4 October 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 October 2009

Every ambitious young journalist has a dream job or five, and in my early 20s, my top target was editor of the New Statesman. I didn’t get there de jure but did de facto, because, after three years as deputy editor of the magazine, I took the chair for six issues in the interregnum between Steve Platt and Ian Hargreaves when the oleaginous Geoffrey Robinson became proprietor in 1996. And before that I edited Tribune, which was dream job number two, after a long stint as Tribune reviews editor, which was third on my list.

So I’ve not got a lot of complaints, really. I’ve reached the age of 50 and have done the jobs that used to be done by George Orwell, Michael Foot, Dick Crossman and – OK, I’m pushing it – Kingsley Martin. I might have been useless in all of those roles, I might be a washed-up has-been. But I’m not, at least in my own mind, a never-was. I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody, as Marlon Brando put it in On the Waterfront, even if I’m now a bum.
Enough, though, of me, me, me and my birthday-induced sense of angst. This column was supposed to be about the New Statesman, which has a new – or newish – editor, Jason Cowley, and which relaunched last week with a redesign and a raft of new contributors.
The design is clean and smart, a cross between the Berliner Guardian and Time Out in the early 1980s. I don’t much like slab serif fonts myself, but they seem to be all the rage again, and at least they’ve not gone for Rockwell Bold.

The content is a different matter. The Statesman is, like Tribune, primarily a political weekly of the left, whatever it might do with its back end. And the current issue is not short of must-read material for politicos: Steve Richards is as insightful as usual on the Labour Party and there’s a big, though typically unrevealing, interview with Gordon Brown.

But something isn’t quite right. I’m sorry, but no one who publishes Neil Clark, an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic, can be taken seriously; and announcing that Phillip Blond, the “red Tory” policy-wonk, will be a regular columnist is not – how shall I put it? – a turn-on.

Getting 20 worthy pressure-group types to say what they want from the Labour manifesto was not an inspired idea – and nor was making the cover story for the relaunch issue a list of the 50 most important people in the world. Hey, surprise, surprise, Barack Obama is number one. No one at an editorial conference appears to have made the obvious point that not a single reader gives a damn how New Statesman staffers rank the importance of, er, important people.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. I know from experience that it’s very easy not to get relaunch issues quite right. And the Statesman is hardly alone on the British left in appearing confused about what it is there for and hopelessly lacking in self-confidence – as anyone who was at Labour conference in Brighton this week will tell you.

I’m writing this on Tuesday before Gordon Brown’s keynote speech – the downside of Tribune’s glossy full-colour transformation is that the deadlines are earlier – and by the time you read this, his efforts might have transformed everything, but so far this has been the most surreal Labour conference since the 1970s.

In public, nearly everyone apart from the (utterly marginal) hard left has been on message. I never thought I’d witness delegates giving Peter Mandelson a standing ovation, but on Monday I did, after he delivered quite the weirdest speech I’ve heard from a conference platform since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher.

In private, however, there are very few in Brighton who think that Labour’s “fightback” will work. Even a year ago, there was a hard core of Labour optimists who really believed that the party had a decent chance of winning the next general election. Now, although everyone is still talking the talk about the election being up for grabs, most of last year’s optimists admit that it will take a miracle for Labour to win.

All the same, the mood has been a lot less downbeat than I expected, particularly after that Mandelson speech. There’s no sense that we might as well throw in the towel: if Labour goes down next spring it will do so fighting, not quitting. And who knows? Something might just turn up.

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