31 October 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 October 2008

I hope that somewhere else in this magazine there is a cheery announcement that Tribune has secured financial backing and that this will not be the last issue. But I’m not sure there is, so I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank you, dear readers, for having me. It’s now more than 22 years since I first wrote for Tribune and 10 since I started this column, and your persistent poisonous sniping and personal abuse have sustained me through many a dark hour.

Seriously, if this isn’t the last issue – and I don’t think it is – it has been a damn close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington didn’t actually say of the Battle of Waterloo. Perhaps it’s not quite as close as it was in 1988, when we ran a front page adorned with the words “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” after the then board of directors decided to pull the plug in a week – this time, the magazine has had all of a month to organise a rescue. But it’s closer than at any time in the intervening two decades.

Of course, Tribune has a glorious history of financial crisis. It was launched as a newspaper in 1937 by two rich Labour MPs, Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss, as a vehicle for the Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to unite the Labour left with the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, with Cripps and Strauss putting up £18,000 of their own cash (roughly £800,000 in today’s money). They assumed they would achieve a break-even circulation of 50,000 in a matter of weeks and then recoup their investment – but in fact the paper used up all the dosh in nine months and barely hit 25,000.

Cripps continued reluctantly to subsidise its losses through 1938 and 1939 – a period when Tribune became an adjunct to the publisher Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club – but then lost interest and dropped out of completely in spring 1940 on his appointment as ambassador to Moscow, leaving control of the paper to Aneurin Bevan and Strauss. Strauss picked up the tab and continued to do so for several years – but he too blew hot and cold and dropped out on becoming a junior minister in the 1945 Labour government.

By the late 1940s, Tribune was on its uppers again and resorted to selling editorial space to Labour Party headquarters – and in 1950 it was forced to go fortnightly, resuming weekly publication only in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, it survived only thanks to non-stop fundraising, most of it from readers but some from anonymous rich benefactors. One of these was the maverick Tory press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who handed over £3,000 when his rival Lord Kemsley sued Tribune for libel.

The 1960s and 1970s were decades of relative stability for the paper despite a slow decline in circulation – largely because many of the trade unions were left-led and were persuaded to take bulk orders and solidarity advertising – and in the early 1980s Tribune’s finances were buoyed by advertisements from local councils under left-wing Labour control, particularly Ken Livingstone’s GLC. But in the mid-1980s the financial situation deteriorated rapidly. The unions, with membership in decline, tightened their belts and merged. The GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government and the rules on local council spending were tightened. By the end of 1987 it looked as if the writing was on the wall, and in early 1988, with circulation around 5,000, the board decided Tribune would have to close.

It didn’t, for two reasons. The paper’s readers rallied round magnificently, raising £40,000 in a little more than a fortnight, and the unions agreed to pay for a promotion campaign. That worked, but not quite well enough, and there was another minor crisis in early 1991 that led to the paper going down from 12 tabloid pages to eight for six months. In the meantime, however, we raised sufficient funds to buy desktop publishing equipment, which slashed production costs – and the rest of the 1990s were plain sailing.

There was another wobble in 2002-03, which was resolved by a consortium of unions taking ownership of Tribune and promising long-term investment – but by this spring they had got cold feet, and last month they decided that this would be the last issue unless a buyer could be found. Every time I’ve spoken to the editor since, he has expressed cautious optimism about the prospects. I’ve just been keeping my fingers crossed: I hope we haven’t used up our nine lives.

And the moral of the story? Well, there isn’t one, except that it has always been difficult to sustain left-wing newspapers. Whether it is more difficult now than it used to be is a moot point – but that’s for another column. If there is one …

8 October 2008


The leftwing weekly Tribune will close after its 31 October edition unless a buyer can be found.

At a meeting of its board last night, its trade union shareholders agreed to what its editor Chris McLaughlin called an "amicable parting of the ways" with the magazine. Tribune is now actively seeking a new owner.

McLaughlin said that he was optimistic about interest already being shown but that a deal would have to be done very soon to ensure continuity of publication.

A consortium of five trade unions took over ownership of Tribune four years ago, promising substantial investment in the magazine. But the unions declined to give financial support to a business plan put forward earlier this year by McLaughlin and his team.

Tribune, founded in 1937 by Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan, has lived a precarious existence for most of its life. It currently sells 4,000 copies a week.

5 October 2008


The clock is ticking for the left weekly Tribune, which desperately needs its union proprietors to cough up the cash they promised four years ago to have a chance of survival. And the crunch could come in the next couple of days. The paper's editor, Chris McLaughlin, makes it abundantly clear here what's at stake. More to come on this...

4 October 2008


Paul Anderson, review of The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson (Faber and Faber, £25), Tribune, 3 October 2008

The Italian front in the first world war has not been a favoured topic for historians writing in English. It would be wrong to say that it has been completely ignored – but by comparison with the western front, the war at sea, Gallipoli, the eastern front or even Palestine it has received scant attention, apart from two key battles: the central powers’ rout of Italy at Caporetto in autumn 1917, which was followed by a spectacular Italian retreat; and the Italians’ decisive triumph of Vittorio Veneto a year later, after which the Italians recovered all their lost territory (and seized some more) in the last days before the war ended.

In some respects, this lack of attention is hardly surprising. Italy joined the allies late – in spring 1915 – and the front lines established by the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian empire within days of the start of hostilities changed only marginally over the next two-and-a-half years. For the western allies (Britain and France), Italy was a sideshow compared with the western front and the German blockade, and they committed few troops and little hardware until almost the very end; for the Russians, the Italian campaign was of interest solely because it tied up large numbers of Austro-Hungarian troops that would otherwise have been sent to fight them. Germany was directly involved in the Italian campaign only briefly (although its intervention was almost decisive).

