Tribune’s Tribunes

In the 1960s, the Labour left organised around Tribune and tried to build itself into a parliamentary vehicle for socialism.

In the aftermath of Labour’s fragile victory in the 1964 general election, Tribune‘s issue celebrating the end of thirteen years of Conservative rule proudly declared: ‘TRIBUNE takes over from ETON in the Cabinet!’ The frontpage displayed Harold Wilson alongside the left-wingers he had chosen for his cabinet: Anthony Greenwood, Barbara Castle, Frank Cousins, and Frederick Lee.

After gaining several ministers, and with a former supporter of Nye Bevan leading the country, it was a moment that marked Tribune‘s greatest achievement in high politics to date. The exuberance would have made many assume that the once-rudderless Labour left was in command of the party and the government.

But the ‘Tribunites’ – as they were called, often interchangeably, with ‘Bevanites’ – were in government without power. At around the same time, a small club of left-wing Labour MPs had formed to debate policy and talk socially away from the prying eyes of Wilson’s political machine. Due to their meeting schedule, they were first called the Monday Group, but soon adopted a name that would go down in the annals of Labour history: the Tribune Group.

The Tribune Group began numbering somewhere between thirty and thirty-five, though attendance at their Monday afternoon get-togethers was quickly streamlined to only the most active members. While Greenwood and Castle learned about the strictures of collective responsibility in a cabinet weighted well to the right, those outside the Wilson project as left-wing critics – primarily in the Victory for Socialism group (VfS), which dissolved itself in 1963 – were reconvening to formulate distinctive positions on Harold Wilson’s government.

The Left on the Benches

The founder members knew each other well from their time in VfS. Some who had been grassroots organisers were now fully-fledged Labour MPs, and others were long-standing figures of the Left – such as Frank Allaun, Michael Foot, Ian Mikardo, and Stan Newens.

After having narrowly won his selection in the constituency of Poplar, Mikardo returned to parliament after a five-year hiatus, and quickly took to serving as the unofficial leader of the group, where he was interested in carving out a coherent Labour left based on constructive criticism of Wilson’s modernising regime.

Michael Foot’s words in the Tribune post-election issue summarised the group’s expectations for the new Labour government: ‘To change the course of history with a majority of only four is not an easy assignment. It is merely possible and necessary.’ Their self-appointed role was to hold Wilson to his word, maintaining vigilance against the dilution of his pledges to the left of the party and the working class of the country.

There are no prizes for guessing how that plan worked in practice. The Tribune Group was sorely disappointed by the sacrifice of Labour’s welfare programme in favour of the defence of the value of British sterling and horrified by Wilson’s arms sales to Apartheid South Africa, yet it was unable to spark rebellion due to the government’s wafer-thin majority of four. Even while social programmes were tightened and defence expenditure maintained, a certain timidity on the Labour benches was excused as the price for keeping the party in power.

Though the first defence policy review of July 1965 was received as something of a victory for the Tribunites, the shrinking of Britain’s military reach was a long, drawn-out process. Aggressive deflationary measures were put in place and manifesto pledges trimmed for their costliness, meaning that the Tribune Group could only watch as Labour’s promise of technological utopianism and futuristic modes of economic planning faded into the distance.

Despite the government’s conduct falling far short of what the Left hoped, criticisms were few and far between, with the most damning criticisms coming in the form of barbs with the Foreign Secretary on Vietnam. Frank Allaun and Stan Newens in particular were incensed at Wilson’s abandonment of socialist internationalism in the face of American imperial endeavours.

Shadow Boxing Days

Newens was one of only two Labour MPs elected in Essex in 1964. He had been an energetic force on the Essex left for more than a decade, organising in the National Union of Teachers, the Movement for Colonial Freedom (an organisation he would later chair), and the West Essex and Harlow branch of VfS.

A former Trotskyist, he associated himself with the ‘outside left’ of the Gaitskell years and, once he became the MP for Epping, followed them into the Tribune Group. As a keen internationalist, Newens defined his terrain by condemning human rights abuses and infractions upon the sovereignty of smaller nations, his parliamentary contributions put him sharply at odds with the Wilson government’s stance on Vietnam.

Allaun was similar in this regard. As the MP for Salford East, the former Communist and committed CND member’s staunch opposition towards American foreign policy saw him being briefly co-opted into the government as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to Anthony Greenwood, a left-winger Wilson had made Colonial Secretary.

Greenwood insisted on Allaun as the keeper of his radical conscience — a job that, despite Allaun’s suitability, was made impossibly difficult by the compromises of collective responsibility and ended in March 1965 when he resigned in protest at the government’s Vietnam policy. From then on, he made criticisms in the chamber and in Tribune’s columns.

But there was little by means of a real proposal for backbench rebellion. Ian Mikardo’s rationale for this timidity was couched both in parliamentary arithmetic and deference to the Treasury’s official figures. In an April 1965 article, he wrote of the twin obstacles for limiting the Left’s space for dissent — the first being the small Labour majority, and the second being the tragic state of the economy inherited by the Wilson government.

Mikardo was not seen as a threat by Wilson, who placed him in charge of a committee to engage with the government on reforms to Britain’s docks. But the report that the Mikardo committee published in March 1965 was surprisingly radical — proposing the complete nationalisation and structural reform of Britain’s docks with workers’ participation in management. It would, of course, never be implemented by Wilson, its proposals becoming a ‘what-if?’ for the British left.

Mikardo and the Tribunites were brought into more direct conflict with Wilson thereafter Ñ with his reforms rejected by Mikardo as an ‘improvement in means rather than re-casting of ends.’ A growing disenchantment was mitigated by the results of the 1966 snap general election, which saw Labour gaining an impressive majority of ninety-eight seats. A spurt of hope captured the group and Tribune itself, whose first post-election headline stated: ‘Socialism is right back on the agenda.’

