No, not that New Statesman

The weekly that used to be the leading journal of the left seems to be putting its money where its mouth has never been, Rob Brown reports

When the Conservatives converge on the genteel Sussex coastal resort of Eastbourne next month for their annual conference, some may be startled to see the words New Statesman emblazoned on their delegate pack. But this won't be a reference to the TV sitcom whose central character, the slimy, philandering Alan B'Stard, seems to have become an inspiring role model for certain sadly non-fictitious but now washed-up Tory MPs.

It will be a plug for the New Statesman magazine. The idea of that publication sponsoring anything at a Tory Party conference would, not so long ago, have struck most media-savvy folk as utterly unthinkable. Not just because the "Staggers", as its nickname suggests, was always staggering on the edge of insolvency, but because it was always decidedly left-of-centre.

Readers of the NS might never have been in precise agreement about the best route to British socialism, but they were united in their total contempt for the Tories.

But nothing is the same as before in Blair's Britain. What Tory delegates will find tucked in their delegates' packs next month, alongside their conference agenda, is a decidedly new New Statesman.

Saved from the brink of bankruptcy 18 months ago by the wealthy Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, the NS no longer projects itself as a pinko journal, but is now pitched at political junkies of all persuasions.

Today you are less likely to find John Pilger opining on its pages than Simon Heffer, a right-wing polemicist, who has become a regular contributor. But the general tone - broadly Blairite and highly cerebral if not sombre - is set by associate editor John Lloyd, who often contributes several pieces per issue.

To some this move into the political mainstream is a betrayal of the magazine's radical principles and tradition. Steve Platt, who edited the NS from 1991 to the end of 1995, when Robinson bought it, laughed out loud when informed by Media+ of the Tory marketing move.

"I don't know what I find more amusing - the fact that they have so much money splashing around to sponsor such a thing or that they choose to spend it in this way," he said. "This simply confirms that the New Statesman has ceased to be a magazine of dissent and has become a magazine of the new political establishment. No doubt Geoffrey Robinson considers that money well spent."

But to those, like Platt, who would ask "what does it profit a left-wing weekly if it gains a sugar daddy and loses its socialist soul?", the publisher of the New Statesman has at least one ready retort: sales of the NS in the first six months of this year surged to 25,380, a rise of 24 per cent from the previous half-year. The circulation was just over 17,000 when Robinson rescued it.

The New Statesman is still selling only half what The Spectator shifts each week, but it should start to return comfortably to the black if it can continue on its present upward curve and go comfortably above 30,000.

The two men spearheading its recovery strategy appear supremely confident that this can be achieved. "A lot of people used to view the New Statesman as being out of the the loop, even a bit loopy, but it's a lot more worldly now," says Spencer Neal, who was appointed publisher three months ago. "We won't turn away any potential reader because of their voting habits."

Young and sharp-suited, Neal is fluent in marketing speak. "We're the fastest-growing political/current affairs weekly in the country, the magazine of the moment," he enthuses.

Neal's high-flier image is confirmed when you find out that he managed two aviation titles for Euromoney, a subsidiary of the Daily Mail & General Trust, before taking up the challenge of reviving the New Statesman - a task he views as a purely commercial challenge rather than a political crusade.

He sums up the challenge in totally unsentimental language: "It's interesting to be managing a consumer title in the UK as opposed to a business-to- business title overseas."

The man who is getting a hefty salary to move the editorial content of the magazine into the mainstream, Ian Hargreaves, is also commercially switched-on, having previously been deputy editor of the Financial Times and briefly editor of The Independent.

"Our USP [unique selling proposition] is that we know a lot about, and have a lot to say about, politics," he says. "At a time of huge flux in politics, people interested in political ideas and policy development need to be open-minded and broadminded in terms of what they consider."

The need for open-mindedness, he argues, is now widely understood on the left of British politics and the same outlook will have to be embraced by William Hague and the Tories if they are to claw their way back from the political wilderness.

"But it would be completely fallacious to read into our sponsorship of a Conservative conference delegate pack that we're trying to appeal to Tories by thinking the way we do. We wholly, uncompromisingly attacked the Major administration and are not exactly friendly to Conservative thinking in general."

"The New Statesman hasn't lost its soul. The soul of socialism had to modernise and come to terms with all sorts of change. Anyone whose values are passionately egalitarian has to apply them in some realistic way. If socialism is something other than that then they can have it."

Suggestions that Robinson is calling the editorial tune are also firmly rebutted by the publisher. Spencer Neal points out that the moment he became Britain's Paymaster-General, the New Statesman's general paymaster ensured that his connection with a political magazine could not conflict with his public duties. He handed over control of the magazine to a blind trust.

Hargreaves isn't a member of the Labour Party, but he doesn't disguise his burning faith in Tony Blair. "From the moment it was possible that he could become Labour's leader I recognised that Blair, whose values I share to a considerable extent, was the political opportunity of my lifetime," he enthuses.

"It seemed like a good time to get stuck into the political arguments, which is something I can do here. I've got a famous weakness for being interested in political ideas. In the long run it's ideas which drive politics.

"But there's a world of ideas which the papers don't touch at all. Even the broadsheets are under intense pressure to appeal to 18-year-old Spice Girls' fans. I don't have that particular commercial pressure here. I'm free to follow my own instincts about politics and what people are interested in and arguing about."

But can a weekly magazine whose circulation is still only a tenth the size of the FT really influence the political agenda that much? "The New Statesman can have influence way beyond its size," replies Hargreaves, who demonstrated this splendidly early this year by shrewdly publishing a string of interviews - most notably with Clare Short - which reverberated on the front pages of broadsheets and tabloids alike.

It hasn't had a scoop for a while, but it certainly seems to be more widely read at Westminster than it has been for some time. A fresh new survey of MPs' reading habits shows that 42 per cent of all MPs read the NS (second only to Private Eye). The survey, conducted by Harris Research Centre for The House Magazine, confirmed that the vast majority of its subscribers were on the Government (ie Labour) benches. A lot of Tories still tend to see it as a left-wing rag.

That perception could change after Eastbourne. Even if it doesn't, there is still a strong likelihood that Alan B'Stard will soon be adding the New Statesman to his reading list. In the wake of Labour's landslide victory, Rik Mayall revealed that he was toying with bringing back the amoral B'Stard in a new series of The New Statesman - as a Labour MPn

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