Editor of 'Tribune' for 21 years
Friday 24 November 2006
Richard Harry Clements, writer, journalist and political adviser: born London 11 October 1928; staff, Leicester Mercury 1951-53; staff, Daily Herald 1954-56; staff, Tribune 1956-82, Editor 1961-82; political adviser to the Leader of the Opposition 1982-83, executive officer 1983-87; married 1952 Bridget MacDonald (two sons); died London 23 November 2006.
Richard Clements was editor of the left-wing weekly Tribune from 1961 until 1982, and head of the office of two leaders of the Labour Party, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock; but, much more, he was one of the consciences of the party. He saw the world in terms of right and wrong, what was truthful and what was untruthful, and conducted his life accordingly.
A superb journalist, he could have made a huge amount of money from "Beelzebub" (Michael Foot's name for Lord Beaverbrook). Instead, Clements chose to remain on the shoestring existence of an editor of Tribune, and in spite of offers from business to become responsible for their press relations and corporate presentation, from 1982 opted to work in the office of the Leader of the Opposition, a far from lucrative appointment. In Labour's dark days, he was a beacon of fortitude and cured others of despair.
Dick Clements was born in London in 1928 into a professional family where his mother, Sonia, had suffragette connections and was an ardent socialist. After King Alfred School, Hampstead, he had a taste of education in America, going to Western High School in Washington, DC. At 17 he returned to Regent Street Polytechnic and joined, as a cub reporter, the Middlesex Independent in 1949.
After his initial training, he found a job with the Leicester Mercury, where he formed an unlikely friendship with Herbert Bowden, a Leicester MP, Hugh Gaitskell's chief whip who later became head of ITV as Lord Aylestone. Passionate though his views were on German rearmament and the causes espoused by the Bevanites, Clements never indulged in verbal abuse, partly on account of his relationship with Bowden, whom he believed rightly to be a very decent man.
In 1953, on the advice of the journalist Hugh Delargy, an Essex MP, Clements was given charge of Socialist Advance, the Labour Party's youth paper. Having made a relative success of this small circulation paper, he was selected by Douglas MacRae, editor of the Daily Herald, as one of his industrial staff at a time when the Herald was extremely important in Labour politics.
Appointed in the year of the Suez crisis, 1956, to the staff of Tribune, on the recommendation of Aneurin Bevan's former Parliamentary Private Secretary, Donald Bruce, and of John Silkin and Michael Foot, the energetic Clements organised many of the Tribune rallies, in particular the fringe meetings on a Wednesday night at the Labour Party conference. At Scarborough in 1958 and again at Scarborough in 1960, the year of Gaitskell's "fight and fight again for the party we love" speech, these were extremely important occasions.
With his experience as an industrial correspondent, Clements forged important links with the trade unions. Jack Jones in his autobiography, Union Man (1986), writes:
As well as writing for Tribune, I was asked by Michael Foot to help with the paper's finances, which were then, as now, in dire straits. I had written pieces for the paper from time to time, at the request of Dick Clements, the editor, and had become friendly with him and Michael. I recognised their basic socialist sincerity as I believe they did mine, although that did not prevent honest disagreement occasionally. We each agreed on the "right to disagree" as a principle, which is not true of all friends in the Labour movement!
One thing I believe I did was to give them a better understanding of the trade union movement. A result of that was their ready agreement to my suggestion that Tribune should seek trade-union and advertising support. I was able to help on this, especially with a T&GWU and, for good or ill, the idea ensured the continued existence of Tribune.
Had it not been for Clements's tireless energy in scraping money together, Tribune would have folded. As one of his many contributors, I was deeply impressed by the way Clements would accept serious articles on party policy from those of us who did not share his views. Professor Steven Rose, of the Open University and BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze, says that he regarded Clements
as a committed socialist and editor at a time when the Labour Party welcomed intellectuals, instead of being scared by them. It was worthwhile writing for Tribune.
