was probably well below this. Before the war it had reached a sale of 30,000, but even in the high period of Bevanism it was no more than 18,000.

Financial difficulties are no secret; appeals for funds refer, not to expansion, but to “survival”. The loss of GLC advertising was a blow and Tribune is now ever more dependent on donations and advertisements from trade unions.

But such dependence makes Tribune ever more incapable of leading a political fight against the union bureaucracy. It seems unlikely that Tribune will see a sixtieth, let alone a hundredth, birthday.

* * *

(Thanks to Andy Zebrowksi for help with research and to Chris Harman for his invaluable articles in International Socialism (first series] 21 & 24).

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