A statesmanlike way to boost sales

Ian Hargreaves, editor of the `New Statesman', is gaining readers as the centre-left regroups. By David Walker
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The (new) New Statesman has had a good summer. Steve Richards, the magazine's political editor, says they were lucky - a pre-booked interview with Clare Short was rearranged to take place on the day she was demoted. She used it to let rip and the New Statesman garnered reams of free publicity, without giving too much offence to Tony Blair's inner circle. (Richards does a wicked impersonation of the media guru Peter Mandelson reclining on a sofa, mobile phone in hand, dispensing brickbats.)

A few weeks later came more of the same with an outburst on Europe by MP Austen Mitchell, reinforcing the magazine's claim to be the place where the Labour Party defines itself in print.

Next week it is seeking to boost circulation by giving every delegate attending the Labour Party conference in Blackpool a free copy of the magazine, though a high proportion of Labour activists are likely already to be regular readers. (Ian Hargreaves, the editor, says the New Statesman has the highest penetration among Labour MPs of any print medium, with the exception of The House magazine.)

Since April, circulation, now at 23,000 copies a week, has risen by 26 per cent. The aim is to double it within two or three years. But for that to happen Hargreaves needs two things. One is the continuing indulgence of its millionaire owner, the Coventry MP and industrialist Geoffrey Robinson. The second is for Hargreaves to pull off the neat journalistic trick of appearing to be on the Blairite inner track while boosting circulation outside the charmed circle of Labour supporters - those who last Friday would eagerly have ripped open the cellophane wrapping on their Statesman to get at its editor's "special selection" from the writings and speeches of the Great Leader.

Like Kubla Khan, Robinson has fabulous tales told of his wealth - which includes the Tuscan villa where Blair sojourned in August. Estimates of how much he is prepared to spend on the New Statesman vary - there is talk of millions - but he does seem to be in for the long haul. For once in its chequered history the New Statesman has effective commercial management.

In party circles, Robinson is regarded as less close to Blair than to the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown. As one observer put it, "the real fun starts eight months into a new Labour government when Gordon is making a mess. Will they write really critical pieces when Geoffrey Robinson's hand is poised above his latest cheque for pounds 250,000?"

Hargreaves is not a Labour Party member and bridles at suggestions that anything would supplant his journalist's instinct for a good story. The New Statesman would do to a Labour minister what The Spectator did to Nicholas Ridley - publish a story that cost him his job.

That is not really an issue, says Hargreaves, because there are bigger fish to fry than individuals. Under him the New Statesman aspires to be the vehicle of a grand political realignment of the centre and left in Britain, which necessarily involves much of what Blair stands for - in terms, for example, of decoupling Labour from the unions.

But the journalistic challenge facing Hargreaves - formerly editor of The Independent and before that editor of news and current affairs at the BBC - is to cultivate the sense that his magazine can attract a sufficiently broad readership. Its identity - the reason for reading it - is that the magazine is committed to a political project. But the more tightly its identity is defined, the narrower its circulation. Hargreaves extols, as you might expect, the magazine's arts and cultural coverage but acknowledges that its heart and soul remain in its front half, devoted to politics.

The Short and Mitchell episodes helped dispel the idea, as Hargreaves puts it, that the New Statesman is merely a Blair fan club publication. All the same, political editor Steve Richards is acutely conscious that access to Labour's leader is a vital ingredient in the magazine's success. Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary, know it too. If Blair gets to Downing Street they are unlikely to be stinting in their use of inducements and penalties in order to get good coverage.

Hargreaves cites the magazine's history - it was the marriage of the Fabian Statesman and the Keynesian-Liberal Nation - for he clearly sees an opening to the centre. He envisages more "stuff directly relevant to the Liberal Democrats" to complement recent interviews with Paddy Ashdown and other articles deliberately aimed at them. "We want to be involved in political debate in all its contours," he says.

This kind of ambition irks some New Statesman readers within the party. Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune (circulation around 8,000) calls the New Statesman a "must read", but adds that he is unsure of what it stands for. David Goodhart, editor of the leftish-intellectual Prospect (with a monthly circulation, including several thousand giveaways, of 15,000) says it tends to rely too much on "Fleet Street's usual suspects".

The New Statesman's success or failure will be a test of how far political interest translates into an appetite for political journalism. During the past decade, the decline of "socialism" as Labour's ideology has been matched by a decline in the number of left-wing periodicals. New Socialist and Labour Weekly have gone; left-wing Tribune staggers on, just. Arthur Scargill's new Socialist News is unlikely to give the New Statesman much competition.

Will "Blairism" see the market for centre-leftish journalism revive? Hargreaves has to hope that the changed political mood of the country and the rise of Labour in the polls will keep his circulation moving till election day, and beyond.