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Tribute by Mike Phipps

20 January 2015

I first worked with Mike on Labour Briefing in the late 1980s. For those who don’t know, Briefing was – and still is – a magazine for socialist activists in the Labour Party that began life in the early 1980s, when it played a key role in the election of Ken Livingstone as the left-wing leader of the Greater London Council. By the late 1980s, those heady days seemed far behind us – it was a grim time, following the catastrophic defeats of the movement under Margaret Thatcher’s government, and many at this time vented their frustrations with the course of events through a turn to inward soul-searching and recrimination. I was struck by how Mike stood above all this and single-mindedly carried on with the job of trying to produce a high quality newspaper on a then fortnightly basis.

By the early 1990s, Mike had taken over the editorship of Briefing, now a monthly magazine. It was still not a great time to be a left activist, but I remember the editorial board meetings of this era as really upbeat and cheerful. Mike’s energy and humour and zest for life – including life far beyond the narrowly political – were highly infectious and they made you want to go to meetings where he would be speaking. He was committed and passionate, even angry, and these qualities shone through in the best of his writing. Unlike many I have worked with down the years, he always prepared meticulously – a sign of the respect he had for other comrades. And in a way nobody else did, he would praise people’s work in the most generous terms. Even after he moved on from Briefing, I received an email in which he described one of its articles as “beautiful” – comrades here will know this is not normal behaviour in the British left.

Everyone’s contribution felt valued. Under Mike’s editorship, Briefing was lively, newsy, pluralist and irreverent. He set high journalistic standards. He wanted a real relationship with the readers, so they felt it was as much their magazine as that of the people who wrote for it. And in a world where most left papers were the organ of the central committee of some small Leninist grouplet, Mike strove for a unique pluralism, a magazine that could honestly debate issues in a comradely fashion without provoking splits or bad behaviour.

Humour was essential. Briefing ran a regular feature called “Class Traitor of the Month”. Brilliantly researched and written by Mike, and others, 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 unceremoniously torn up in front of one local Labour Party management committee.

Despite the defeats and rightward march of the Labour Party, this was a hugely creative time for Mike. It produced his 1992 book, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party, co-authored with Richard Heffernan. Reading some of the online tributes to Mike, it is truly encouraging to hear from younger comrades, how formative this book was on their own thinking and activism inside the Labour Party and beyond. Neil Kinnock has long ceased to be a significant figure, but Mike’s book remains as relevant as ever for its insights into the mindset of Labour leaders – and their courtiers, in all their timidity, duplicity and vanity.

It’s one thing to dissect those years of defeat, but far bigger challenges lay ahead. Going into battle against Tony Blair and his ruthless New Labour apparatus was rough, hard politics for Mike – and Liz especially. Liz had been selected to be a parliamentary candidate for Labour in Leeds and the New Labour machine was going to prevent it by any means necessary. The full weight of a leadership witch-hunt descended, and Liz – and Mike – were thrown into a tabloid feeding frenzy. The fight they mounted against all this took real bravery. Being a great writer was not a career move for Mike, it was just one aspect of him: risk-taking activism was another.

Over the next two decades, Mike’s writing grew in stature and his literary output took on an astonishing breadth. But he also continued to respond to the challenges thrown down by world events and the government of Tony Blair in particular. He was a founder member of the Stop the War Coalition, Media Workers Against the War and Iraq Occupation Focus, editing its first newsletters.

We all miss Mike as a comrade and a friend. But how much more is the movement going to miss his incisive analysis, his inclusive approach to political activity and his vision and belief that a better world is possible.