30 December 2011


Five zero-net-cost measures that could be implemented at once:

  • Increase vehicle tax to £500 a year and use the income to take rail fares down to Italian levels
  • Integrate rail and bus service timetables
  • Legislate to make the companies that own pubs allow their tenants and landlords to buy them at market rate as a right
  • Legislate to allow private tenants the right to buy, with the same discounts allowed council tenants, paid for by a tax on landlords who provide substandard accommodation (which of course requires intrusive local authority inspection)
  • Introduce a new zero-business-rates regime for bookshops, butchers, grocers, fishmongers, ironmongers and hobby shops in town and city centres paid for by increased business rates on out-of-town shopping complexes.
All right, none of it will happen, but ...

29 December 2011


The latest pamphlet from the Labour moderniser pressure group Policy Network, Cameron’s Trap, got the front page lead in the Guardian today and a piece on the comment page by its authors, the historians Ben Jackson and Gregg McClymont (the latter now not only an MP but a frontbencher, which I'd not registered), so I decided to download the whole thing and read it (here).

In some ways, it’s an interesting piece of work. The core of their argument is that the Tory prime minister that David Cameron most resembles is Stanley Baldwin, who held the office in 1923-24, 1924-29 and 1935-37 and was the real power in Ramsay MacDonald’s Tory-dominated National Government of 1931-35. Baldwin, they say, was an astute political player who used the ideology of austerity and the practice of coalition as a trump card to beat Labour – and unless Labour is smart, Cameron could do the same in 2015.

On all this I’d agree, at least up to a point. Baldwin didn’t look such a brilliant tactician in the 1920s, when he contrived to lose the 1923 and 1929 general elections and let in Labour minority governments – and his success from 1931 was as much down to the extraordinary implosion of MacDonald’s Labour government as it was to his own political savvy.

All the same, Jackson and McClymont are right that a mix of austerity and coalition might just prove a winning Tory formula in 2015: I thought that just after the 2010 election. What I’m least sure about is their prescription for Labour now to counter this, the two key points of which are:
  • Refuse to be driven into a simple defence of the public sector and public spending and instead mount a patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards.
  • Put forward a more convincing strategy for private sector growth than the Conservatives. A key element of a credible growth strategy would need to be a widely-supported active industrial policy. In this way “Labour can evade the trap of the ‘tax and spend’ argument of 1992, by making the key measure of governing competence the creation of new and sustainable jobs that improve living standards. Labour is more comfortable than the Conservatives with the idea of an activist state: the Conservatives have reason to fear a political contest organised around which party can best promote growth rather than which party can best reduce spending.”
Surely “defence of the public sector and public spending” are essential components of any serious strategy for private sector growth, for the simple reason that, in the absence of private demand, public spending has to take up the slack to ensure private sector growth? And if the public sector doesn’t take up the slack, what does? Can you get an "activist state" without paying for it? I think we should be told.

21 December 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 December 2011

The journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62, was never associated with Tribune.

Indeed, in the 1970s, when he was a young journalist on the New Statesman and a member of the far-left International Socialists (the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party), there was no love lost between him and this paper. He was with the competition – and his Trotskyist loathing of the compromises made by the traditional Labour left was reciprocated.

In 1978, after the New Statesman splashed a speech by Michael Foot from 10 years earlier on the front page, to contrast Foot’s critical attitude to the Wilson government of the 1960s with his supposedly shameless participation in the Callaghan government, Tribune’s parliamentary correspondent Hugh Macpherson wrote a column defending Foot’s achievements as a minister, warning against the left habit of treating any compromise as treason against socialism and attacking the Statesman for confusing the political circumstances of 1968 and 1978. In response came a blistering letter from Hitchens:
Many of us never thought of Michael Foot as a great socialist, and are therefore spared the pain of explaining his present conduct in those terms. But Macpherson's argument could be applied, without changing a word, as a defence of Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, David Owen or Roy Hattersley, all of whom deserve as much credit as Foot for the ‘achievements’ of this government.
Does Macpherson really think that the aftermath of Anthony Barber's chancellorship justifies support for, in no special order; the neutron bomb, the Shah of Iran, the Official Secrets Act, the 5 per cent pay limit, the savaging of social expenditure, the hoisting of unemployment figures, the deportation of dissidents and the burying of the Bingham Report? …
Like Foot's enthusiasm for Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, these are options, consciously and deliberately decided upon as matters of policy. Alternative strategies, to coin a phrase, were available in all cases and still are. If the mesmeric figure of Foot was not present among the ‘insiders’, this might be clearer to some people – which is why one assumes he is kept on …
Michael Foot's defenders seem entirely worthy of his political position – dishonest with an occasional whine from the left corner of the mouth.”
As far as I’m aware, this letter, published in Tribune on 24 November 1978, is the only thing Hitchens ever wrote for the paper. I remember it well – the Tribune-Statesman spat was a big talking point on the Oxford student left then  – and at the time I was on Hitchens’s side.

