The Labour Briefing we remember

Mike Phipps and Jon Rogers offer their reflections on the demise of a significant publication on the Labour left

Mike Phipps writes:

Reports are circulating that the magazine Labour Briefing has ceased publication. “The printed copy will not be produced regularly,” admitted one editorial board member and there will henceforth be more focus on visual media.

In its various guises – London Labour Briefing, Labour Left Briefing, Labour Briefing (LRC) – the journal was a real force on the Labour left for over 40 years. It began in another age, in 1980, when the left was in the ascendant in the Party following the fall of the Callaghan government.

As London Labour Briefing, it helped organise the left’s takeover of the Greater London Council in 1981. There were similar publications in other cities and towns, reflecting an important aspect of the Briefing ethos: a break with top-down politics and an emphasis on the need to organise locally.

Unlike many left currents in those years, it was first and foremost a magazine and not a group. It was open and pluralist, a place of debate, within certain fundamental socialist principles, rather than the propaganda outlet of a group with a line to peddle and recruitment targets to meet. It focused on what united the left in the Labour Party, unlike organisations that maintain their ‘market share’ by emphasising their ‘unique selling point’.

Dorothy Macedo, a former Chair of the magazine’s editorial board agrees. “Labour Briefing broke the mould of labour movement magazines, giving a voice to the local activists at the grassroots rather than commenting from afar, or pushing a particular line, or promoting careerists.”

“It shook up the Labour left and showed us what was really going on in Labour politics,” she says. “It also raised issues before they became mainstream such as the politics of sexuality in the Streetlife feature and it publicised struggles around the world as well as closer to home in Ireland, all topics that the leaderships preferred to ignore.”

Sue Lukes, another former Chair, remembers, “Soon after I joined the editorial board, many of us attended a conference of the left.  Looking around the room during a controversial vote I realised that ‘Briefing people’ were voting for, against and abstaining.  I felt reassured that this was a project I could work in!”

Briefing was committed to fighting within the mass organisations of the labour movement, as opposed to setting up new structures, from a time when this was still a much-debated point on the left. Following the achievements of the London Labour left, it became a central part of the Bennite movement in the early 1980s.

Jeremy Corbyn was a regular contributor – but such was the breadth of the left at that time that figures as diverse as David Blunkett – later an authoritarian New Labour Home Secretary – and Irish Republican activist and later acclaimed novelist Ronan Bennett also wrote for the magazine. In more recent years, John McDonnell wrote a regular column, which continued even after he joined Labour‘s front bench.

Following the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 and the rightward march of the Kinnock leadership, Briefing lost influence.  Activists in the Party had a hard time fighting the rightward lurch of the Party in these years and later the rise of Tony Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism and social authoritarianism.

Yet amid the general decline of the left, Briefing seemed an optimistic place to be at that time. I started writing for it in 1989 when it was in newspaper format and appeared fortnightly. Later it reverted to a monthly magazine.

Under the outstanding editorship of Mike Marqusee, Briefing broke stories, showcased a range of ideas and became broader and more outward-looking. It ran influential articles examining prominent miscarriages of justice, part of a campaign which would see wrongly convicted victims like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four – but also lesser known cases – eventually released. 

Briefing also widened its international and trade union coverage, demanding union leaders use the organic link of their organisations to the Labour Party to fight for their members’ interests, rather than simply supporting the leadership’s rightward trajectory. At the same time, the magazine looked a lot more professional than the earlier efforts that were painstakingly pasted together by a handful of volunteers.

It was at this time that the irreverent and hilarious column ‘Class Traitor of the Month’ became a regular feature. Brilliantly researched and written, it was a hard-hitting and often hilarious hatchet-job on careerists in the labour movement who sacrificed their principles in the pursuit of office. The series worked its way through pretty much the entire Labour Shadow Cabinet of the time. Briefing was still important enough in those days for a piece of this to be read out and then unceremoniously torn up at one local Party meeting in the presence of the offended MP.

