It is no exaggeration to say that for many decades the annual Tribune Rally, which took place at Labour conference, was the biggest, best attended, most reported on and most passionate event of the party’s week at the seaside.
Politics has been described as ‘show business for ugly people’, and the Tribune Rally certainly had its share of them. But the Rally’s beating pulse would be pored over by members, MPs and journalists alike. Who was up? Who was down? Which vote would go against the platform and how much of a role would the Tribunites have played?
This year, as the Rally is set to make a welcome return after a long absence, it is perhaps time to reflect on what it really meant for those who were often described as ‘Labour’s poor bloody infantry’, and what role it can play in further solidifying the membership base that began growing in earnest once it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn was going to be elected leader following the ‘New’ Labour interregnum.
The Tribune Rally was the traditional lightning rod for the great issues and campaigns of the time. It first provided a platform for the Bevanite left, and then for the parliamentary and trade union voices who were the darlings of the membership at any given time. Speakers at the event were elected each year by Tribune’s staff, and the contest to catch the eye of the editor and the staff was as frenetic as it is today with the choosing of the line-up for the Durham Miners Gala.
The Tribune Rally also provided serious political theatre. I was only thirteen at the time, but I distinctly remember the television reports of Jack Jones, the leader of the mighty Transport & General Workers Union, then 2.2 million strong, storming off the Tribune Rally platform in anger.
This was in the autumn of 1975, and Ian Mikardo, the Tribunite MP for Bow & Poplar, had launched into an attack on Jones and his union for agreeing to Jim Callaghan’s Social Contract. One of the first Tribune Rallies that I managed to attend took place at the height of the totemic battle for the deputy leadership of the party, as Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey in a battle that was the high-water mark for the Labour left in the early 1980s.
For at least a decade, Neil Kinnock, who was a fantastic orator, had been a Tribune fixture—copies of his sometimes-Syndicalist leaning speeches were preserved in our filing cabinet in the old Grays Inn Road offices in London. But Kinnock, along with other prominent Tribune supporters then refused to lend his support to Benn in the 1981 Deputy Leadership contest. The vote was to be a knife-edge contest with Healey winning 50.4% in the second ballot and Benn 49.6%.
The Rally in Brighton was absolutely packed, and feelings were running high. So, when Neil Kinnock began his usual appeal for funds for Tribune and the buckets were being taken around, another platform speaker and staunch Bennite, Margaret Beckett, stood up and barked at Kinnock: ‘Why don’t you give 30 pieces of silver?’
When Harold Wilson’s new cabinet assembled following Labour’s 1964 general election victory, the headline was ‘Tribune takes over from Eton in the Cabinet’. In retrospect, this may have been one of the real highpoints for Tribunite influence inside a Labour Government.
This march to respectability had some on the left wondering whether Tribune was becoming too house-trained. And yet, both the paper and the Rally continued to lead the campaign for nuclear disarmament, against the Vietnam War, apartheid South Africa and racist Rhodesia. In 1975, dare it be said, Tribune’s Rally speakers were drawn from the anti-Common Market left, who were campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum.
Tribune’s editor traditionally chaired the Rally. My first was in the immediate aftermath of Tony Blair’s speech—with his added-on paragraph—promising to ditch Labour’s Clause 4 commitment to public ownership.
The MP Dawn Primarolo, who was a platform speaker, urged me as the first speaker to lay down the gauntlet of opposition. But other voices prevailed. Amongst them was Robin Cook, who—in common with many others in the party—did not want to rock the boat for the new leader. My profound regret is that I listened to them and not to ‘Red’ Dawn, as she was then known.
And I shall never forget Barbara Castle’s vintage performance, when in her eighties, and in the early days of the Blair Government, she spearheaded a determined campaign, almost single handedly, against Gordon Brown’s decision to abolish State Earnings Related Pensions or SERPs.
The wily Castle had been billed to speak before Gordon Brown at the Rally. Barbara had been the architect of this milestone policy and one evening as I performed another of my roles as her occasional chauffeur from parliament to her home at Hell Corner Farm in Ibstone, Buckinghamshire, she said to me: ‘Mark, unless I speak after Gordon, I don’t think I will be able to attend’. I had, of course, to comply.
On the evening of the Rally, Gordon was in full flow, when suddenly the audience erupted in applause and cheers. Gordon looked up from his speech, seemingly surprised that he was eliciting so much of a reaction—until his eyes drifted across the hall to spot the diminutive figure of Barbara Castle, her splendidly coiffured copper hair glinting in the television lights, slowly making her way to the podium. She had of course staged the whole thing—and just in time for the nine o’clock news.
I was also in the chair when Michael Foot got a standing ovation for his brilliant speech denouncing the invasion of Iraq at the 2003 Tribune Rally. The other speakers were Robin Cook, Jan Kavan (the then President of the UN General Assembly), Clare Short, and Alan Simpson. Michael may have been 90 at the time, but he had lost none of his passion and eloquence – a true giant.
The preceding year’s Rally had been resounding to the general backdrop of a drum roll to war and we were host to a surprise warmonger speaker, Christopher Hitchens. But Hitchens had fled the Blackpool ballroom hosting the Rally, seemingly appalled at the frosty reception he was given, the silence punctuated as he left only by the occasional crack of a cheap plastic chair cracking and collapsing under the weight of an elderly member of the audience.
The Tribune Rally may have become partially sanitised. But it was never overtly captured by those who played lip-service to democratic socialism during ‘New’ Labour’s pomp. But, like the paper, it limped on, its glory days somewhere left behind as socialist members deserted the party, and the party became a career ladder for those that the mainstream media now like to describe as ‘centrists’.
The limping stopped somewhere, sometime, altogether, and the Rally faltered. History doesn’t seem to recall an exact finality, perhaps because it had always been intended that the show would go on.
But now the Tribune Rally is back. Back where it belongs at the very heart and soul of Labour and the left.
Don’t forget to sing the Red Flag!