Yet, as Mark Thompson makes clear in this fascinating book, the Italian front was rather more important than it seemed at the time to outsiders or has since appeared to most non-Italian historians. It is a commonplace that the experience of war is socially and politically cathartic, and many historians have remarked on the importance of the first world war in the breakdown of Italy’s fragile, flawed democracy and the rise of Mussolini’s fascists: 1.2 million Italians died, nearly half of them civilians. But Thompson makes that process extraordinarily vivid, using an impressive range of sources – official reports, newspaper articles, veterans’ memoirs, intellectual manifestos – to put into context and humanise the story of military actions and casualty statistics.

The picture he paints is little short of horrifying. Italy was bounced into war by a cynical nationalist propaganda campaign in which most liberals and socialists acquiesced. Then the Italian commander-in-chief, Luigi Cadorna, adopted tactics of breathtaking stupidity – frontal assaults up bare mountainsides against well-defended Austro-Hungarian positions – that he stuck with, despite shocking casualties, for more than two years. The troops were treated as dirt, even when they were not being sent to their deaths in futile attacks on mountain redoubts: their rations and clothing were inadequate and their leave minimal, and summary execution of supposed malingerers and cowards was the norm. (This extended to the systematic execution of soldiers chosen by lot to discourage their comrades from mutiny or desertion.)

Cadorna regarded the democratic politicians that were supposedly in charge with utter contempt – and was cheered on loudly by Mussolini (miraculously transformed from socialist militant into ultra-patriotic publicist) and other extreme nationalist intellectuals, among them the poets Gabriele d’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Cadorna was sacked after the debacle of Caporetto, but by then Italy’s liberal political class had lost the plot. After the war ended, it found itself outmanoeuvred by insistent and hysterical right-wing nationalist demands for Italy to be rewarded for its sacrifices with Trieste, Fiume and a large swath of the northern Adriatic coast – and, to cut a long story short, it capitulated.

The White War – the title refers to the snow and limestone of the mountains over which most of the Italian campaign of 1915-18 was fought – is meticulously researched and a gripping read. I could have done with a big fold-out map, but otherwise this is an exemplary and erudite work of popular history.

1 October 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 October 2008

So – surprise, surprise – there was no attempt to topple Gordon Brown in Manchester last week, and he lives to fight another day. Indeed, thanks largely to a better-than-expected speech that seems to have given Labour a big bounce in the opinion polls, his position appears significantly stronger after Labour conference than it did just before.

How lasting this new strength will prove is another matter. It might well have started to dissipate by the time you read this – the first polls after David Cameron’s main Tory conference speech were due to be published as Tribune went to press – and there is so much that could go wrong for Brown in the very near future. The sullen internal Labour Party truce observed (for the most part) in Manchester is fragile at best, and it would not take a lot for hostilities to break out again: a botched reshuffle, a couple of really bad polls, defeat in the Glenrothes by-election, you name it …

But the best guess is that Brown has won himself some breathing space. The young pretender, David Miliband, no longer looks quite such an obvious alternative as he did in summer. The media consensus is that he had a poor conference – his nadir being pictured holding a banana, which is apparently something only done by nerds. Whatever, there is no one else remotely credible as a would-be prime minister.

So the likelihood is that what will determine both Brown’s and Labour’s fate is the way the government handles the economy in the next six to 12 months.

The only certainty here is that it will not be easy. Economists differ on precisely how severe a downturn Britain will experience as a consequence of the combined credit crunch, energy squeeze and banking crisis. But nearly all agree that it will be severe, particularly if the housing market, currently pretty-much frozen, goes into meltdown US-style. The worst-case scenario, horribly plausible in a way that premonitions of slump have not been for 30 years, is of a vicious circle of collapsing consumption, business failures, rising unemployment and mortgage defaults that creates the worst recession in living memory.

Brown and Alistair Darling are aware of the threat – which is more than can be said of the Conservative opposition, whose economic illiteracy this week has been utterly breathtaking. The prime minister and the chancellor both made it clear in their conference speeches that current economic conditions necessitate the state playing an active role not just in restoring confidence in the banking system but also, crucially, in maintaining the overall level of demand in the economy and in ensuring that the poor do not bear the brunt of the downturn.

In other words, unlike the Tories, they do not appear to be singing from the same song sheet as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden in 1931: in the medium term at least, Labour will borrow and spend to compensate for the effects of tight private credit and will not slash the welfare state.

But if that’s reassuring, it’s not enough. Coded statements of intent in conference speeches are all very well, but they need to be translated into hard policy to have any serious impact either economically or politically – and so far the government’s proposals have been timid, unimaginative and short-term. Of course, dealing with the immediate financial crisis has to be the priority and is in itself a daunting challenge, but the government also needs to come up with concrete medium-term plans for taking the sting out of recession.

The key here is a serious programme of public works – social housing, renewable and nuclear energy, dedicated cycle tracks in every city, urban trams and light railways, a high-speed rail network – to take up the slack in the economy. Needless to say, it would take time to assemble and cost, but that is precisely why the government should be working on it right now even though the scale and duration of the downturn are unclear.

Bad economic times generally do governments no good, and it would be foolish to be too optimistic about Labour’s chances of weathering the gathering storm. The opinion polls are dire even with the post-conference bounce. The party’s position is not, however, completely hopeless. The Tories have no credible economic policy to deal with the recessionary times in which we are now living. With a coherent and bold programme of state intervention to alleviate the pain of market failure, Labour might just persuade the voters to give it another term in spring 2010. Who knows, it could even manage it under its current leader.