You'd never think, from talking to the Statesman's staff, that the heat is on. It feels like a charmed little backwater in the stormy weather of London journalism. Yet a storm of sorts has been raging here. It began when a potential buyer, the millionaire novelist Robert Harris, announced that he wanted to resurrect its starry past. "The collapse of the New Statesman has been a minor intellectual and journalistic tragedy for this country," he wrote in The Sunday Times last December. Anger was heard wherever left-wing journalists gathered; how could Harris write publicly what they had all been saying privately for years?
At the time, the Statesman's owner, Geoffrey Robinson, was the Government's Paymaster General, and unable to take much active interest in the magazine. But since the Christmas scandal over his loan to Mandelson, Robinson is out of the Government and able to take a more hands-on role as proprietor. Robert Harris's bid to save the New Statesman from itself has thus met with polite refusal. Yet the magazine's circulation is just over 20,000, and it is said to lose around pounds 10,000 a week. The Spectator, in contrast, has a circulation of 56,000. In other words, Harris had a point.
The Statesman's editor, Peter Wilby, seems unperturbed. We have lunch in a cosy Italian restaurant in Wilton Street, the sort that figures in Amis novels - that's Kingsley, not Martin - and over his tagliatelle and his glass of house white Wilby sets out his comfortable view of what the magazine should be doing. "It should be a relaxing, weekend read," he says. "The sort of magazine you can enjoy over a cup of coffee."
Peter Wilby's fans see that softened touch as a refreshing contrast to his predecessor, Ian Hargreaves. When the magazine appointed Hargreaves, ex-editor of The Independent, as editor in 1996, the Statesman was revolutionisedand identified itself solidly with the emerging New Labour government. The columnist Suzanne Moore remembers going to a party for the New Statesman just after Hargreaves took over. "The parties in the past had always been full of men in beards downing pints in a cellar," she remembers, "and then there we were in the ICA with a lot of young men in suits." So the magazine reflected and magnified the change in the fortunes of the left, moving swiftly from a Seventies fringe meeting to a Nineties cabinet meeting.
"What Hargreaves did with the magazine exactly paralleled what Blair did with his party," says one ex-member of staff. "And he was loved and hated for it, just like Blair." But the limitations of Hargreaves' vision were clear; the magazine's culture may have moved from men in beards to men in suits, but that still left a lot of people out.
The challenge facing Peter Wilby is to push the magazine into a wider arena. There is certainly a lot of good feeling around Wilby, the ex-editor of The Independent on Sunday. But he has been editing the magazine for nearly a year; is he going to make it or break it? He is certainly offering articles that take a wider view on British culture than our taxation policy (take two recent features - Will Self on how British society is too nice, or the columnist Andrew Marr on how it is too spiteful), and a beefed- up back half, where you can find decent arts and books coverage.
There is still a cloud of nostalgia for those early days hanging over the Statesman. When Robert Harris thought of taking it over, he was thinking not just of its future. "The key thing was, I wanted to get back to something that had existed in the past," he told me.
Nobody should underestimate the feeling that lefty hacks have for the good old days of the New Statesman, whether they are looking right back to its first, golden years, when Sidney and Beatrice Webb went for walks along Beachy Head with their friends to talk about launching a new magazine, and Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw played out their arguments there, or whether we are talking about the shiny Seventies, when Anthony Howard got the young James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes to fill its pages.
If you need evidence that the magazine is attached to its past, catch the fact that the server on which the magazine is produced is called the K-drive, after the magazine's second editor, Kingsley Martin, so that the writers can still "send copy to Kingsley". The New Statesman's past history as a club for clever men has always been vividly present to me: my great-grandfather, the maverick liberal journalist SK Ratcliffe put the new into New Statesman, telling Beatrice and Sidney Webb way back in 1913 that "The Statesman" alone was a bad name. With that family history I am keenly aware that if I'm to buy the magazine, I don't actually want it to be something that my forefathers would have bought, but something different.
But Wilby hasn't quite managed to deliver something that feels fresh. The peculiar failing of the magazine - its inability to read like something that was written today rather than last month or last year or 10 years ago - is epitomised in its irredeemably masculine flavour. There are honourable exceptions, including columnist Suzanne Moore. But three weeks ago, of 23 bylined articles on the contents page, a pathetic three were by women. Partly, that maddening absence of women is a result of where the magazine is situated - within Labour Party politics. At the last Labour Party conference the Statesman threw the most crowded party, where young men in suits talked to you with their gaze constantly roaming past your shoulder in case Tony or Gordon or Peter walked through the door. The magazine opens every week with its spoof MP's column, full of in-jokes about New Labour, and proceeds via Steve Richards' inside-track political column and Paul Routledge's gossip about who's in and who's out in Westminster, to a procession of articles that dissect ministers' every move. The magazine has a frankly incestuous relationship with the party top-brass. Magazine staff kept saying things to me that made the lot of them sound like sulky schoolboys. "Whelan wouldn't speak to me for weeks," they said. "Peter wouldn't speak to Ian for months..." "Tony got terrifically angry with John, about an article John wrote about how nobody liked Tony."
It is an open secret that around the time of Ian Hargreaves' departure from the magazine, the first potential editor to be approached was Jonathan Freedland, a columnist on The Guardian who is happy to network in New Labour circles. Freedland was sounded out by Geoffrey Robinson together with Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls, during a series of very private meetings. In the end, he decided not to go for the editorship - but the discussions were being held right in the heart of the New Labour club.
And that little clique is famously exclusive. One female journalist who would have been a real runner for the editorship after Hargreaves' departure, told me frankly why she decided not to go for it. "If it had meant spending half my evenings with Clare Short and Mo Mowlam, that would have been one thing. But I knew perfectly well that it would have meant spending all my time with people like Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls, those ferociously self-important, opinionated men with a sense of humour bypass, and I just looked at that sort of life with dread and horror. I thought, if you can't hack it, don't do it. So I didn't."
The second time I visit the magazine, I am glad to see the deputy editor, Cristina Odone, in action. A throaty-voiced Italian-American, Odone previously edited The Catholic Herald. Now she throws herself around that subdued office in a rush, running into Peter's office, honeying and babying all the staff, whispering on the telephone, promising copy every moment.
Despite her great social charm, which can be seen as fluffiness, Odone has serious intentions. She wants the magazine to become more of a platform for women writers and women's issues. Eighty per cent of the readers are men, and she wants that to change. "There are two voices that you didn't see in the magazine in the past," she says, "that of youth and that of womanhood. This isn't just a problem of the left - it's a problem of an industry, journalism, that has ghettoised women's issues. I'm talking about trying to make the difference between a macho magazine that just does politics with a capital P, and one that takes on board everything else and sees that women are not to be excluded."
Interestingly, when I ask Peter Wilby what pieces he has been proudest to publish, the very first article he mentions is one that Helen Wilkinson wrote last autumn, about how Labour politics has become a club for masculine control freaks. Wilkinson is a co-founder of Demos and her piece focused on a swell of anger among women who felt betrayed by the feminine window- dressing on an essentially masculine pursuit of power. She argued for a politics in which "the boys at the heart of New Labour" could learn to surrender some of their power.
She is right. And it's only if the New Statesman attempts to break down the cosy, masculine coterie that keeps a stranglehold on political debate that it will appeal again to a large audience.Reuse content