Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 November 1998
I was going to write a worthy column about co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but in the week that Labour’s National Executive Committee passed an idiotic motion barring its members from talking to the press, there’s a better subject. Now is the ideal time to grass up all the politicians who used to leak from the NEC in the good old days when Labour was in opposition and I was editing Tribune.
The worst offender of all was none other than Tony Blair, who leaked every document that Labour’s review group on trade union links produced in 1992-93 – a course of action that almost lost him his job as shadow home secretary. John Evans, the socialist societies’ NEC representative, described Blair’s briefings to selected journalists as the most outrageous breach of confidentiality he’d ever seen. Coming from a man who was himself no stranger to letting NEC documents go walkabout, that was, well, par for the course. The crucial point, however, was that John Smith agreed. If only he’d acted.
Tribune never to my knowledge benefited directly from Blair leaks from the NEC: the Guardian was his favoured outlet, Patrick Wintour his favoured interlocuter. I don’t remember talking to Gordon Brown or Robin Cook about NEC business, although they were always perfectly happy to talk about what was going on in the shadow cabinet and in various policy committees. So was John Prescott, though of course he wasn’t a member of the NEC at the time.
For NEC documents we relied for the most part on two other current Cabinet stalwarts, David Blunkett and Clare Short – or rather their gofers. As a matter of course, their researchers gave us everything we wanted, usually by fax. I’ve a filing cabinet draw full of extraordinarily tedious material to prove it.
I always assumed that the staffers did it with their bosses’ approval, although it’s impossible to be entirely sure. Politicians normally leak through their staff for the simple reason that it’s deniable.
My favourite example concerns the supposed relationship between John Major and Clare Latimer, the Downing Street cook – later the subject of a famous libel action that drove the New Statesman to bankruptcy and the clutches of Geoffrey Robinson. I got the gossip from a senior staffer in Gordon Brown’s office months before it hit even the diary columns. My source claimed to working for a Labour “dirty tricks” operation under Brown’s control. Unfortunately, I do not have the contemporaneous notes that would allow me to identify him.
But back to the main story. Both Blunkett and Short were always happy to give Tribune full and frank accounts – off the record, but that’s normal – of what had happened at NEC meetings within minutes of their finishing, as indeed were several other NEC members. Most of them were rather dull soft-left leadership-loyalists like Diana Jeuda and Tom Sawyer, who are now fully paid-up Blairites. In my day, Tribune was off-message as far as the hard left was concerned. Sad git that I am, I have even framed a piece by Ken Livingstone denouncing me as the most right-wing editor this paper has ever had.
Livingstone was not a member of the NEC in the early 1990s – a pity, because he was a prodigious leaker in his pomp. But our relations with his comrades were frosty. Tribune’s news editor at the time was an unreconstructed Trotskyist (and a brilliant hack) but even he had trouble extracting hot poop from Dennis Skinner on the NEC because of Tribune’s reputation.
Not that this was too much of a problem, because Skinner himself shot his bolt once every month in a column in Campaign Group News – setting out in minute detail who had said what and how all the votes had gone at every NEC meeting. It was self-congratulatory stuff. But it was the only thing in most issues of Campaign Group News that was worth reading.
All of which is to say . . . well, it was a lot of fun and I regret nothing. The NEC leakers of the early nineties had no effect on Labour’s electoral fortunes. Directly and through their intermediaries, they kept Tribune in business journalistically. And a column by the editor today on his experiences on the Blair NEC would do wonders not just for credibility but for sales. It is in Tribune’s interest that he reveals as much as possible of what goes behind closed doors in Millbank Tower.
But it’s also in the interest of Labour Party members to have available the details of what is being done in their name. The message to the control freaks is simple: up yours.