Sue Lukes remembers meeting the Cor Cochion Caerdydd (Cardiff Red Choir) and their excitement at now having a way to “nominate for Class Traitor or the Month: we’ve got plenty of those in Wales.”

This combination of fearlessness and a refusal to take itself too seriously was attractive to many activists. Although the left was losing influence, this felt like a project that had got the basics right, focusing on campaigning and activity rather than theoretical debates. But for the increasingly difficult situation in the Party, this might have been Briefing’s golden age. I remember the editorial board meetings of this era as upbeat and cheerful, where everyone’s contribution felt valued.

Mike Marqusee understood that in the increasingly difficult atmosphere of a rightward-moving Party, Briefing had to develop and grow on all fronts to retain relevance. In an article in June 1995, he outlined some of the things it needed to do if it was to meet the challenge. It had to

“- belong to the left as a whole, not to any single group or current. This implies a pluralist approach to political debate… [it had to] offer comprehensive coverage of the key issues… provide readers with the information and analysis they need to take part in the movement’s debates… maintain professional standards of journalism and presentation… [and be] clear and reliable… concise and accessible… [It should] cultivate a living relationship with its readers… encourage debate… be rooted in struggle.”

If the left was in retreat in the mid-1990s, perhaps Briefing helped slow the rot. It was instrumental in setting up the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance, which helped get left wing candidates elected to the Party’s NEC, a sure sign that the right wing apparatus wasn’t getting things all its own way. In 1998, a year after Tony Blair became prime minister, it succeeded in winning four out of six constituency places on Labour’s NEC. This included Briefing editorial board member Liz Davies, who had been barred by the New Labour leadership from being the parliamentary candidate for Leeds North-East three years earlier.

In March 2000, Briefing produced a 20th anniversary supplement. Graham Bash, one of the magazine’s founders who served uninterruptedly on its editorial board, wrote at the time:

“There was a recognition that our struggle was above all practical… It would be no use preaching socialist ideas from outside the living movement…  Our task was to unite as many forces as we could in struggle.”

Internationally acclaimed journalist John Pilger said at the time that, without Briefing, “there would be simply no sustained, honest, unfettered criticism coming from within the Labour Party on the disastrous impact of New Labour.”

But Briefing went beyond criticism. During the Iraq War, it carried exclusive reportage from individuals either in, or with first-hand knowledge of, the country. It helped set up Labour Against the War, to take the demands of the broader anti-war movement into the Party.

The need to expand and develop challenged the institutional routinism that creeps into any political project. In 2012, a packed Briefing AGM voted by a narrow majority to become the magazine of the Labour Representation Committee, the dynamic left Labour regroupment that John McDonnell had founded a few years earlier. But a minority weren’t having it and decided to continue with their own magazine. There were now two Labour Briefings.

Was that the beginning of the end? Political splits are demoralising and lead to people drifting away from a project, dismayed at the fracturing of the unity that is essential to getting anything done. Nor can it be said that affiliation to the LRC brought Briefing many new sellers and supporters.

And then Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Party, a dream come true for Briefing activists. Huge opportunities opened up. Yet many on the Labour left were as surprised and unprepared as anyone by this turn of events.  Briefing’s failure to grow in this exceptionally favourable period suggests that the magazine was not at the heart of the new project – which is exactly where it needed to be.

Was this the triumph of day to day organisation and monthly deadlines over an understanding of the dramatic change in the political circumstances? Was there a reluctance, or inability, to get involved with the thousands of new members flooding into the party, and the organisations engaging with them?  Many of course were young, and frankly those involved in Briefing by then were not.  Many had had no involvement with the left before and found its language and practices alienating.  Briefing was, by then, no longer the irreverent, open, adventurous focus for organising that might have appealed to them. 

