Paul Foot

How the TUC killed workers’ paper

(September 1973)

From Socialist Worker, 15 September 1973.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, Bookmarks, London 1993, pp.96-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IN JANUARY 1911 there was a printworkers’ strike and lock-out in London. Sir Joseph Causton, boss of the Daily News, swore he would never give in to the printers’ demand for a 50-hour week and the rest of the press responded with a cataract of lies and abuse against the locked-out men.

The printers decided they had had enough. They produced a daily eight-page sheet which put the workers’ side in the dispute. They called it the Daily Herald.

Helped by the Herald, the strikers won their demands. By the time the strike sheet folded on 28 April that year, large numbers of men and women were demanding a permanent, mass circulation paper for labour.

There were urgent discussions all over the country. Ben Tillett, who had led the great dockers’ strike of 1889, George Lansbury, Labour leader from East London, and a host of other workers’ representatives finally raised enough money to start the Daily Herald a year later.

The paper played a crucial role in the upsurge of working class activity before the start of the First World War.

Through the Daily Herald League it organised support for strike after strike – especially among London transport workers, dockers and Midlands iron workers. When the South Wales miners came out on strike in 1914 the Herald proclaimed, in a front page headline: SOUTH WALES MINERS FIND A BETTER WAY THAN THE BALLOT.

Lansbury, then editor of the Herald wrote, in his book, The Miracle of Fleet Street: ‘All this time the dominant note of the Daily Herald was its fierce attack on the leaders of the Labour Party ... The leaders of the trade unions were also attacked. The most reactionary of all the trade union leaders, Jimmy Thomas, sued the Herald for libel and took £200 damages.’

To continued cluck-clucking from Labour and trade union leaders, the Daily Herald and its League took up the struggles of Irish workers against imperialist bosses, of women in their fight for emancipation, and against British invasion of Russia after the 1917 revolution.

When Jim Larkin, Irish workers’ leader, was released from prison in 1913, he wrote first to the Daily Herald, thanking the paper for its support.

When one 1918 anti-war Herald rally was banned by the Albert Hall Council, the electricians’ union threatened to pull out the plugs for the following week’s Victory Ball. The council, under pressure from the government, rapidly changed its mind.

By 1920 the Herald had built a circulation of more than 250,000 copies a day. For all its faults it was founded on the fighting spirit of working people. ‘We were to all intents and purposes a rank and file paper,’ wrote Lansbury.

But under capitalism the Herald was in difficulty. Its circulation, though large did not bring in enough revenue in sales alone to enable it to compete with the other popular dailies.

Its working class readership was unattractive to advertisers and because Lansbury was hostile to any form of revolutionary organisation, the paper had around it no organisation which would sell or subsidise it from rank and file contributions.

The only source of heavy subsidy was the trade unions and so, reluctantly, in September 1922 Lansbury handed over the Herald to the TUC and the Labour Party.

Almost at once, the fire went out of it. Strikes were only supported after they had been declared official, ‘Dangerous subjects’, notably Ireland, were carefully avoided.

Circulation was maintained and even increased slightly, but the problems of the paper redoubled.

They were solved, in capitalist terms, by an arch-capitalist, Julius Elias. Elias, later Viscount Southwood, was a printing boss who had previously teamed up with the crooked and reactionary Horatio Bottomley in the printing and publication of the crooked and reactionary magazine John Bull.

Elias agreed to print and publish the Herald with the support of the trade union movement. Ernest Bevin, a young dockers’ leader, stomped the country to build up its circulation.

Bevin and other trade union leaders used their influence to drum up more than 100,000 extra readers, and when the Daily Herald was first printed under its new management – 51 percent of the shares owned by Elias’ Odhams press and 49 percent by the TUC – it had reached a circulation of more than two million.

All through the 1930s, Elias concentrated on building the paper’s circulation by means of all kinds of free gifts and competitions, while the TUC and Labour leaders drummed up readership from their rank and file. Although the Herald won the race to two million readers, the paper steadily deteriorated.

Politics were relegated as far as possible, and the TUC directors ensured that what politics were published safely reflected the views of the TUC leaders.

The process continued after the war. As the Labour leaders became less and less interested in their rank and file, so they lost interest in their daily paper.

In 1961, the TUC sold out. When IPC took over Odhams, it also took over the Herald completely. The paper continued to decline.

In 1964 it was re-named the Sun and rejigged to get rid of its ‘cloth cap’ image. It lost its working class readers too. Finally, in 1969, the Sun was sold to Rupert Murdoch, who has turned it into mass-circulation pornography.

At last week’s TUC Richard Briginshaw, general secretary of the print union NATSOPA, moved the ritual TUC motion complaining at the anti-trade union bias of the capitalist press. Vague demands were made in the debate as they will be at the Labour Party conference next month, for a new TUC/Labour Party paper.

The wretched history of the Daily Herald since its take-over by the TUC 50 years ago proves how self-destructive is reformist, social democratic propaganda. A workers’ paper is useless unless its propaganda is backed and enriched by organisation and agitation. Unless workers see their paper as a guide to action and organisation as well as arguments against the Tories and their system, the paper is bound to lose out to the big battalions.

The crucial characteristic of Labour reformism is its distaste for working class organisation and independent action. Its papers can only argue and state. They cannot agitate. So they cannot rely on the people who read the paper to subsidise and sell it. They need the ‘business genius’ of the Viscount Southwoods and the advertising of great capitalist corporations. And in the hunt for such genius and such advertising they defeat their own propaganda.

We must rebuild a mass socialist press in Britain – but not by making the same mistakes as made by the Daily Herald. The driving force of our socialist press must be the belief in independent working class action, and the need for socialist papers to organise and co-ordinate that action.

We cannot build a socialist paper without socialist organisation – or vice versa. That simple fact is written in the ashes of 50 years’ copies of the Daily Herald, burnt and buried by the Trades Union Congress.


Last updated on 20.12.2004