Friday, 26 July 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 July 2002

This paper has made dicing with death something of a way of life. It has rarely if ever made a profit in the conventional sense, relying for most of its 65 years on fund-raising and subventions from rich benefactors and trade unions to compensate for trading losses. And it has come perilously close to closure at least six times.

Two of these close encounters with the grim reaper were in my time on the staff. In 1988, the board decided to cease publication the next week unless a large sum of money was raised at once. So we ran a front page bare apart from the words “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” and launched an emergency appeal – which rescued the paper by raising nearly £40,000 from readers and the unions.

Even that was not enough to keep the wolf from the door for long, however. Within three years, we were so short of money that we had to reduce pagination from 12 to eight tabloid pages a week for several months – and even this would have been unsustainable had we not managed to slash our typesetting costs by introducing desktop publishing.

So I had a feeling of deja vu all over again when I read in last week’s leader that Tribune was again running out of money, and that the board had decided to seek a buyer or launch another emergency appeal.

Of course, some would say that Tribune’s repeated crises show that its allegiance to the Labour Party, its policy prescriptions or even its democratic socialism are irrelevant or outmoded. Others would go further, as the political journalist Julia Langdon does in the current British Journalism Review, arguing that there is little space in today’s media world for political weeklies and that the days of even the New Statesman and the Spectator are numbered.

In my gloomier moments, I admit, I am at least tempted by such views. The massive expansion of the comment, features and reviews sections of the national press – to say nothing of the impact of the internet – has put immense pressure on the weeklies to find niches of their own. (This is a particular problem for Tribune and the Statesman because of the extent to which the Guardian and in recent months the Mirror have encroached on their territory.) I also often despair of the way parts of the Tribune left hang on to political nostrums that should by now be languishing in the dustbin of history – anti-Europeanism, scepticism about constitutional reform, nostalgia for Soviet communism and so on.

But at heart I remain convinced not only that the reinvigoration of egalitarian democratic socialism inside the Labour Party is the best hope we have – but also that there is room for well-written, well-edited political weeklies in Britain, particularly on the left. There is plenty the Guardian and Mirror don’t do that can and should be done, and plenty they do badly that can and should be done better. The Observer has dumbed down its political coverage and the Independent titles have lost the plot. The Morning Star’s Stalinism is risible and the Trot papers are moronic. Add the declining standard of politics and current affairs broadcasting, the patchiness of foreign coverage everywhere except the Financial Times and the Economist, and the failure of most reviews sections to notice most politics and history books – and the space for Tribune and the Statesman is very much there to be taken.

That the Statesman, with Geoffrey Robinson’s millions behind it, has failed to carve out a niche cannot be put down to lack of cash. But Tribune can justifiably claim that its current difficulties are the consequence of chronic under-investment. To make money in publishing, you need to spend money, on promoting your publication and on improving editorial quality. This in turn increases circulation, which in turn increases revenue both directly, through newsagent sales and subscriptions, and indirectly, by making your publication more attractive to advertisers. If you get it right – and OK, it’s a big “if” – you end up with a virtuous circle of growth and financial security.

Tribune, however, has never had the money to mount substantial promotion campaigns or to maintain more than the bare minimum level of editorial staffing. For several years, its operating margins have been so tight that the smallest downturn in advertising revenue pushes it into danger – which is what has happened in the past year, just as it happened in 1986-87 and 1990-91.

As before, the sums required to plug the gap are not huge, though they are large enough to necessitate urgent action. And, as before, just plugging the gap won’t be enough to secure Tribune’s long-term future. To have a chance of escaping the cycle of dependency and crisis, it needs an injection of investment large enough for a sustained push for growth. Of course, even that is not a sufficient condition for success – but it is a necessary one. Anyone out there prepared to gamble a quarter of a million quid?

Friday, 12 July 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 July 2002

The maxim that all publicity is good publicity has long had its advocates on the fringes of politics: those who have no other means of making a mark – harmless radical provocateurs as well as murderous terrorists – often come to revel in notoriety.

What I’ve never seen until now is the principle taken up by a mainstream political campaign that is attempting not to shock or terrorise but to convince the public of the justice of its cause.

Yet what else can explain the extraordinary cinema ad by the campaign against British membership of the single European currency, in which the comedian Rik Mayall, humorously dressed as Adolf Hitler, rants “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!” at the camera?