Furthermore, once the initial shock at the turn of events had subsided, there was a failure, not confined to Briefing, but widespread across the left, to appreciate the new responsibilities that had to be shouldered. For the previous decades, such was the left’s marginal status that it had had to shout to get its ideas heard. Now the left was at the centre of events and would be subject to the utmost scrutiny by the Tory press and Labour’s right wing, keen to expose the past and current transgressions of anyone associated with the new leader.

It was a time for the utmost discipline and focus. Yet many on the Labour left, including around Briefing, failed to fully grasp both the opportunities and the dangers. A sense of astonishment at Corbyn’s election as leader gave way to one of entitlement.  Old habits reasserted themselves and some were determined to attach their narrow agendas to the fragile Corbyn project. “If not now, when?” they asked.

But these manoeuvres were not accompanied by any corresponding breakthrough in the mass movement. True, Jeremy Corbyn enjoyed huge popularity. But that was not the same as widespread support for a range of left causes, the case for which still had to be fought for and won. There was a real danger of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity being squandered.

Following the 2019 defeat, fragmentation on the left was accompanied by recrimination. This is never attractive and was all the more self-defeating, given that it took place in a context where the leadership was waging open war on much of the Party grassroots. Even within the left, honest debate was often met with accusations of treachery. As lockdown set in, conspiracism and distrust were increasingly noticeable.

Within Briefing, differences which had perhaps seemed manageable under the momentum of the Corbyn surge, now loomed large. A sectarian spirit had crept in and as good people drifted away, it began to dominate. I won’t revisit here the reasons I terminated my relationship with the magazine two years ago, but suffice it to say: nobody walks away lightly from something they spent the best part of their political life building.

The disappearance of Labour Briefing as a printed magazine may be a sign of the changing nature of news media. It will be missed. But it is also a reminder that any publication on the left is only as good as its last monthly circulation figures. For longer than many other outlets, Briefing did a brilliant job. The best of its methods and traditions provide important lessons in how to organise today.

Jon Rogers writes:

I first encountered Labour Briefing when I moved to Lewisham on the eve of the 1987 General Election and became active in the vibrant left-wing Hither Green branch of East Lewisham CLP. My friend and neighbour, Kevin Flack, was already involved.

At that time Briefing was in a newspaper format, coming out fortnightly. Its unique mix of Labour Party, trade union, international and equality coverage set it apart from other, less interesting, left wing journals. In the pages of Labour Briefing you could read first-hand accounts from CLPs which were facing suspension or other disciplinary sanctions, from rank and file building workers confronting corrupt trade union bureaucrats, from those centrally involved in international solidarity work, and from Labor Party Black Sections and others fighting for equality in the movement.

I particularly appreciated Briefing’s coverage of the Anti-Poll-Tax movement and its advocacy of a position of refusing to register for the tax (I followed this line, saving myself more than £1,000!). I recollect posting a centrespread from Briefing up on the workplace noticeboard in Lambeth Council, where many of the workforce were eager to resist the Poll Tax.

Briefing was particularly good at securing contributions from people who were themselves involved in particular areas of struggle and therefore knew what they were writing about, rather than simply inviting socialists to write a commentary on struggles with which they themselves were not particularly involved. I therefore made a couple of contributions from the perspective of the Lambeth Council workforce in 1990 under the pseudonym of ‘Roger Trendell’.

Around this time, I became aware, however, that the coalition currently producing Briefing was falling apart, as its largest component wished to replace Labour Briefing with a journal for the recently established Socialist Movement.

I became part of the group prepared to commit time and money to resurrecting Labour Briefing in 1991, in a magazine format and coming out monthly. Although the journal had lost some of its international connections (notably to the ‘Fourth International’), a smaller group were nevertheless able to continue producing a high-quality magazine.

A feature of Briefing in the early 1990s was the monthly “Class Traitor of the Month” feature, which certainly made us very unpopular with careerists in the movement and their hangers-on, but which I very much enjoyed. At a time when a whole swathe of former left wingers were travelling rapidly rightward, there were any number of individuals deserving of a feature in the monthly column. I was part of a disappointed minority when we decided to discontinue the column, though, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that it was very much of its time.

