Tribune: After 74 years, is the voice of the literary left about to fall silent?

The weekly of George Orwell and Michael Foot faces closure
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The Independent Online

The left-wing weekly magazine Tribune's turbulent, 74-year history looks set to end this Friday, when its wealthy and politically ambitious owner, Kevin McGrath, meets the staff and their union representatives.

Last night, a statement on the website of the publication, which counts George Orwell and Michael Foot among its former staff, said: "Tribune is to cease publication in its 75th year.

"Unless arrangements can be found for new ownership or funding within days, the last edition will be next week, November 4... The decision has been made by Tribune Publications 2009 Ltd after a substantial cash injection failed to raise subscriptions and income to target levels."

The company intends to maintain a Tribune website, which will run automated feeds from other left-of-centre sources and will require no staff. All six full-time and part-time employees are to be made redundant."

Their one hope of survival is to persuade Mr McGrath to pay off all the magazine's debts and fund it until the end of the year, while they set up a co-operative which will produce the paper less frequently, and back it up with an online magazine.

"It's a viable alternative, and the labour movement must be given a chance to make it work," says the head of publishing at the National Union of Journalists, Barry Fitzpatrick.

Most people will conclude that Mr Fitzpatrick is whistling in the dark, though it would not be the first time Tribune has escaped from a seemingly hopeless position.

Most magazines start because someone perceives a gap in the market. Tribune was founded in 1937 because the wealthy barrister Stafford Cripps wanted an organ for the campaign to get the main left-wing factions, the Communists, the Independent Labour Party and Mr Cripps' own Socialist League to work together.

Left-wing unity was dead within two years; Tribune outlived it.

In 1956, Tribune sent a Dick Clements, later its longest-lasting editor, to cover the Communist Party conference, and he told me how their leader, Harry Pollitt, growled at him: "You may think Tribune is the organ of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, but really it's the organ of Trotsky and [Trotskyite leader] Gerry Healy." Mr Pollitt knew no worse insult.

By that time, Mr Foot and Mr Bevan had made Tribune the voice of the Labour Party left. Mr Bevan became editor in 1941, unpaid because the paper was in financial crisis, and scoured Fleet Street for journalists with, as he put it, "good information and bad consciences" who would write and provide stories without payment.

Even Mr Bevan fell foul of the paper in the end. It never forgave him for his desertion of unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1957.

Mr Clements edited it from 1960 to 1982, giving Tribune its longest period of stability and security, sustained by advertising from left-wing trade unions.

After Mr Clements, there was a Bennite candidate, Chris Mullin, and a Kinnockite – soft left – candidate: I was Kinnock's candidate, and not getting the job was a lucky break, for I would have faced a staff united in bitter hostility.

Mr Mullin swung the paper sharply behind Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, and the paper was nearly destroyed by a bitter legal battle with older shareholders who believed he had no right to do so.

After his departure in 1984, Tribune swung between left-wing factions as editors changed five more times up to its current leadership under Chris McLaughlin.

The paper nearly went bust again in 1988, and again in 2002 when a consortium of trade unions financed a rescue package. In 2004 this started to fall apart, and the new super-union Unite talked of making it a wholly-owned subsidiary – thereby cutting out its other union backers. It had to be rescued again in 2008, this time by Mr McGrath.

Within the Labour Party and the trade unions, Tribune has always had a symbolic importance which goes well beyond its generally small circulation.

Whether it survives is not yet clear, but the statement by the magazine's editorial board last night concluded on a defiant note: "Since its launch in January 1937, Tribune has been a renowned journal of intellectual, literary journalistic and artistic merit.

"As a weekly, independent journal of the labour movement it is needed now more than ever."