Media: Platform: Hilary Wainwright

The sources of left political debate are changing - but the politics of the possible are as challenging as ever
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
When the New Statesman, once the voice of political nonconformity, praises the new Prime Minister because he has made "politics seem once more the art of the possible", (NS, 8 August 1997) I get a spasm of political claustrophobia. Help! Have the boundaries of political debate really become so closed in that the theme tune of that tawdry politician Harold Wilson is today's ode to political achievement?

Politicians are almost bound to succumb to the balance of economic and political forces. The job of a socialist journal is to challenge those narrowing pressures.

Since I edit an upstart journal of the left, the monthly Red Pepper, you might expect me to claim that we can step into the breach. Certainly, we learnt from the New Statesman in its iconoclastic days. My own memories of being an occasional nervous contributor when the regulars were Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Paul Foot and Anna Coote, influence my editorial efforts. We too engage in mainstream political debate rather than snipe from a sideline - that, at least, is our intention.

But we cannot on our own challenge Murdoch's force-fed culture, with its abilities to breed cynicism and powerlessness.

Every day and every week, informed dissent gains sustenance from Channel 4 News, from columnists such as Polly Toynbee in The Independent, Francis Wheen, Paul Foot (again) and Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian, Nick Cohen and much else in Will Hutton's Observer and Neal Ascherson in the Independent on Sunday. But there's still an uneasy defensiveness towards anything outspokenly on the left. It seems like a hangover from the collapse of Communism and the electoral debacles of Labour. It's as if everything to the left of Peter Mandelson has been blamed for Stalinism and Labour's past divisions; as if the new or libertarian left had never been and the SDP and Labour right were blameless for the party's electoral defeats.

The impact of radical journalism on the left has depended on the strength and legitimacy of left politics in Westminster. The last flourish of left journalism was in the early Eighties, when Labour's innovative new left had a national platform at London's County Hall, when the alternative economic strategy and a radical democratic agenda for party and state were still a focus of lively debate. An apparent connection with power provided an aphrodisiac for left journalism, lots of it: New Socialist gained a circulation of over 10,000; a radical New Statesman thrived; Marxism Today relaunched; Richard Gott's Agenda page in The Guardian was indispensable reading.

But we'd go out of business if we depended on the return of a new Labour left to give radical journalism its political buzz. Left journalism will have to make its own way, paying as close attention to challenges to Westminster as to the debates within left-of-centre parliamentary parties. From the alternative culture of direct action with its own hard-hitting broad sheets and bulletins - Squall, Corporate Watch, Schnooze - through to new thinking amongst public sector activists disappointed by the Government, to innovative politics north of the Border and across the Channel, these will be sources of an independent political vigour.

The problems faced by would-be candidates for the space left by the New Statesman, are mainly economic: concerning retail distribution and the difficulty of funding. The ideas, the writers and the practice of creative dissent are there in plenty. In the universities, critical analysts and policy inventors cluster. Some of them, including Red Pepper writers Sheila Rowbotham, Mary Kaldor, Tom Nairn, Colin Leys, Huw Beynon and Tom Shakespeare, are made more of a fuss of in the US, continental Europe and Latin America than in the mainstream London press.

A browse through the London Review of Books, the New Left Review and the newly established quarterly Soundings, will give a sense of the richness of dissenting thought. To reach even the modest 30,000 circulation of New Statesman, however, requires resources rarely available on the left. These days you have to buy yourself on to the shelves of WH Smith and Menzies.

If the political and intellectual confidence is there, ingenious means of dissemination will be found. The Big Issue reaches a readership of 100,000 plus. Red Pepper is working with other left and green magazines. If we can overcome economic constraints and give voice to a diffuse and disenfranchised radical constituency we will expand the limits of the possible, even making the impossible break into politics again. Who knows, our competitive pressure might even push the New Statesman into nonconformity.

The writer is editor of `Red Pepper'

Comments