Throughout the 1990s, I was a regular attendee at the monthly meetings of the Briefing editorial board, which was elected annually at an open meeting at which any Briefing reader could attend. Following a general political discussion, which would often inform the next editorial column, we would review the previous issue and discuss the content of the next issue.

While I know that others on the left were part of organisations which believed themselves to be the embryonic leadership of the global proletariat, we were a small group of socialists trying to produce a magazine that would be useful to Labour left wingers, and which would go on to be produced in someone’s spare bedroom. I preferred our realistic approach.

In the mid-1990s, after the unsuccessful struggle to prevent Tony Blair rewriting Clause IV, part 4 of the Labour Party constitution, Briefing was joined, for a time, by supporters of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, formerly Socialist Organiser. Labour Briefing became Labour Left Briefing and we started running pictures on the front cover.

Although I had no time for the international politics of the AWL, I was pleased that this had brought several key UNISON activists into our ranks. I was even more pleased a few months later when, having realised there was no prospect of ‘taking over’ Briefing, AWL supporters left us, leaving behind their best UNISON activists. This meant that I no longer had to write almost every article about UNISON!

Another legacy of this period was also a monthly column by my friend and comrade Geoff Martin, first as Chair of the UNISON Greater London Affiliated Political Fund Committee and, from 1996 as UNISON Greater London Regional Convenor. Geoff wrote his excellent and entertaining column for many years, with the exception of a four-month period in 2001 when he took a break and I had to fill in.

Briefing was establishing a readership within UNISON, as I found out a few years later when Keith Sonnet, a senior UNISON official, told me that another official had complained that an article I had written in Briefing about that official’s appointment was tantamount to bullying. He explained to me that he had filed the complaint in the waste paper bin.

After the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee in 2004 – which drew heavily on Briefing for its initial active membership – I became more involved with the LRC and, since by now I was also on the UNISON NEC, I was less involved with Briefing, although I still wrote quite regularly for the journal.

I continued to identify myself with the politics of Labour Briefing, as I do to this day. Briefing stood for a Labour left which was entirely committed to working through and within the Party of our class. But it was equally committed to an unashamed expression of our socialist politics, which were also anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and committed to equality. We didn’t have to agree with one another and we didn’t commit to supporting or arguing for any particular ‘line’.

In 2012, I attended the Briefing readers’ meeting which voted to transfer the journal to the overall control of the LRC. I spoke and voted with the majority and continued to receive and sell copies of Briefing in the movement. With hindsight, those who argued that if Briefing became the ‘house journal’ of an organisation it would lose some of its edge may well have been right.

However, it may also be that the 21st century doesn’t have room for the forthright radicalism of the Labour Briefing of the 1980s and 1990s which formed my politics. The alternative (‘continuity’) Labour Briefing produced occasionally by the ‘Labour Briefing Cooperative’ since 2012 is a poor shadow of its predecessor thirty or forty years before.

Ill health prevented me from attending the LRC AGM in February of this year, although, as an LRC member, I know that the AGM elected representatives to the Briefing editorial board in accordance with the arrangements agreed ten years before.

I don’t know of any democratic decision of the LRC or of Briefing readers to stop publication of the journal, but it appears that this is what has happened and that it has been replaced by ‘TV’ posted on the internet. This is a shame, although perhaps we have been heading in this direction for years.

Labour Briefing represented the best of the Labour left during the period between the high water mark of Tony Benn’s Deputy Leadership campaign in 1981 and the unexpected accession to the leadership of Briefing contributor, Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.

We kept the flame burning through all those years. It will be for others to find new ways to sustain that flame into the future.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Jon Rogers was active in UNISON for three decades and served 14 years on its National Executive Council. He blogs here. His book An Obscure Footnote in Trade Union History: Memoirs of a Trade Union Bully Boy, by Jonathan Rogers is available here.

Image: Labour Briefing

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts