25 November 2006


Dick Clements deserves to be remembered for many reasons, but there is one thing about him that makes him a legend for me: he managed the stupendous feat of being editor of Tribune for 21 years, and he kept the paper afloat for all that time. During his editorship, Tribune enjoyed extraordinary influence in the Labour Party, and it was usually for the best.

His Tribune was the paper that in the 1960s supported the anti-H-bomb campaign, opposed the Vietnam war and Rhodesian UDI and railed against Enoch Powell. The Tribune Group, initially in 1964 little more than a gaggle of left MPs who supported the paper, became the key left caucus of the parliamentary Labour Party – and played a crucial role in Labour politics well into the 1980s. In the 1970s the Clements Tribune was where the Labour left worked out its Alternative Economic Strategy – as it turned out, a chimera – found its voice against apartheid and expressed, albeit too timidly, its solidarity with the democratic dissidents of the Soviet bloc.

I wasn’t quite brought up on the Clements Tribune, but it was part of my life from my early teenage years. My grandfather was a reader in the early 1970s and I devoured it every time I went round to stay with my grandparents. I spent hours arguing with my grandfather about what it was saying – in particular its campaign against the Common Market, which came to a climax in 1975, when Tribune led the “no” vote camp in the referendum campaign.

I disagreed with my grandfather and with Tribune then – I was a “yes” at the age of 15, as I am today – but I was hooked by the paper’s approach to politics: polemical but rational, passionate but cool. I loved the disagreements about everything, sometimes denunciatory and inflammatory, sometimes factual and dry. I read with enthusiasm the weirdly radical books and arts pages and the no-holds-barred letters and diary. There was too much stuff from boring trade union leaders and dull Labour left MPs – nothing changes – but the rest was the real thing, a vibrant pluralist democratic left newspaper run by real journalists.

It took me another 10 years to accept Tribune’s reformism, but that’s another story. By then, Clements had left the paper, had become Mr Fixit for Michael Foot when he became Labour leader and had then done the same job (briefly) for Neil Kinnock. Tribune in the meantime had gone through a life-threatening crisis after the staff took rather too seriously for the shareholders its long-standing commitment to workers’ control. Whatever, by the time I started working on Tribune in 1986, Clements was no more an occasional visitor – which is when I first met him, cadging fags from the office smokers (me and Sheila Noble) as he set about some research project.

We never became great mates, but he was always solicitous and kind, and he helped me greatly on several stories and bigger projects over the next 10 years. The idea that he was a Soviet agent – as claimed by the Sunday Times some time back – is idiotic. He was a good man who kept an institution vital to our democracy alive for a very, very long time.

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