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Obituary John Haylett: legendary editor of the Morning Star

IF TONY CHATER led the Morning Star through the collapse and re-establishment of the Communist Party, John Haylett’s 1995-2008 editorship brought it forward into the modern age.

The 1998 strike that saw him reinstated after a bid by then chief executive Mary Rosser to sack him was a battle for the future of the paper itself. John’s faith that the paper could only survive if it grew was reflected in the very first management committee after the strike was won.

“The paper was down to eight pages,” recalls former company secretary Tony Briscoe. “The first thing that John and [then business manager] Richard [Maybin] recommended was appointing a circulation manager, and John went on to say that there was a need to increase the size of the paper. The management committee said that the paper couldn't afford the increase in size and John responded that ‘we cannot afford not to.’ The rest is history.”

The 1990s were a bleak time for the left. In Britain Labour was ditching clause four and embracing markets and Rupert Murdoch. 

John’s period as editor coincided almost exactly with Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party from 1994-2007. Blair’s own way of dodging a question from our former news editor and parliamentary reporter Roger Bagley was to quip “The Morning Star — does that still exist?” Socialism was seen as past its sell-by date.

John kept the red flag flying, and the Morning Star became a hub for what remained of the socialist left. 

By the time I started reading it in 1998 it featured a weekly column by the late great socialist MP Tony Benn. He was succeeded as a weekly columnist by Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, who had stood with John on the picket line in 1998. 

Looking back at papers in those years shows it championing then-marginal figures who are now household names, including Bernie Sanders and John McDonnell. And its consistent anti-imperialism meant it, like Corbyn, was at the forefront of the huge anti-war movement that mounted the largest march in British history in 2003. 

The Morning Star and its predecessor the Daily Worker had always championed strikes and industrial action from its foundation in 1930. 

But it was under John that that relationship developed into the Morning Star as the paper of the whole movement. 

In 2004 the rules of the People’s Press Printing Society, the co-op that publishes the paper, changed to allow trade union bodies that bought a maximum shareholding a seat on the management committee. 

The RMT under Bob Crow was the first to take up the offer, quickly followed by the Fire Brigades Union, whose former general secretary Ken Cameron served as chair of the committee for several years. 

Those bonds have deepened since, with shopworkers’ union Usdaw and train drivers’ union Aslef the latest to become part of a co-op whose member trade unions now account for more than half all Britain’s organised workers.

John stepped down as editor in 2008, but remained political editor until this spring, and staff will attest that he was a workhorse till the very end, proofreading, writing editorials and features that reflected his huge experience and wide interests, taking part in all discussions about the paper’s fortunes and direction and providing me and my predecessors with insightful, sympathetic and no-nonsense advice on anything we had trouble with. The Morning Star is not the same without him. But we owe it to him to keep it going till the day it shines on a socialist Britain.

Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.

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