A mass paper of the labour movement

Submitted by Matthew on 18 April, 2012 - 11:11

“’Let the landlord go hang for his rent, I am sending it to you.’ Would this be done for a Liberal newspaper? Would it be done for a Tory newspaper? Not likely.”

Daily Herald, 26 October 1912

“The marvel is that the paper was ever produced at all.”

George Lansbury, The Miracle of Fleet Street

15 April will mark the centenary of the founding of the Daily Herald. The Herald was first founded as an ad hoc news sheet by striking print workers in 1911. After it folded, discussions began in labour movement circles about the possibility of bringing it back as a daily.

The idea of a daily labour movement paper had been around for some time. The existing left-wing press was deemed inadequate by many. The Social Democratic Federation’s national organ, Justice, was at the centre of a long-running dispute within the organisation. Although a “party paper”, it was actually owned privately by party leader Henry Hyndman. Similarly, the most popular paper associated with the Independent Labour Party, the Clarion, was privately owned and run by maverick socialist Robert Blatchford.

The first decade of the century saw the emergence of the modern tabloid press, popular newspapers with a mass circulation. Some of the papers set up in the decade before the Herald appeared, like the Mail and Express, are unfortunately still with us. These are the dailies the Herald would be directly competing with, rather than political weeklies or monthly magazines like the New Statesman, launched in 1913.

The Herald’s first big story was on the sinking of the Titanic, which happened as the first issue went to press. Under the headline “Women and Children last”, the paper covered the disproportionate death rate among third class passengers and slammed the White Star Line.

Soon afterwards, the paper’s questions around the Marconi corruption scandal would prompt Lloyd George to describe it as “the limit.”

After a quick succession of early editors, popular socialist George Lansbury was convinced by dockers’ leader Ben Tillett to take charge, naming the publishing company after Lloyd George’s remark.

In these years, the Herald’s organisation and finances were chaotic. Sometimes last minute appeals resulted in one-off donations which kept the paper going for a few more days. Lansbury once left London to speak at a meeting in Crewe, having agreed with the committee to wind the paper up. The next day he was sold a copy of the Herald outside his hotel:

“Some of the workmen, knowing we were likely to stop, looked round the paper store and found some part-reels of paper and some old out-size reels... The paper for this particular day was all sorts of shapes and sizes, but we did not care.”

On another occasion Lansbury, Tillett, and Robert Williams blocked the door of the office to keep out bailiffs while some money was found. There were rich sympathisers who donated, including soap magnate Joseph Fels, but the paper’s policy was to not let money dictate content. Most individual donations came from working-class people, responding to Lansbury’s constant call-outs for money.

An organisation, the Herald League, was founded to popularise the paper and raise funds. It developed into a political network which many syndicalists and trade unionists joined during the Great Unrest.

During the Dublin Lockout, the League helped organise large public meetings across England at which James Connolly and James Larkin spoke. Lansbury successfully resisted demands from some in the League that it should assume control of the paper’s editorial policy.

One of the points of the early Herald was to provide a national forum where the key issues in the Labour movement could be debated. Syndicalists, Guild Socialists, Christian Socialists like Lansbury, industrial unionists as well as moderates all found space in its pages. Lansbury spoke of the paper’s “anti-official” policy, but still wanted the Herald to be a paper for the whole movement.

Will Dyson’s cartoons brought the Herald’s free, rebellious spirit to life. “A Fantasy (Labour Leaders at their Devotions)” shows Labour Party leaders bowing down to a huge top hat. “Peace and Future Cannon Fodder” from 1919 shows the allies celebrating their Versailles Treaty while a child labeled “Class of 1940” weeps in the corner.

All this made the paper a more interesting read than the TUC’s official Daily Citizen which was set up later in the same year. Although the Herald’s circulation rarely topped the Citizen’s, it outlasted its moderate brother. The Citizen folded in 1915, suffering from a lack of political will to keep it going on the part of the trade union leaders.

During the First World War, the Herald went weekly, and managed to survive a time when left-wing papers like the Glasgow Forward and the SLP’s Socialist were being shut down under the Defence of the Realm Act.

Its attitude followed that of most radical socialists; although anti-war, it did not speak out with the same forceful voice that had supported the strikes of the Great Unrest. Instead, it concentrated its efforts on exposing how class divisions in society were deepened by the war. One Herald journalist was dispatched to the Ritz just before food rationing was introduced, to expose the continuing decadent lifestyle of the rich in the face of Germany’s submarine blockade.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave a huge new impetus to anti-war and socialist activity, the Herald resumed its role as the movement’s debate chamber. All sorts of views on the pro- and anti-Bolshevik spectrum were given column inches.

The paper also resumed its activism, sponsoring public meetings on the revolution and co-organising the Leeds Conference at which the labour movement re-emerged as a political force. The paper’s lengthy report of the conference covered all the speeches in detail, including Ramsay MacDonald’s uncharacteristic call for workers’ councils.

Circulation reached new heights in 1919, as another strike wave rocked the country, and the pull of huge international events sent Herald journalists like H N Brailsford across Europe in search of stories. In 1920, a year when Lansbury visited revolutionary Russia, the paper threw itself into supporting the anti-intervention Hands Off Russia movement.