Sadly, this was not true by a long shot. Hopes that Wilson’s increased mandate would see him expand the welfare state and confront American foreign policy were soon dashed. Instead of economic planning in the interests of workers, a restrictive incomes policy was introduced.

Despite being given room for manoeuvre, Wilson willingly gave up Frank Cousins, the former leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and one of only three major left-wing cabinet ministers, who resigned in July 1966 over this policy. Even left-wingers seeking conciliation with Wilson were given short shrift, leaving a small band of like-minded backbench radicals little room to help Wilson ‘change the course of history.’

Open Rebels

In September 1966, the Tribune Group officially registered with the Labour whips, thus formally beginning a history as a faction of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In retrospect, it may have appeared a small act, but their registration showed their lack of fear in being condemned as obstructionists or dissidents, as well as their willingness to turn their ire on a government that could no longer rely on small majorities as an excuse for blind loyalty.

Thus from 1966 to 1968, the Tribune Group provided the backbone of a number of rebellions against the government’s defence policy, entry into the Common Market, and cuts to social services. In Tribune and the Commons chamber, the group’s members decried the reimposition of prescription charges and the government’s hounding of the unions. In 1967, at a time of rising dissent against Wilson’s project, Eric Heffer wrote:

The Government has followed anti-Socialist policies and has got away from the feelings of the people. Strong Government has become synonymous with attacks on the workers’ conditions instead of the entrenched power and privileges of the City of London and all that they represent.

No longer could the Tribune Group hope to keep Wilson to his election promises. They had almost all been reneged upon with dizzying swiftness after the 1964 and 1966 election victories. Their adopted position became one of advocacy for these policies that had been orphaned in Wilson’s rush to reassure British capitalism.

Perhaps it was a failure that the Tribune Group was unable to formulate a real Tribunite alternative, though Tribune‘s 1968 formula of ‘rapid expansion of the economy’ plus ‘exchange controls, export directives, extended public ownership,  . . . import controls and the mobilisation of some of the country’s immense financial reserves’ suggested an interesting foray into innovative thinking that prefigured the Alternative Economic Strategy of Tony Benn by several years. Whatever the case, it was in organisation and levying their institutional weight that they enjoyed the most success in the years between 1968 and 1970.

The group’s ability to appeal to working-class MPs from manual occupations and trade union backgrounds proved particularly useful in the fight against the government’s industrial relations approach. As the late Leo Panitch wrote in The End of Parliamentary Socialism, ‘the ties between the left trade union leaders and the left-wing Tribune Group of MPs were close’ and the PLP’s Trade Union Group grew to be heavily influenced by Tribunites.

This was all the more the case by late 1968, when Tribune’s argument that the government focus on wage restraint over capital controls was suffocating economic growth was borne out by reality. This relationship saw the Tribune Group taking up a leading role in defending the unions against the Wilson government’s industrial strategy, which culminated in one of the most infamous documents every produced by a Labour government: In Place of Strife.

Rare Success

The details of the plan have been well-trodden ground, but it is important to note that the opposition to the industrial reforms of Barbara Castle — erstwhile left-wing firebrand and, owing to her position as Employment and Productivity Secretary, born-again Wilson loyalist — was spearheaded by the Tribunites.

Significantly, they secured a meeting with Castle in April 1969 to hold her to account. Tribune‘s line on the matter was made clear by an editorial in January of that year:

The government’s drift toward self-inflicted destruction is not accidental. It stems, as we have often argued, from a genuine desire to serve the people while keeping within the rules of an international monetary system which is fast becoming unworkable.

But rather than stinging invective, the Tribune Group’s initial tactic was to plead with Castle not to politically ruin herself by pushing through legislation limiting the power of the unions. Mikardo even told her that she was ‘a marvellous woman and we love you dearly, but even you can’t make us think a cesspool smells like a rose.’

Her response was to laugh off Mikardo’s attempt at charm and plough ahead with the reforms. The Tribune Group was not chastened by this failed attempt, however. Rather it emboldened them, and their union-sponsored parliamentary allies began speaking out more forcefully against the railroading of anti-union laws.

In the end, an agreement was reached between the unions and the government, leading to In Place of Strife being dropped and the Tribune Group chalking up a rare win. But Tribune itself made clear the cost of the episode:

Some people may believe the fight over this issue has now almost ended. They are wrong. Regrettably what the government has done — and has now even at the eleventh hour drawn back from — has whetted the appetites of all those in this country who would wish to see the trade union movement shackled.

In the following year’s election, Labour was defeated — leaving a Tory government to embark on a new war with the unions.

Legacy

The Tribune Group went on in the 1970s to organise the parliamentary left’s struggle against the Tories and the broader crisis of capitalism which emerged. But its early history should prove instructive for the Left and Labour today.

Keir Starmer has mentioned his respect for Harold Wilson, admiring ‘the way in which he actually managed to hold bits of the party together’ and could ‘make the case for change.’ Any time spent interrogating Wilson’s record as prime minister would reveal few comforts for the Left, or for the broader working-class movement. The unity he achieved was substantially built on the isolation of the Left and a mandate for change that was abandoned.

The interesting conclusion to an analysis of the Tribune Group’s history is that internal socialist oppositions in the Labour Party rarely got ahead by attempts to hold party leaders to account for pledges made during elections. It was by independent organising, offering an alternative programme, and making common cause with unions and social movements that victories were achieved. That remains the path to institutional weight today.