Hitchens remained a sworn enemy of Foot and a target for Tribune sniping until 1981, when Hitchens upped sticks and left the Statesman and Britain for the Nation and the United States. Relations warmed after Tribune ran approving reviews of Hitchens’s books in the late 1980s and early 1990s and took much the same position as him on the break-up of Yugoslavia, and I interviewed him for the paper in 1993. But we still never got a written word out of him.

Tribune and Hitchens were on opposite sides of the argument over the post 9/11 western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq but never completely fell out. Mark Seddon invited Hitchens to put the case for military action to remove Saddam Hussein at the Tribune rally at the 2002 Labour conference, and Hitchens agreed. His speech was received in silence and politely applauded. In his memoir published last year, Hitch-22, Hitchens described the engagement as “my last appearance as a man of the left”.

I don’t think Hitchens ever completely ceased to be of the left, but that doesn’t matter. For all his faults and for everything that he got wrong (and there was plenty), his was a voice that was always worth taking seriously even when – particularly when – he was most at odds with the left consensus. He was the most accomplished literary-political journalist in the English language of the past 30 years, a brilliant stylist with an extraordinary range of interests and an unparalleled independence of spirit. He will be not be easily replaced.


With this issue Tribune celebrates its 75th birthday. The paper first appeared on 1 January 1937, and has been going ever since.

But it nearly didn’t make it. A couple of months ago it appeared to be on its death bed. Kevin McGrath, the businessman who had supported it financially since 2008, had announced that he was going to close it as a print publication and continue it as a website with an automated news feed. It was only after several weeks of negotiation that he agreed to sell it for a nominal sum to a new co-operative of staff and readers, the public launch of which will be announced in the new year.

It’s not going to be easy, but with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I’m sure we can pull through. Here’s to the next 75 years.

16 December 2011


The death of Christopher Hitchens at the age of 62 is hardly a surprise but is sad all the same. He was a great writer and great company. I became a fan when I was a teenager and he was on the New Statesman – but I didn’t really appreciate his brilliance until the 1980s, after he’d given up on the Statesman and decamped to the United States.

It was then that he really spread his wings, publishing some quite extraordinary essays on a wide variety of political and literary themes in a wide variety of periodicals (the best of them collected in two collections, Prepared for the Worst and For the Sake of Argument). The 1980s was also when he wrote what I think is far-and-away his best book, Blood, Class and Nostalgia, a rumination on the relationship between Britain and America.

He kept up his output through the 1990s and into the new millenium: there were articles galore, books denouncing Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, dozens of broadcast appearances – but what turned him into an international intellectual superhero/supervillain was his response to 9/11.

He famously declared his support for George W Bush’s war on terror and backed military intervention to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq, leading many of his one-time admirers to denounce him for capitulation to US imperialism. A lot of these ex-fans think that he did little worthwhile after 9/11, but even though I think he was wrong about Iraq, I disagree. His 2002 book on George Orwell, Orwell’s Victory, a pithy polemical defence of its subject, and his 2007 atheist manifesto, God Is Not Great, are both up there with his work in the 1980s and 1990s – and his occasional journalism continued to deserve attention right up to his death. He will be missed.

