The origins of Red Pepper magazine can be traced to the rainbow coalition that came together in towns across Britain to support the miners during the strike of 1984-85.
Soon after the strike’s defeat, nearly 2,000 activists in this disparate coalition came from inside and outside the Labour Party, from feminist, black, lesbian, gay, green, trade union and left academic organisations to Chesterfield to the first of the annual Socialist Conferences – sponsored by the Campaign Group of MPs, the Socialist Society and the Conference of Socialist Economists.
At the third of these conferences in 1987, delegates decided to form the Socialist Movement (SM). Very soon, as is the way of most socialist organisations, the SM decided to set up a newspaper. It was to be a non-sectarian, campaigning newspaper called Socialist.
The SM raised funds, including £1,000 in standing orders from supporters giving £5 a month – many of these same people still give to Red Pepper – and Socialist was launched as a fortnightly newspaper in autumn 1991. In its 18-month existence Socialist established a reputation as a reliable and hard-hitting source of news and debate, winning the support of, for example, Harold Pinter, John Pilger and Billy Bragg.
Socialist was in many ways a trial run for Red Pepper. As a fortnightly newspaper owned and run by a new organisation, it turned out not to be viable. However, the response to the newspaper showed that there was a demand for a regular green-left publication combining news with debate, action with theory, culture with politics. Moreover, the project had built up a network of writers, photographers and other contacts keen to make such a publication work. After much constructive conflict, a dummy magazine and some preliminary fundraising, the Socialist Movement decided to keep the company (Socialist Newspapers (Publications) Ltd) going but to give up ownership of the project and invite others to join it in launching a monthly magazine called Red Pepper.
It drew up an editorial charter with the agreement of founding investors and staff – including Denise Searle, who had edited Socialist and was the founder editor of Red Pepper. A constitution was agreed by which the board is made up of an equal number of representatives of investors, staff and the Socialist Movement, with the SM having a ‘charter share’ to protect against, for instance, the takeover of the company by some opportunistic shark with an eye for profitable left-wing magazines.
After a dramatic fundraising campaign in which nearly 200 people responded to an advert in the Guardian, and £135,000 was raised, Red Pepper launched in May 1995. It aimed to provide a bold and attractive voice for the independent-minded left, whether inside or outside the Labour Party.
It also aimed to provide a means by which people from different traditions on the left could think aloud as they tried to recover from the defeats of the 1980s, drawing inspiration from green, feminist and ‘developing’ world liberation movements to recreate a socialist vision.
Red Pepper seeks to be responsive to the needs of the left in the changing political situation in the UK and internationally as well as to be self-critical as we develop. Consequently the magazine (and lately, the website) is constantly changing, though with an increasingly distinct identity and, we hope, a growing coherence.
It has been edited by Hilary Wainwright since 1996, was co-edited by Hilary and Oscar Reyes from 2005 to December 2008 and is now edited by a collective consisting of James O’Nions, Emma Hughes, Michelle Zellers and Michael Calderbank, with Hilary continuing in an advisory and commissioning capacity. None of the current editors are old enough to have been involved in the Socialist Movement, so in a sense Red Pepper has now passed to a younger generation of socialists, although many of those originally involved still contribute in some way.
As well as supporters’ financial help, Red Pepper over the years has been sustained by the dedication of its volunteers and its few part-time staff.