Left Despite Labour

The Rebirth of Tribune

Tribune is the sort of magazine it’s cool to write for and read, but only in certain circles. However, it’s crucial if you care about politics.

Class is everything: Tribune, today.

Despite its long, rich history, Tribune has remained on the margins of the British press.

Before the relaunch, Tribune was a drab journal with a dwindling readership. Its best days were long behind it.

Overnight, Tribune was transformed with a new pitch: the magazine of Corbynism.

No longer was it dull and ugly in equal measure. The deal secured not just its future but a newer, sharper style.

Tribune’s website was transformed overnight, and its print copy became more ornate and sophisticated.

Multimillionaire convicted rapist Owen Oyston owned Tribune until the deal.

Oyston was previously the owner of News on Sunday, a failed attempt at a left-wing tabloid. Tribune was never going to take off on his watch.

Bhaskar Sunkara, the American media entrepreneur behind Jacobin and now the president of The Nation, bought Tribune with the intent of making it “the second biggest political magazine” in the UK.

So far, this ambition has gone unfulfilled.

Instead, Tribune has established itself as a major left-wing publication, but it largely complements the work of other progressive platforms in the UK, like Novara Media and the Morning Star, filling out the left market.

This is not the same as Jacobin, which absorbed much of the readership of older American left periodicals through a combination of strong visual design and heavy social media marketing, consistently branding itself as socialist.

By contrast, Tribune is last to the party and had to play catch up when it relaunched in 2018. Nevertheless, the magazine has developed a significant online readership and a loyal subscriber base that has sustained it for five years.

The new editorial team was headed up by editor-in-chief Ronan Burtenshaw. Urban critic Owen Hatherley was soon on board as culture editor, while economist Grace Blakeley joined up after a stint at the New Statesman.

This was going to be the publication of Corbynism in power. Unfortunately, the Corbyn project was brought down in 2019 and the Labour right came back with a vengeance.

The difficulty now is where Tribune goes in a post-Corbyn era.

It might be that Tribune has a cause but no place in the Labour Party. The Corbyn years may turn out to be just another turning point in its winding history.

Unpopular Fronts

The history of Tribune has been recast as a radical publication committed to democratic socialism. This is more true than false.

However, the publication has swerved from its origins to the soft left and even dalliances with the Labour right at times.

Labour MPs Stafford Cripps and George Strauss founded Tribune in 1937.

It was meant to be a newspaper of the broad left to oppose fascism and war. It would become an organ of the Labour left, eventually the soft left, in particular.

Future Labour leader Michael Foot and Barbara Castle (then Barbara Betts) were on its staff, while the editorial board included Welsh socialist Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan and economist Harold Laski.

Originally Tribune was formed of the efforts of Labour MPs working to forge a united front with the far-left against fascism.

This included the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Socialist League and the Independent Labour Party.

Over time the united front strategy became a popular front strategy in line with the CPGB’s line. The latter meant Tribune supported alliances with forces outside the socialist left to oppose fascism.

This was controversial among the writers who opposed the Soviet line. However, the publication would develop its own political line over time.

Tribune became an organ of democratic socialism. What this meant in practice would change over the decades.

Nye Bevan took over as editor in 1941. Tribune backed the British war effort and criticised the Churchill government’s failures. It moved further away from the CPGB and much closer to the Bevanite wing of the Labour Party.

Much overpraised English writer George Orwell was hired as literary editor in 1943. He would later leave for The Observer before his death in 1949.

However, Orwell’s time at Tribune was in tune with its trajectory in Cold War politics.

British democratic socialism had a form of internationalism tied to social democracy and partly defined in its relations with the US and the USSR.

But many of these self-described socialists would fall into the same traps as liberals.

Journal of the Soft Left

By the 1950s, Tribune had found its place as one of the periodicals cheering on British social democracy and its commitments to an anti-Communist foreign policy.

The editorial staff endorsed the foundation of NATO on such grounds.

Tribune may have cheered when Harold Wilson won in 1964 but soon became a critic of the Labour government.

Later, Tribune came out against the US war in Vietnam and slammed the Wilson government for supporting it.

Nevertheless, it became increasingly unfashionable on the radical left. The publication was too old and soft in its values for the new left and its revolutionary ideas.

Readership fell from 20,000 in 1960 to around 10,000 by the end of the 1970s.

Chris Mullin took over in 1982 and steered Tribune’s editorial line to favour Tony Benn.

The Labour left was fighting for influence during the leadership of Tribune’s former reporter Michael Foot.

By the early 1980s, the magazine was faltering, and its readership fell to just 6,000 in 1984 after Mullin stepped down as editor. He was pursuing a career in Parliament and would go on to serve as MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010

New editor Nigel Williamson, formerly a Bennite, shocked his peers by supporting Neil Kinnock.

Williamson argued for a realignment of the soft left with the Labour right against the Militant Tendency.

By 1988, Tribune had shifted once again.

This time Neil Kinnock was facing a leadership challenge. The paper supported John Prescott in his campaign to become deputy Labour leader.

However, Tribune remained on the side of Kinnock.

Militant was the real enemy for Williamson because the hard left was stopping Labour from winning power (despite the fact that Kinnock was in charge for much of the 1980s).

Kinnock would succeed in stomping the guts out of Militant, but this wouldn’t help him secure a Labour victory.

Somehow Thatcherism was still triumphant. Labour turned its fight against the left rather than the right and lost anyway.

Break Up

The early 1990s saw Tribune undergo more changes.

It broke with its Eurosceptic past and embraced European integration. The newspaper also supported military intervention in the Yugoslav civil wars.

Once Tony Blair became Labour leader, Tribune moved to an oppositional stance and condemned the abandonment of Clause IV.

It remained critical of Blairism from its earliest days.

Left-wing Labour activist Mark Seddon became editor in 1993. His tenure would last until 2004.

During this time, Seddon made waves as a critic of the Iraq war and was blocked from being selected as a Labour candidate as a result.

In 2001, Tribune became a magazine, but it was about to meet a key test for any progressive journal.

Arguably, Seddon helped prepare the way for the publication to later become the magazine of the Corbyn project.

Although it was soft on intervention in the Balkans, Tribune opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in line with its history of opposition to US wars.

The best of its anti-war heritage was on show.

However, the Labour Party was a desert for left politics during the Blair-Brown years.

Most organising and activism was outside the party as many working people wrote off New Labour. But this wouldn’t last forever.

Chris McLaughlin took over from Seddon in 2004. He would hold the editorship until 2017 and now serves as editor-at-large in Team Burtenshaw.

McLaughlin’s years as editor saw Tribune fall ever further into hard times. It looked like the magazine might be doomed.

Dogged by financial problems and a lack of subscribers, Tribune almost had to close shop in October 2011. But publisher Kevin McGrath secured a last-minute rescue package.

The problem was that Tribune was still out of sync with left-wing opinion in the UK.

Most progressives had given up on Labour or supported it as a lesser of two evils, but no one thought there was much hope in its left faction.

This would change with the Corbyn leadership. The anti-austerity movement building from 2010 onwards found its political opportunity in the 2015 Labour leadership election.

Britain needed something like Tribune in 2015, but it wouldn’t become the magazine of the Labour left again until 2018.

By this point, the best days of the Corbyn era were over, though many progressives didn’t realise it at the time.

Without a political vehicle, Tribune is its own project with radical politics cheering on striking workers.

Five years is a long time in media. Another five may tell if Tribune is going to become an institution of left media independent of its history with Labour.

Screenshot courtesy of Tribune. All rights reserved.