The Tribune Group: Organized Hypocrisy

The Circus provides many political analogies. There are the clowns, of course; balancing and tightrope acts; tamed lions and dogs walking on hind legs; fire-eaters, who all give it up because it harms their mastication.


One other which should not be overlooked is the anti-circus freaks. Wherever a show appears, comes an earnest lady or two with a placard saying Stop the circus — it’s cruel. Like the old men carrying religious texts on Derby Day, they are part of the attractions; and their political counterpart is the Tribune group. While Healey swings on a trapeze and Wilson cracks his whip, the Tribunites parade the ground crying woe and disapproval. And then go home to tea.


Tribune began in 1937. It was founded by a group including Bevan, Jennie Lee, Cripps and George Strauss, to advocate support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and to oppose rearmament. These original aims established the fatuousness which has been Tribune’s hallmark. It demanded on one hand that the British government should stop making arms to fight dictators; on the other, it wanted Britain to give military help against dictatorship in Spain.


Its overt purpose has always been to sustain a “left wing” inside the Parliamentary Labour Party and protest against “betrayals” which, sadly for it, occur day by day in labour politics. In the postwar years the Tribune supporters were known generally as “Bevanites”. Bevan having died, after the Labour victory of 1964 the left-wing faction formed an organized group using Tribune as their platform. The principal figure of the group — until recently, at any rate -— has been Michael Foot; but his remaining a member of the crisis-bound Wilson government has reduced the left’s enthusiasm for him.


The conviction hanging round the Tribune group is that they are would-be revolutionaries, probably Marxists, bent on prosecuting the class struggle. The Observer, in an article on 13th July, remarked as evidence of Tribune’s being “plebeian” that its appearance is inelegant and its offices are behind Smithfield meat market. That is mendacious nonsense which Tribune has fostered, like an intellectual wearing hobnail boots in the hope that they will lead to his being mistaken for a rat-catcher. In fact throughout its lifetime Tribune has been financed by well-to-do Labourites. Cripps and Strauss provided £20,000 to launch it in 1937; in the Bevan days it was supported by the millionaire Howard Samuel, and on one occasion was got out of trouble by Lord Beaverbrook.


Tribune has always attacked inequality, the profit motive and the horrors of capitalism. Its standpoint is not that of the class struggle, however, but of moral indignation. And like most moralists it is a hypocrite. Before the war it propagandized for the Soviet Union and — so as not to alienate Communist support for a “united front” — ignored the barbaric Russian purges. Today it excels at being frank when the appropriate time has passed, neglecting to mention at election-times what it will assert afterwards: that Labour is being led by untrustworthy and incompetent people — whom, nevertheless, it campaigned to get elected. Earlier this year Foot described a Labour minister, Reg Prentice, as an “economic illiterate”. His remark was capped by Sydney Bidwell, chairman of the Tribune group, who said Prentice was a “political illiterate” too. No doubt each thought of his phrase while looking in a mirror; but why did not Tribune make Prentice’s condition known at election-time last year?


The publicized aims of the Tribune group in 1975 (besides its anti-Common Market campaign) have been to oppose government policies of wage restraint, and to have Labour return to policies of nationalization and “soaking the rich”. During July newspaper headlines spoke of a threatened “big revolt” against the government’s Anti-Inflation Bill. On its introduction the revolt turned out to be no more than protest, with divisions among the Tribunites themselves. That could have been anticipated: the bright idea at the head of the government measures, the £6 limit on pay increases, was first proposed by the TGWU leader Jack Jones — who is one of the directors of Tribune.


Thus, the Tribune group’s impotence is now as widely commented on as, a short while back, was its clamorousness. The Guardian on 17th July had an article headed “Tribune’s opposition pales to a shadow”. The Observer article already quoted said: “Not so long ago, the group seemed to be capturing the whole party. Now, despite its successful campaigning in the trade unions, in the local constituencies, and on the National Executive, the group’s influence on Government policy appears to be nil.” What this amounts to is that the group was able to disport itself, “capture” and be “successful” as long as the contest was not too serious. When the mucking-about stopped the wretched little creature was found — as always — boo-hooing that its ball had been taken away.


The impossibility of the Tribunites’ position is in the fact that each is a Labour MP, and therefore committed to administering the capitalist system. The basic situations and problems created by capitalism are parts of its structure, and simply cannot be altered while it exists. The members of any governing party find themselves with no choice against the necessities of what they have taken on. The pre-war “disarmament” Tribune group supported the war which broke out two years later, and served in the wartime government under Churchill; just as Labour leaders in Britain and other countries urged the workers to war in 1914, after swearing in concert that they would not.


“Reluctance” is meaningless. A kick from a reluctant person hurts the same as a kick from a willing one. The Guardian article spoke of Tribunites’ giving Wilson “grudging and qualified support in the lobbies” — but whatever its frame of mind, a vote is a vote. But these are, in any case, marginal matters. The Tribune group has no idea of abolishing capitalism; it wants it managed in a different way from which, it hopes, results will be better. Its proposed alternatives to the government’s anti-inflation policy included a price freeze, import controls, cuts in arms spending, and “an extension of public ownership and accountability”.


In addition to this rag-bag of reforms the group called for a wealth tax to achieve a “fundamental and irreversible shift of wealth and power in favour of working people”. It is difficult to visualize a mind which can put such twaddle into lofty-sounding words. Does it mean the rich are to go on making riches so that they can be taken away? If so, how can they make riches without exploiting the workers who must therefore be kept poor? Or is it to be transferred from one address to another, so that we all have a turn at being rich and being taxed and then being poor again?


It is unlikely that any Tribunite would be able to explain or, if he could, that his explanation would resemble any other Tribunite’s. But Socialists can always shed light on these questions. First, the proposal to shift wealth towards working people accompanies a list of other measures which are all aimed to get capitalism in Britain out of its difficulties and keep Labour in power. It is, in other words, a carrot on a stick: help us over this hill, and then see what we’ll give you.


Second, whatever form the “shift” was intended to take, it would not envisage actually giving more wages. The whole of Labour history is against that. Every Labour government has made its special business to try to keep wages down. Let the working class have money? Not likely. The shifting would be a hypothetical arrangement known as a “social wage”, a notional benefit, etc. It would most likely take the form of subsidies and rebates, be accompanied by a heightening of the housing problem, and lead to the indignant discovery by a Tribune group ten years later that the workers were no better off.


As for a “fundamental shift of power in favour of working people’’, the Tribunites either do not comprehend or are happy to misrepresent the nature of political power. It means the control of the state, and while capitalism exists that can only be to conserve the class ownership of the means of production and distribution. The working class can and one day will take control of the powers of government — to replace capitalist ownership with common ownership; but it can do that only when the majority have become conscious of the need for Socialism.


To speak of redistributing power as a social reform under capitalism is absurd. If the Tribunites desired that the working class should acquire Socialist consciousness and aim for control of the state machine, there are two steps their group could take. One is, of course, to say so and stop preaching reforms which patch up capitalism. The other is to remove themselves from the posture of leaders and make known that the working class is able to emancipate itself; which would involve also giving up the secrecy to which Tribune and its group are addicted.


Failing that, the Tribune group goes on doing harm. If its influence on the Parliamentary Labour Party is negligible, it exercises a more dire one on the voters. In particular, many are persuaded that a Socialist purpose is to be found in the Labour Party — that if instead of “betrayers” the opportunity is given to men of good will, they can produce a change in society. There are large numbers of people who express themselves as disillusioned with Socialism. They mean they have believed these buffoons, or a previous generation of them. With their rejection of the means for their emancipation, the Tribune group stands charged.


Robert Barltrop