The no campaign and Mayall himself have rather half-heartedly claimed that the vignette is merely a joky way of highlighting the Nazis’ enthusiasm for a single European currency – and as such is a legitimate point to make in the debate on British membership of the euro.

If you believe that you’ll believe anything. It is true that Hitler imposed an economic union of sorts on occupied Europe during the 1940s – but that’s about it. The postwar European project, of which the euro is part, never had anything whatsoever to do with the Nazis’ dream of a German empire subjugating the peoples of Europe through genocide, terror and never-ending war.

Indeed, it was from the start explicitly framed as a means of preventing anything like Nazi Germany ever happening again.

The big idea of Jean Monnet and the other forefathers of what is now the European Union was that if the states of Europe pooled their sovereignty, slowly building common institutions and a common political culture, it would become impossible for an expansionist militarist Germany ever to rise again. And – so far at least – it seems to have worked rather well.

These anti-Nazi roots of the EU are so well documented that it almost beggars belief that the no campaign could even suggest that the euro was originally Hitler’s idea. Almost – but not quite.

Ignorance about the history and institutions of the EU is endemic in Britain. Postwar continental European history is taught in few schools, and continental European politics is covered superficially by the British media.

Add the national obsession with the second world war, the constant drip of anti-EU propaganda in the press and the endurance of xenophobic stereotyping of continental Europeans in the popular imagination – also consistently reinforced by the media – and it’s just about possible to credit that some cretin in the no campaign decided that a little bit of historical falsification might make the headlines without putting off the punters.

The no campaign’s crass appeal to stupidity and prejudice deserves to fail miserably, and if “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!” is the best it can come up with, it will undoubtedly do so. The near-universal condemnation of the Mayall ad in the past week has left the no campaign looking very silly indeed.

But it would be a mistake to bank on it continuing to score spectacular own goals. A vigorous and intelligent yes campaign is still needed to see it off – and as yet there is no sign of any such thing. The yes campaign has barely raised its head, and when it has it has appeared unconfident and timid.

It has advanced no populist argument for the euro apart from saying that lots of jobs will disappear if we don’t join – and that if we do we won’t have to pay to change money when we go on continental holidays.

What’s almost entirely missing from the yes campaign’s case is the strongest argument for joining the euro – that it locks Britain into a European model of welfare capitalism that is far more egalitarian, more socially responsible and more tightly environmentally regulated than the free-market capitalism of the United States.

Of course, Britain would have to go into the euro at the right exchange rate to reap the benefits, and there is a strong case for reforming the way that the European Central Bank operates, in particular by making employment creation one of its objectives.

In the longer term, there is also a need for co-ordinated Europe-wide redistributive fiscal policies to counter the effects of a “one-size-fits-all” interest rate.

But none of this invalidates the fundamental social democratic case for joining up. When is the Government going to make it?

Monday, 1 July 2002


Paul Anderson, review of The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920 by James Eaden and David Renton (Palgrave, £45), Tribune, 1 July 2002

The Communist Party of Great Britain was not one of the success stories of the 20th century. Founded in 1920, it struggled through the next 15 years as a tiny sect reliant for survival upon subsidies from Moscow, briefly caught the popular mood of the left in the late 1930s and 1940s (with a gap between 1939 and 1941 when Stalin was Hitler’s ally), then lived a life of fitful but inexorable decline through the cold war until its death, unmourned, in 1991.

The facts of the story are well known. During its lifetime — partly because its protagonists thought they had a world-historical role, partly because its antagonists half-believed them — the British CP always received far more attention than its rather limited impact appeared to warrant. And since its demise its entrails have been picked over relentlessly by historians, both specialists, writing about key communist personalities and campaigns, and generalists taking the broad view of the party’s rise and fall.

Since 1991, there have been three overview post mortems: one by a critical old CPer, Willie Thompson; one from a Tribune democratic socialist, the journalist Francis Beckett; and one (a shabby job) by two academics, Keith Laybourn and Dylan Murphy. So why do we need another? Well, what’s missing is the Trotskyist version, and that’s what Eaden and Renton provide, building on the pioneering work on the early years of the CP by Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse published back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Eaden and Renton are sophisticated Trots, and their book is extremely well researched – they have read all the secondary literature and lots more besides. They make telling points against the revisionist school of CP history that tries to minimise the role of Moscow’s diktats in the everyday life of the party — and there is much else in their account that is praiseworthy, in particular the material on the CP’s strangely ambiguous role in the industrial militancy of the 1960s and 1970s.

