Still flying the red flag

Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Morning Star presses are still rolling. Editor John Haylett gives Martin Deeson the inside track on running a newspaper dedicated to revolution
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Between the broadsheets and free ad papers in the racks at the Islington branch of Sainsbury sits a daily paper that most people would have assumed went down with the Berlin Wall. There on the shelves of an enterprise which is the epitome of globalised capitalism, in the heart of Islington, the single London borough most associated in the public imagination with New Labour, sits a single lonely copy of Morning Star, Britain's Communist daily. In its 75th year, and selling around 14,000 copies a day (down from the high of 100,000 when it was still called The Daily Worker) the paper calls itself "the one that's different". According to one of its staff members, it is the only daily paper in Britain "that doesn't accept the capitalist system as normal".

etween the broadsheets and free ad papers in the racks at the Islington branch of Sainsbury sits a daily paper that most people would have assumed went down with the Berlin Wall. There on the shelves of an enterprise which is the epitome of globalised capitalism, in the heart of Islington, the single London borough most associated in the public imagination with New Labour, sits a single lonely copy of Morning Star, Britain's Communist daily. In its 75th year, and selling around 14,000 copies a day (down from the high of 100,000 when it was still called The Daily Worker) the paper calls itself "the one that's different". According to one of its staff members, it is the only daily paper in Britain "that doesn't accept the capitalist system as normal".

As an ex-Communist Party member myself, I am amazed to see that the paper that most symbolised unquestioning support for the horrors of Stalinism is still alive a decade after the Communist Party of Great Britain dissolved and gave up its lease on the enormous offices on London's St John Street where I had my first job in the media. I was selling advertising space on the CPGB's theoretical monthly Marxism Today, under the editorship of Martin Jacques. In contrast to Marxism Today's Third Way modernity stood Morning Star, a paper we in the mid-1980s already saw as a relic of an older age (and whose readers we branded "tankies", because of their support of the Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring of 1968).

It is ironic that Marxism Today (and City Limits, another left-wing collective) and even the Communist Party of Great Britain have gone the way of all things mortal, whereas Morning Star is still there at the barricades flying the red flag high.

To understand how the paper still exists one needs to take a quick diversion into the confusing world of far-left politics, a world that closely resembles the Life of Brian exchange: "Brian: 'Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?' Reg: 'Fuck off! We're the People's Front of Judea!'"

In Britain today there are the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee), the New Communist Party of Britain and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), and a couple more made by interchanging the words Communist, Britain, Marxist and Leninist.

The biggest one (with about 1,000 members) is the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), which broke away in disgust from the CPGB and the loathed Marxism Today with its proto-New Labour politics and natty line in ironic hammer and sickle socks in the mid-1980s. It is this group that supports Morning Star (and which and after a prolonged court battle, is the only one still entitled to use the hammer and sickle "trademark").

Morning Star editor John Haylett (who joined the paper 23 years ago as a reporter and has held the top seat since "April Fool's Day 1995") is at pains to point out that as the CPB has fewer than 1,000 members, so less than 10 per cent of the paper's readers are members of that particular communist grouping. "Our political relationship is still with the Communist Party of Britain," he says, "but now we represent a broad movement dedicated to peace and socialism."

To illustrate how the paper has broken out of the commie ghetto Haylett says, "I used to be on first-name terms with all the people writing into the letters pages. Now the names mean nothing to me."

The paper is still supported - to the tune of £16,000 a month - by donations and the proceeds of "jumble sales and second-hand book sales", as well as legacies, sale of shares in the People's Press Printing Society and advertising from the labour movement ("although our ad revenue doesn't compare with the ads others get - for some reason they're not interested") but the relatively new strategy of offering the paper to retailers and wholesalers on a sale or return basis has paid off in increased visibility and impulse sales.

Until 1974, the Morning Star was bankrolled by the Soviet government with direct cash contributions, and from 1974 onwards was indirectly supported by bulk orders of copies every day from Moscow. When this arrangement ended abruptly in 1989 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had still been buying 6,000 copies every day and the termination of this order, with only a week's notice was, the cause of "huge financial disruption". Since then the paper has successfully tried to broaden its appeal by including such contributors from the left as John Pilger (who writes a monthly column), Ken Livingstone (who appears fortnightly), Tony Benn (until recently, weekly) and George Galloway - who finds in the Morning Star one of his only uncritical mouthpieces in the media.

There are also TV listings, sports news and CD reviews but, in general, the news coverage is slanted towards trades union news, green issues and reports from labour movements around the world which would struggle to find space in a conventional daily paper.

I put it to John Haylett that when I worked for the left-wing press 20 years ago, the two things that always struck me were: one, that we were less professional and more prone to mistakes than the normal media; and two, that when working for a collective the staff always seemed to be appallingly paid. So, in effect, while fighting for an end to the exploitation of workers, we ended up exploiting ourselves.

At City Limits, for instance (which was far worse on both these counts than Marxism Today) I was one of only five members of the 50-strong collective who refused to vote ourselves voluntarily on to half-wages to stave off bankruptcy - and this at a time when we were all on a basic salary of £8,000 a year.

John Haylett agrees. "Until 1998 all the Morning Star staff were on £10,500 a year and there hadn't been a raise for 11 years. Then all the journalists went on strike and since then we've insisted on a rise every year.

"Now the staff of 15 journalists and 10 admin staff running a six-day operation are on salaries ranging from £15,000 to £18,000 a year. It used to be that we'd do a budget and at the end of the process go, 'oh shit, there's nothing left for the staff'."

In reference to my point about understaffing and low pay leading to lots of mistakes in the left-wing press, he hands me today's paper and says, "Well, look at that. I think you'll see that's a national paper, produced on a budget sure, but still a professional job."

And he's right. The Morning Star is an informative read for anyone on the left, and in the confines of its 12 pages does it what a daily paper should do. And then I notice that on the masthead of that day's edition, they've missed off the date: it just says Thursday ... May 2005.

"Damn," he laughs. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice that! Why do typos always have to happen on the front page?"

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