  • My Tribune review of Blood, Class and Nostalgia from 1990 is here, my Tribune interview with Hitchens from 1993, just as he was getting into his anti-Clinton stride, here, and my Tribune review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger from 2001 here

9 December 2011


Ian Aitken, Tribune column, 9 December 2011

I was a bit taken aback when I opened my copy of the last issue of Tribune and found a piece by my old friend and colleague Paul Anderson in which he threatened to slag off his Eurosceptic chums for indulging in a little Schadenfreude over the present difficulties of the eurozone.

Mind you, he didn’t actually do it, saying that it was a subject for a later ­column. But his gentle warning set me thinking about how two lefties such as Paul and me could see the matter from such radically different angles, and how I came to be a sceptic rather than an ­enthusiast like him.

Looking back, I think I can trace my original distrust of the so-called European ideal to my old hero Aneurin Bevan. ­Although he was dead by the time the ­subject became a major political issue ­following Harold Macmillan’s original ­application to join the Common Market, I was in no doubt about his views. He saw the Treaty of Rome as a two-pronged ­effort first to entrench the ­capitalist system and the free market in a binding Europe-wide law, and then to ­­provide a solid ­economic foundation for Nato and the Cold War.

I can’t actually provide chapter and verse for this interpretation of Nye’s view. But that was the general view surrounding Tribune and the Bevanites at the time. We argued and debated about it often, ­although mainly in the context of the Cold War, and there was no question that Nye shared that view and gave it his endorsement. Moreover, I don’t think it would have changed if he had survived: by then, he had become Hugh Gaitskell’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Gaitskell was a ­passionate opponent of Macmillan’s ­attempt to take Britain into Europe. Their remarkable alliance could not have ­survived a disagreement over such a central issue.

By the time Macmillan made his doomed application, I was on the Daily Express, whose proprietor was passionately hostile to Europe. As I have mentioned in this column before, Lord Beaverbrook saw the chance to create an improbable electoral alliance between his newspapers and the Labour Party, and he chose me to be the channel of communication between him and Hugh Gaitskell. The only thing that ­prevented the Express from urging its ­readers to vote Labour was Charles de Gaulle’s sudden veto, which scuppered Macmillan’s ambitions just as they seemed about to be fulfilled.

Not long after this, with Bevan, Gaitskell and Beaverbrook all dead, I moved from the Express to the Guardian and found myself in a new phase of my ­European journey. Where the Daily ­Express had been passionately anti, the Guardian (or some of its staff) was passionately pro, and I learned something alarming about the Euro-enthusiasts: they were so desperate to get in that they were ready to accept almost any terms that would satisfy General de Gaulle. This ­attitude was typified by the then deputy editor of the Guardian, a nice man called Harford Thomas. Late one night in the ­office, I said to him that I often got the­ impression that real Euro-enthusiasts would be prepared to go into it with their trousers down and dragged backwards through a holly bush. “Yes”, he said, “I would be ­prepared to go in on those terms”.

I don’t actually believe that Macmillan’s application fell into quite the Harford Thomas category. His was a typically calculated move, and probably had a lot to do with the wishes of John F Kennedy and the US State Department. They were dead keen to get us in as a reliable proxy for the United States – which, of course, was ­exactly why de Gaulle wouldn’t have us. But Edward Heath, the Prime Minister who eventually took us in, was very definitely a holly bush man. The only constraint he felt in his ­negotiations was what he could get away with at home – which is why he did not allow a referendum in spite of his promise to seek the “full-hearted consent of the British people”, and then drove the treaty bill through the House of Commons on a series of three-line whips. If Roy Jenkins (another holly bush man) and his followers had obeyed the Labour whip, the bill would have been defeated.

Then came Harold Wilson’s referendum – a typically clever ruse to get round the fact that his party was split from top to bottom on Europe. If it had been a vote on whether to go in, it probably would have been lost. But this was a vote on whether to come out, a much more difficult ­proposition to sell. The “Yes” campaign was fought on the basis of some truly ­spectacular lies – among them the ­assertion that our membership involved no loss of sovereignty – and was financed by gigantic sums donated from the City. The man who organised the fundraising wrote a book afterwards about how the ­result was bought.

