I’m genuinely sorry to hear the news that Tribune (a fixture of British left publishing since 1937) might be about to go to the wall. It’s not the first time that it has stared oblivion in the face and I would very much hope it can be given a last minute reprieve. But at the same time it’s hard not to see its fate as indicative of a Labour left that has lacked any coherent direction or response to the rise of neoliberalism.
The trajectory of “parliamentary socialism” was already evident to Ralph Miliband in the 1950’s but there was a moment in the early eighties when the Labour left promised to overhaul its traditional assumptions, democratise itself and open outwards to extra-parliamentary movements (a history rehearsed and analysed so persuasively by Colin Leys and Leo Panitch in their book The End of Parliamentary Socialism). With the defeat of this movement and the relentless drift to the right of the leadership Tribune felt essentially beleaguered and powerless, despite the fine editorial efforts of people like Chris Mullin and Mark Seddon.
Reading Tribune helped me get my bearings as a young and impressionable member of the Labour when (for my sins) I joined aged 16 at a time when John Smith was leading the party. We used to get it posted through the door every week when it was still a newspaper, with a design that felt a little dated even then. But I remember reading pieces by the likes of columnist Hugh Macpherson excoriating the “traitors” who left to form the SDP, and remember the consternation when a newly elected young Tony Blair announced his plans to scrap Clause 4. But the old school mantras of nationalisation weren’t ever enough to flesh out a vision of democratic socialism, and the tide was definitely going out on the older generation of traditional left-winger. I found in Red Pepper – which has never seen its politics as confined to the machinations and intrigues of Labour party meetings – a more exciting and creative view of what a new left project could really offer.
In some ways it is ironic that Tribune looks set to fold just as Ed Miliband is looking to make core social democratic values relevant again in the wake of the financial crisis. It’s a poor omen that a magazine like Tribine looks to have failed to establish a wider audience for precisley this kind of discussion. But let’s face it – whatever the differences in the way we see the tasks facing the left – we’re all the poorer when spaces for intelligent analysis and debate close down. OK, there are lots of new opportunities in terms of web publishing and social media. But as David Osler rightly observes, it doesn’t make up for the capacity to produce high-quality independent journalism capable of competing with the mainstream on the newsagents’ shelves.