The problem, however, is their unyielding belief that all would have been for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only the correct Leninist line had been consistently applied. According to Eaden and Renton, the CP was fine until the degeneration of the first workers’ state but lost its way because from the late 1920s it followed Stalin into abandoning the perspective of world proletarian revolution. The CP became a tool of a revisionist Soviet foreign policy that (after a tragic and quixotic ultra-Leftist phase of attacking socialists as “social fascists”) sought coexistence with capitalism – advocating a “popular front” against fascism with liberals and “progressive” conservatives rather than a “united front” with other workers’ parties. After that, it was downhill all the way except for brief spells when the CP rediscovered the delights of the proletarian united front — particularly in 1939-41, when all true socialists were against the war effort . . .

I’m sorry, but this is too much to swallow. For starters, it ignores the brutal fact that throughout the 1920s the CP was a tiny militant sect, massively outnumbered and outpowered intellectually by the Independent Labour Party. Then there’s the small problem that it was only when the CP shifted to the Right in the 1930s and again between 1941 and 1945 that it came close to becoming a mass party. As for the claim that 1939-41 marks some temporary respite from political degeneration, well, that’s not the way it seemed to the majority of the Labour Left, which saw the Hitler-Stalin pact and the CP’s subsequent defeatism as a great betrayal.

I could go on. On more recent history, Eaden and Renton are weak on the crisis in the CP that followed Khruschev’s secret speech and the Hungarian revolution in 1956; and they have little of interest to say on the role of the CP in the early-1980s Bennite Labour Left or in the second wave of CND. They take a peculiarly superficial view of the arguments that attended the collapse of the CP in the mid-1980s — were the Eurocommunists really no more than opportunists of the worst kind? — and add nothing to our understanding of the momentous events of 1989.

All the same, I recommend this book. I thoroughly enjoyed disagreeing with it.


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, July-August 2002

Just three years ago, social democratic parties were in power in all but four west European democracies — Spain, Norway, Ireland and Luxembourg. Crucially, Germany, France, Italy and Britain, the four largest countries, all had governments formed by social democrats or in which social democrats were the dominant coalition partner.

Although the picture was by no means completely rosy — the polls suggested that both the Italian centre-left and the Austrian social democrats would lose to their next general elections — many on the left looked forward to the prospect of a new era of social democratic hegemony in western Europe.

How different the picture looks today. Since the end of 1999, governing socialists have been ousted in Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Holland and France — and there is a strong chance that the German social democrats are heading for defeat in the autumn. If they lose, only Britain, Greece, Sweden, Finland and Belgium will have governments of the centre-left.

So what has gone wrong? There is no easy answer. Each country that has swung to the right in the past three years has done so for particular reasons. The Italian centre-left, for example, was punished by the voters for its fractiousness and indecisiveness, and the French socialists were undone by Lionel Jospin’s incompetent campaign and widespread protest voting for far-left candidates in the first round of the presidential election. The right-wing parties that have won power have very little in common, as none other than William Hague recognised in a recent article.

But there are common themes in the demise of governments of the left. All were victims of popular concerns about crime and immigration that were successfully exploited by right-wing populists. And all suffered from the abandonment of left parties by many of their traditional core working-class supporters, disillusioned by the perceived failure of centre-left governments to make a difference to their lot.

These two phenomena are undoubtedly linked. The things that working-class voters feel let down over by social democratic governments are crime, jobs, housing and pay — and the belief that immigrants are responsible for rising crime, housing shortages and the scarcity of well-paid employment is widespread.

So should the defeated centre-left parties respond by adopting the rhetoric of the right and talking tough on crime and asylum-seekers? That is certainly the advice of the Blair government in Britain — and there is no doubt that, in purely electoral terms, it can be an effective short-term tactic.

In the longer term, however, it cannot be a solution. Not only does it pander dangerously to prejudice, giving a spurious legitimacy to racism that can only benefit the right — it does nothing to tackle the root causes of working-class disillusionment with centre-left governments: the persistence of unemployment, low pay and poor housing.

To regain credibility, the centre-left throughout Europe needs to offer something more than efficient administration of the status quo and a few palliatives for the worst excesses of neo-liberalism. And that means developing coherent and ambitious programmes at both national and EU level for creating jobs, eliminating poverty, reducing insecurity, improving public services and increasing the accountability of political institutions. In other words, rather than echoing the right, it needs to set out a distinctively social democratic reformism that convinces voters that there really is an alternative.