So that is how I came to be a sceptic, even if I am rather more ambivalent now. But looking at events across the Channel, it is hard to resist a hollow laugh even at the risk of offending dear old Paul ­Anderson. As for that little matter of ­sovereignty, we now know where we stand: if you want to be in the eurozone, you will have to appoint your cabinet from the London Business School and then ­submit your budget to Brussels for inspection and approval. Maybe that’s the way it’s got to be – as Paul seems to be suggesting. But if so, I want no part of it. I will stay at home and read old Agatha Christies.


Paul Anderson, review of A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 9 December 2011

The third and final volume of diaries from Chris Mullin is actually a prequel to the first two, covering his life and times as a Labour MP from 1994, when John Smith died and Tony Blair was elected Labour leader, to 1999, when he joined Blair’s government as a junior minister.

A Walk-On Part shares the qualities of the volumes covering 1999 to 2010, The View From the Foothills (2008) and Decline and Fall (2010). Mullin writes clearly and candidly, with an eye for telling detail and amusing anecdotes, some of them about the most unlikely people. He pulls no punches in his assessments of colleagues, including supposed superiors (Gordon Brown is described as ““a workaholic who is burning himself up for no apparent purpose” and every MP's complaint about Peter Mandelson's machinations is recorded) and, despite writing in his preface that “much pessimism and agonising has ended up on the cutting-room floor”, he has done little to excise from the record opinions or predictions that might now seem embarrassing or naive.

“We're going to lose. Blair knows it too. I can see it in his eyes every time he appears on the TV news,” runs an entry just a week before Labour's spectacular landslide in the 1997 general election.

The diaries are not just a political record, moreover. There is a lot about his family and friends, some of it funny and some of it poignant.

All this makes A Walk-On Part immensely enjoyable. But it has a serious purpose too – or rather several serious purposes. It is, for a start, an extended meditation on the role of the backbench MP in modern British politics. Mullin represented Sunderland South as a backbencher from 1987, and he paints a vivid picture of what the job entailed: the surgeries with constituents (some of them utterly unreasonable), the endless meetings, the constant travel back and forth from London. Some MPs might be snout-in-trough, lazy careerists, but Mullin was clearly assiduous and selfless in representing his constituents’ interests.

Throughout the period covered by this volume, Mullin had an important role in parliamentary politics as a senior member of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee (from 1997 to 1999 as its chair), and the book deals in some depth with its work – often unsung and dreary but utterly essential in holding the executive to account. Mullin is always sceptical about the effects of his and his committee’s efforts, but A Walk-On Part is in its subtle way as convincing an argument as I’ve read for massively increasing the power and independence of the select committees in order to improve parliamentary scrutiny of government.

Mullin also has plenty that is serious to say about Labour politics. The diaries encompass the birth and electoral triumph of New Labour and the first two years of the Blair government – a quite momentous period, or at least that is how it seemed to most observers and participants at the time.

Most of the left to which Mullin belonged – he had been a strong supporter of Tony Benn as editor of Tribune in the early 1980s and in 1994 was a member of the hard-left Campaign Group along with Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone – saw Blair as a cuckoo in the nest and opposed his every move, with ever-decreasing effectiveness. Mullin did not.

His diary entries abhor the vacuity of New Labour’s marketing and slogans, are withering about the idiotically centralised regime of party management at the core of New Labour, and are unsparing in their criticisms of much New Labour policy – particularly Gordon Brown’s timidity on just about every aspect of economic policy and the craven approach to Rupert Murdoch adopted from 1995. But Mullin recognises early on that Blair, for all his faults, is Labour’s best hope of winning and holding on to power, and he has no time for the oppositionist stance of his erstwhile comrades, choosing his rebellions against the leadership with care. It’s clear from his account that the marginalisation of the old left by New Labour was aided and abetted by the old left itself.

The events with which this book deals took place a long time ago – before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, before the internet became a mass phenomenon, before boom turned to bust. Many of the people who appear in its pages are dead – Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Jack Jones, Joan Maynard, Joan Lestor, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam – or long retired.

It is nevertheless remarkable how strangely recent it all seems. In part, this is because so many of the key players in Labour politics in the 1990s were still there at the bitter end of the 1997-2010 Labour government (most notably Brown and Mandelson). But it is also because so many of the issues then central in Labour politics remain so today.