Back home, the paper’s anger at union officialdom remained. The paper’s leader after Black Friday, when the Triple Alliance of powerful unions fell apart, described the fiasco as “the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Movement within the memory of man.”

Predictably, lots of coverage was given to the Poplar rates struggle, during which not only Lansbury but also Herald journalist John Scurr went to prison.

As class struggle receded, financial problems worsened. An open debate about whether to accept Russian money (which was eventually brought into the country in the form of pearls hidden in a box of chocolates) drew predictable derision from the right. Lansbury was fiercely resistant to the idea of selling the paper to a new private owner, preferring the idea of a labour movement buy-out — which was achieved, after much wrangling, with the help of Arthur Henderson.

From 1922 the paper was the property of the movement, but of its leadership, the TUC General Council and the Labour Party NEC. Henry Hamilton Fyfe was appointed editor. He was left-wing, but more journalist than activist. Fyfe told his journalists to keep comment out of news pieces. The paper was rebranded from May Day 1923, attempting to broaden its content from politics in order to get a larger readership.

During the 1923 dock strike, which was a result of dockers rejecting an agreement that their union had signed, Herald coverage was at best ambivalent. One leader compared unofficial strikers to scabs, because they were breaking union discipline. In 1925, Lansbury left the paper to start his own, Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, but this folded by 1927.

While the paper had lost its radical edge, it still supported the movement’s left-wing, giving favourable coverage to the ILP and Communist-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and Minority Movement.

Herald staff joined the general strike in 1926, but many regular writers contributed to the TUC’s strike sheet, the British Worker. After the strike, despite the editorship of left-winger William Mellor, the paper’s praise of official Labour leaders and criticism of Communists became more overt. It became loyally supportive of Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 government. Huw Richards argues this late-1920s period marked a key shift in the Herald’s politics.

In 1930 the TUC sold 51% of the paper to Odhams Press, publisher of, among others, the nationalist magazine John Bull.

The Herald remained a Labour paper, but the importance of political news was once again downgraded. It was starting to look more like a normal mass-circulation paper. The Odhams Herald broke the one million circulation mark and Lansbury’s dream of a northern edition was finally realised. Victory in a fierce circulation war with the Express made the Herald the world’s biggest-selling daily for a time in the mid-1930s. But it was a somewhat pyrrhic victory, pushing up the costs of publication to unsustainable amounts.

Post-war, the Herald began to lose readers to the more plain-spoken Labour-supporting Daily Mirror. Circulation dropped below two million in 1951, the year Labour was voted out of office. Loyalty was still the watchword; the paper supported Gaitskell against Bevan, and rallied back to the leadership after a brief flirtation with the anti-bomb movement.

Without strong politics, neither a tabloid nor a broadsheet, the Herald struggled to carve out a purpose for itself in the post-war market and entered into terminal decline. It did not last to see Labour returned to power. The final issue appeared just a month before Wilson won the 1964 election. Its successor, the Sun, also struggled until it was bought by Rupert Murdoch in 1969.

If the Herald ended its life as an ordinary newspaper, it certainly did not begin as one.

With just £300 of capital, it seemed unlikely to ever get off the ground. Even in its more successful periods, the paper had problems getting advertising income because of its political stance. It was only ever sustained by the loyalty of its readership and their own sacrifices. Lansbury called the paper “one of the finest achievements of the rank and file of our Movement,” although he would always complain that people never gave enough.

Political newspapers are always in precarious positions. In the early years, circulation always rose and fell with class struggle. Strike waves and elections saw spikes in readership. At other times, cuts were made. The Herald was not a co-operative, still less a venture run by workers’ control. It did not by any means pay equal salaries to its employees, and it did sack staff. It wavered between financial stability and political independence, arguably achieving the former by sacrificing the latter.

But although the politics got dampened down by official TUC control, were Lansbury and co. wrong to want a paper owned by the movement? This is a question worth considering. It is difficult to think of the Herald’s modern-day successor or equivalent.

Which party papers or union websites provide the socialist movement with, as Lansbury put it, “the stimulus which independent thought and expression alone can give”? Where can activists engage in genuine debate about political tactics and ideas? Indymedia? UnionNews? Socialist Worker? Solidarity?

None have anywhere near the mass appeal that the Herald managed. “No paper,” Herald historian Huw Richards argued, “was more consistent in offering a voice to those who are excluded, derided or both by the bulk of the mass-circulation press.”

On the Herald’s birthday, it might be worth asking ourselves whether the socialist movement is capable of launching a successful multi-platform media outlet. Are we too hampered by sectarianism and a lack of resources? Would the politics of the project descend into a Counterfire-esque mesh of incoherent ideas? Would it be doomed to eventual transformation into something like Murdoch’s Sun, or the ignominious end suffered by the News on Sunday in the 1980s?

With the Herald’s history in mind, perhaps these are questions we can revisit.

Further reading

The miracle of Fleet Street, George Lansbury

The rise and fall of the Daily Herald, Rajani Palme Dutt

The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left, Huw Richards

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