Deep down, although he encouraged dissent in his paper, Clements did not like disruption in the party. It was partly because of Clements's intrinsic loyalty to the party that in 1982 Michael Foot, on becoming leader, appointed Clements his chief political adviser. In over 40 years of friendship I had only one serious frisson of disagreement with Clements but the contretemps illuminates part of his character, and happened that year. On 3 April, at 9.30am, before Foot was going to make his crucial intervention on the Falklands War, as his frontbench science spokesman I sailed into his room in the Commons and told him that, as I knew more about South America than he did and as I knew more about military technology than he did, he should not support the sending of the task force. Foot's retort to me was: "But Tam, Tam, I know more about Fascism than you do." He thought Leopoldo Galtieri was Benito Mussolini.
When I had left the Leader of the Opposition's room, Dick Clements almost snarled at me: "Michael's bloody right and you are bloody wrong." Anti- Fascism was one of the driving forces in Clements's life. He passionately believed in liberty.
In 1983, when Neil Kinnock became Leader of the Opposition, he asked Clements to stay on, as his Executive Officer, "to provide a ballast of experience", as Michael Leapman writes in Kinnock (1987):
He was also a friend of Kinnock's, having published several of his articles and invited him to speak at Tribune rallies. Although his role in the office is less central than that of Charles Clarke [who headed the office], his value is that he knows most Labour MPs and provides a channel of communication with them.
Clarke commented to me:
Michael Leapman is too generous. Neil was the only member of the Shadow Cabinet who voted for Kinnock; all of them voted for Roy Hattersley. Dick played an essential role as Neil took over the leadership of the Labour Party and his great experience was critical in bringing together all sections and making them feel (in contrast to what happened to the Tories who went off to the City years later) that they all had a duty to accept positions in the new regime. .
Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Health, recalls Clements as
a wonderful colleague and mentor to me when we worked together with Neil Kinnock. He was Labour through and through and played a vital role in the renewal of the party.
Anyone less likely, then, than Dick Clements to allow himself to become the creature of Mr Suslov or Mr Andropov at the KGB is hard to imagine. This is why it was so utterly preposterous that the hurtful suggestion should later be made that Clements was somehow in the pay of Russians and Communists and guilty in some way of spying. Nevertheless the notorious KGB files smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Visili Mitrokhin led to the allegations in 1999 that Clements was an "agent of influence" known by the codename Agent Dan. As one who about the same time had similar whispers made against him, I dismissed the insinuations.
Clements himself denied supplying any crucial information:
They may have thought they were controlling me, but they were not. I suspect they exaggerated their reports to Moscow. Perhaps they were boosting their expenses.
Dick Clements was one of the unsung heroic figures of the Labour movement, writes Geoffrey Goodman; unsung because he never sought publicity, still less political celebrity - except for the cause in which he believed and to which he dedicated his life, democratic socialism.
I recall vividly the time we first met in the early 1950s when he joined the old Daily Herald as industrial reporter. I occupied a similar role on the News Chronicle and we met at a miners' conference in Blackpool; it was a meeting which matured into a lifelong friendship. He was a wonderful, generous friend and, also, a damn good reporter.
At Tribune, during the highly tense and controversial period of the nuclear disarmament debate of the Fifties, Michael Foot and Nye Bevan were, uniquely, on opposite sides, with Clements holding his own position, trying to keep both his comrades and mentors in harness, with immense personal and professional courage. It was most certainly Clements's most testing moment, especially as the paper's front-page slogan was "The paper that leads the anti-H Bomb campaign".
His political courage never faltered, nor did he wobble in his convictions and this impressed a whole range of backbench MPs and subsequently Labour cabinet ministers when, after the election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1964, Clements played an important and significant role as an organiser of the Tribune group of backbench MPs. He was several times encouraged to join their ranks in Parliament and almost did when Jim Callaghan became Labour leader. Had he done so, I have little doubt that Dick Clements would have been offered a ministerial post.
Even though Clements retired in 1987, if Kinnock had won the 1992 election, Clements might well have been persuaded to become Kinnock's Alastair Campbell.
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