The Labour leadership spent the 1990s desperately seeking credibility on the economy and chasing the votes of affluent middle-class voters. Mullin despaired and still despairs of many of the means it used in the process – “control freakery, a soft spot for rich men, the obsession with spin” – but thought and still thinks that the broad strategy was right. In his preface, he writes of Blair: “He was surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there. His decision to rewrite Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution … was in retrospect a master stroke, though it didn’t feel that way at the time. His strategy of promising little and delivering more, in contrast to the over-promising and under-delivering of previous governments, was also surely validated. Likewise his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture (ironically the new government’s most enduring legacy from the Thatcher decade) and to reform public services, education in particular.”

Whether such a strategy will work against the background of economic crisis and insecurity as well as it worked during a period of boom is, of course, the big question facing Ed Miliband right now. If he hasn’t read this book already, he could do worse than put it on his Xmas list.

6 December 2011


The death of Christopher Logue brings to an end an extraordinary life as activist, satirist, translator and poet. Mark Espiner has an excellent obituary in the Guardian here. This is his best-known poem, as first published in Tribune.

Tribune, 25 March 1966

I shall vote Labour because I believe in God — and God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour because they are tolerant of traitors like Ian Smith.
I shall vote Labour because upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because Ringo votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour because Kensington Borough Council made Portobello Road a one-way street.
I shall vote Labour because if I don't somebody else will.
I shall vote Labour because if one person does it everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because I am obedient I shall vote Labour because I am a shareholder in Wincarnis.
I shall vote Labour because if I don't my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because I would like to be violent but lack the strength.
I shall vote Labour because I would like to rape President Johnson.
I shall vote Labour because there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because Mrs Wilson promised me £5 if I did.
I shall vote Labour because I love Look at Life films.
I shall vote Labour because I failed to become a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because I do not want pot-smoking legalised (the prices will sky-rocket).
I shall vote Labour because I want to see Nureyev dance with Fonteyn in Swansea Community Centre.
I shall vote Labour because I want a shopping precinct with covered footways, stretching from Yeovil to Ballbearinggrad.
I shall vote Labour because, deep in my heart,
I am Conservative.

5 December 2011


A group of Labour opinion-poll wonks have put together a case for Labour to adopt a conservative fiscal policy, In the Black Labour, which has had some enthusiastic press.

The argument is simple: the voters don't like what they perceive as reckless borrowing. So stop talking Keynesian and get on with the cuts.

As Jenni Russell put it in the Evening Standard today:
Instead of expecting voters to understand Labour's thinking, and being bewildered when they don't, they suggest that Labour must move to where the voters are. That means embracing the need for austerity, balanced budgets and carefully targeted spending.
Sorry, but this is pernicious nonsense. The critical question now facing Labour, Britain, Europe is not how to woo Daily Mail readers to vote Labour in Britain but how to woo the Germans off the hard-line monetary and fiscal conservatism that has so far prevented them from doing the necessary to prevent meltdown of the euro -- and how to woo the French off their Gaullist high-horse posturing about how the nation-state is all that really matters. The priority is to make Keynesian thinking about the economy (in other words, spending to counter the effects of slump) part of the common sense of our age, even for Germans, and to counter nationalist and xenophobic thinking everywhere.

The Eurozone crisis demands that the Germans compromise on their balanced-budgets-uber-alles ideology, which is now utterly at odds with what the world needs, however honourable the reasons for which it was adopted. They need to OK Eurobonds.

But that's not all. The citizens of Europe need:

  • France to abandon its Europe des patries stance, particularly on national sovereignty over the economy – that's what fiscal union means. Gaullism is dead. It would be good if the French Socialist Party could stop squawking opportunistically on this, because it knows the score even though there's an election coming up in which the far-right threatens ... Really, the French have to concede on democratising supranational EU institutions, which means giving the European Parliament control over the Commission and lots of what is currently done by the Council of Ministers.
  • Germany to agree to an expansionist redistributive Keynesian regime for the new European fiscal union that it is currently proposing, and the whole show to be made democratically accountable to the European Parliament. A federal Europe, with a democratic federal government that is anything but fiscally conservative.

And, according to the best-placed commentators, we've got four days for the French and the Germans to reach a deal. Right now we need the ghosts of Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden that haunt In the Black Labour like we need a small outbreak of the Black Death.