19 March 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 March 2010

Several people have asked me over the past few months when I’m going to outrage the readers of Tribune by publishing a list of the constituencies where Labour supporters should vote Liberal Democrat at the next general election to keep out a Tory. That’s what I did in 2001 and again in 2005 – and I’ve never found a better way of filling the letters page with indignation and bile.

I regret nothing, but this time it’s different. It’s not that I no longer believe tactical voting against the Tories. If I had a Lib Dem MP and the Tory was in second place last time with Labour way behind in third, I’d almost certainly vote Lib Dem on May 6 (or whenever it is). I’d probably vote Lib Dem if I lived somewhere with a Tory MP where the Lib Dem came second last time, too.

It’s just that I can’t be bothered to make a big thing of it, let alone spend hours putting together a list, because, well, it doesn’t really matter in the same way now. In 2001 and 2005, the general election results were never in doubt: everyone knew Labour was going to emerge with comfortable Commons majorities as long as it got the vote out. But in both elections anti-Tory tactical voting appeared to be a serious opportunity to do major damage to the Tories – and doing damage to the Tories has been the most honourable cause in British politics for three centuries.

In 2001, there was an outside but genuine chance that, with a good showing for the Lib Dems in parts of rural England where Labour trailed badly, the Tories could be reduced to the status of third party nationally. It didn’t happen, but there wasn’t a lot in it, and, boy, was it worth dreaming.

In 2005, the picture was different. But even in 2005 there were many Tories who appeared vulnerable to anti-Tory tactical voting, among them Michael Howard in Folkestone (if Labour supporters from 2001 voted Lib Dem) and, lest we forget, David Cameron in Witney (if Lib Dems from 2001 voted Labour).

All right, defenestration of the likes of Howard and Cameron was always wishful thinking. The point is that 2001 and 2005 were both elections in which anti-Tory tactical voting was a potentially destructive offensive weapon. This time it isn’t. The Tories are now on the march, and in nearly every part of the country the priority for Labour and for the Lib Dems is to hold on to as much as they can of what they’ve got. To complicate the picture, no one quite knows precisely who’s got what. There are significant boundary changes, and the number of retiring MPs is unprecedented, largely because of the Commons expenses scandal. Eighty-seven Labour MPs have announced they are quitting, and the whips expect another 10 to go before polling day.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have moved to the market-liberal right under Nick Clegg, and are markedly less open to social democratic ideas than they have been for more than 25 years. In local government, they have made opportunistic alliances with the Tories. The prospect of Clegg going into coalition with Cameron is plausible in a way that Charles Kennedy joining William Hague or Howard never was. The battlefield has changed.

This doesn’t mean abjuring anti-Tory tactical voting. The Lib Dems are still (just) of the centre-left, and many of their sitting MPs are much better than the Tories who would inevitably replace them if they lost. The same is true of the brave band of Labour MPs who have decided to fight again rather than walk away.

What of the new candidates, though? Well, they need some research. So far, the Sunday Times has managed a cretinous 1987-style red-scare piece claiming that Labour is selecting dangerous militants. “We found that 53 per cent either declare themselves to be a member of a trade union or have links to leftist groups in the party such as Compass, the Grass Roots Alliance or Save the Labour Party,” the paper declared last weekend. The same day, the Sunday Telegraph made a lot of the role of the Unite trade union in pushing its people into safe seats, though the author, Andrew Gilligan, couldn’t quite work out whether they were being granted a favour or being pensioned off.

The reality as I see it is more mundane: nearly all the Labour candidates so far selected are much what you’d expect in the circumstances – no porn-movie directors, no big-name media academics, lots of clean hands who have earned their chance through years of work in the unions, local government and NGOs, a few retreads. The Lib Dems, with the exception of the porn movie director, are the same: overwhelmingly local government and NGO worthies.

So – same old same old, but different. Tactical voting when you’re on the defensive doesn’t require lists, and the Lib Dems can look after themselves. Labour needs a concerted campaign in seats it holds, with a simple message: “Keep the Tories out: vote Labour”. Anything else is superfluous. It’s backs-against-the-wall time.

12 March 2010


Paul Anderson, Chartist, May-June 2010

The death of Michael Foot at the age of 96 in early March has been marked by dozens of appreciative obituaries – and a few examples of shameless scandal-mongering – but so far few have had much to say about his long association with Tribune. Even the appreciations published by that paper mentioned it largely in passing, preferring to concentrate on his roles as a politician and as an author of pamphlets and books.

This is quite understandable in some respects. It is primarily as a key player in the 1974-79 Labour government and as Labour leader between 1980 and 1983 that he is remembered by anyone under 60 today, and very few people under the age of 70 have any but a childhood memory of Tribune even at the very end of his second spell as editor in 1960. Just as important, Foot’s lasting legacy is most likely to be his prodigious output between hard covers, in particular his 1957 book on Jonathan Swift, The Pen and the Sword, and his massive biography of Aneurin Bevan, which appeared in two volumes in 1962 and 1973.

But it is worth highlighting his Tribune connection, which lasted from the paper’s foundation in 1937 to his death (with a few gaps while he was otherwise engaged or at odds with an editor). He was hired as a junior journalist when the paper was launched by Sir Stafford Cripps as the organ of his Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to forge a united front against fascism and war among the Labour, Communist and Independent Labour parties; one of his colleagues was Barbara Betts (later Barbara Castle), who was having an affair with the paper’s first editor, William Mellor.

Foot resigned from Tribune after 18 months in sympathy with Mellor after Cripps fired the editor for refusing to take a political line much closer to the Communist Party’s than hitherto – and Foot went off to make a reputation in the journalistic mainstream, first as a writer on Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard and then from 1942 as its editor. He gave that up in 1945 after being selected as Labour candidate for Plymouth Devonport – which he won in Labour’s 1945 landslide. Soon after becoming an MP, he took over the political direction of Tribune (which had long since abandoned its sympathies for the CP) from Bevan, who had joined the cabinet, and in 1948 he formally became joint editor with Evelyn Anderson.

They stepped down in 1952, but Foot remained the dominant political voice in Tribune, and in 1955, after losing Devonport, he became sole editor – a post he relinquished in 1960 after being elected as MP for Ebbw Vale as successor to Bevan. He was a contributor (sometimes more than others) for the rest of his life.

It is no disrespect to anyone associated with Tribune since to argue that the Foot years marked the height of its influence in Labour politics in particular and British politics more generally. In the late 1940s, it played a critical role both in the Labour left’s attempt to forge a “third force” foreign policy in 1946-47 in opposition to Ernest Bevin’s Atlanticism and then in turning the left in favour of Bevin’s policy in 1948-49. In the 1950s, it was the organ of the Bevanite movement, one of the most outspoken critics of the Eden government on Suez and a major player in the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the cause on which Bevanism foundered. A lot of that was down to Foot. He wasn’t the only great British left-wing editor of the 20th century – but he was certainly one of the greatest.