Troubled birthday party for veteran of the left

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Indy Politics

The former Hampstead home of Sir Thomas Beecham plays host this weekend to a gathering considered in modern political circles to be as much a relic of the past as the irascible Lancastrian conductor's long silent baton.

Assembled left-wingers will be celebrating the 65th anniversary of Tribune, the radical socialist magazine, at a troubled time in its history. Over the refreshments, conversation will no doubt turn to Sir Ken Jackson, joint general secretary of the trade union Amicus, who is threatening the impoverished journal with legal action for libel. It is feared any award for damages would almost certainly lead to the demise of the publication.

But there will be no wake-like atmosphere at this gathering. These Tribunites are not, in the words of Mark Seddon, the present editor, the kind of left-wingers who wear hair shirts and dungarees. Most are on the bon viveur wing of the movement. If truth be told, they are also of a certain age, although Mr Seddon points out that this is a problem in politics generally. In the main, the guests occupy the political ground between the policies espoused by the present Government and the more moderate elements of orthodox communism – an area somewhat enlarged under the current Prime Minister.

Those from the provinces will be able to enjoy beer and sandwiches, while for those of a more metropolitan disposition there will be sauvignon blanc and hors d'oeuvres.

Much of the activity, including a speech by the former Labour leader and Tribune stalwart Michael Foot, will take place in the large, ornate ballroom of the Victorian pile in which the journal rents a room from Aslef, the train drivers' union; some party goers will drift towards the centre of the mansion to a dark stairwell on top of which there is a balustrade supporting a large green ball. This is to represent a Beecham's constipation pill – Sir Thomas was a scion of the eponymous pharmaceutical enterprise. "Perhaps our problems would all go away if Sir Ken swallowed it," said Mr Seddon.

Sir Ken, a 65-year-old right winger, is objecting to assertions attributed to Derek Simpson, a left-wing Amicus official based in Derby, who is challenging the joint general secretary for his post in a coming election. Tribune had reported that Mr Simpson had alleged that the union was "riddled with centralised corruption".

The magazine subsequently published an apology unreservedly withdrawing the allegation and dissociating the journal from any implication that Sir Ken would condone corruption. The journal accepted that any such suggestion was without foundation.

It also apologised to Mr Simpson for misrepresenting his remarks. The Derby-based official said he never used the phrase attributed to him.

However, Sir Ken insisted that the apology to Mr Simpson devalued the apology to him and that he was proceeding with legal action. That, in a nutshell, will be one of the main topics of conversation today.

Sir Ken, generally thought to be Tony Blair's favourite trade unionist, has not been a popular boy in the labour movement since The Independent revealed his intended litigation.

It could drive the magazine to bankruptcy. Tribune's last declared profits in 1999 amounted to £102 on the £201,000 made from the cover price and advertising. It was only kept afloat through a £3,000 loan from Mr Foot, who holds shares in the journal and sits on its board. Mr Foot gave £10,000 to Tribune when he won damages from The Sunday Times over unfounded allegations that he had been "Agent Boot" – an agent of influence for the Soviet Union.

Mr Foot, one of the ex-editors hosting today's party, is expected to lead a financial appeal to save the struggling magazine from closure if Sir Ken pursues the legal action.

As for Sir Ken, he was invited to today's thrash, but the union leader declined, explaining that he was on holiday.

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