The Labour millionaire who saved 'Statesman'

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The Independent Online
IN the mid-Sixties, a young researcher at Transport House, then Labour's headquarters, used to rush out every Friday to buy a copy of the New Statesman "to see what was going on in the party".

Thirty years later, and now a millionaire, Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson has agreed to buy the Statesman lock, stock and barrel in a costly move to make it once again required reading on the Left and beyond.

Negotiations to buy the weekly periodical, which was placed in administration last month, are virtually certain to be approved by the courts over the next few days. A new editor to replace Steve Platt will be in place by next week at the latest.

Interviewed in his eighth-floor penthouse overlooking Park Lane and the Serpentine yesterday, Mr Robinson promised "an engagement at once critical and constructive" with New Labour.

The MP for Coventry North West, first elected in 1976, is to take over the title's pounds 125,000 overdraft and will buy the loan stock of pounds 250,000 over a four-year period. Circulation of the New Statesman & Society has fallen to an all-time low of 20,000. The balance sheet is "very weak" and the paper is losing money.

Money is something Mr Robinson can bring to the party. His global engineering firm, TransTec, of which he is non-executive chairman, has an annual turnover of pounds 200m. He made his own fortune and is said to have married another. He plans to turn the business round within two years, hiking the circulation up to 30,000, at which stage it becomes profitable. Labour has 200,000 new members, he points out: "Five per cent of them would be enough."

But what will they get? New writers, he promises: a new columnist, a new diarist. The right-wing Spectator should not have all the best tunes. He wants the best talent for the arts pages - music, film, drama and book reviews - and he is prepared to pay for it.

Despite the fact that he is a Labour MP, the first such proprietor since it was founded in 1913 by the Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Mr Robinson argues that the paper has got to be independent of the party line. "All the people I have spoken to have been given that assurance and it will be maintained," he says. Then he rather spoils the effect by saying: "The leadership and the parliamentary party recognise that."

As a previous distinguished editor, Tony Howard, put it: "While the paper still mattered, Labour chieftains always tended to regard it as a thorn in their side. But at least they felt the thorn, and it may be on occasion it served as a goad."

Just how much of a goad it will prove to be depends critically on the choice of editor. A remarkable range of journalists have shown interest, or have been asked to show interest: Sarah Baxter, associate editor (politics) of the Observer; Ian Hargreaves, former editor of the Independent and his former deputy, Martin Jacques, who once edited the failed Marxism Today; Richard Stott, ex-editor of the Daily Mirror and Today; Francis Wheen, hilarious biographer of Tom Driberg, who writes for Private Eye and the Guardian; and David Goodhart, editor of the monthly Prospect.

Surrounded by his collection of oriental sculptures, paintings and Persian rugs, Mr Robinson sighs for the New Statesman of his youth and vows to recreate it: "It was part of my life all those years, in a much more vital way than it is now. We must get back to that." He will be content with a light touch on the tiller. There will be no proprietor's suite in the NS's Hackney offices. "The main thing is to get the editor first, and let him do what he wants to do," he says.

It will not be possible to restore the 100,000 circulation of its heyday, Mr Robinson concedes, because the market has changed and there are more competitors. But his medium-term plan is to get it back up to 40,000 over a five-year period.

By next spring, he hopes, there will be a Labour government and the NS will be in a position to contribute to, and lead, the debate on political direction. "It cannot be slavish support [for the government], and equally, an unthinking knee-jerk criticism is no use to anyone either. It should become a key element in the evolution of Labour Party thinking," he says. He agrees that "there will be moments when everybody will not see eye to eye. But that is a fact of life."

So is the comprehensive rubbishing dished out by Labour's spin-doctors when NS contributors have expressed any serious criticism of New Labour.

Mr Robinson sees the prospect of "controversial contributions from the other side" and, when pressed, says: "Occasionally, somebody putting the other point of view. One of the mistakes that magazines can make is to be controversial for the sake of it, and that just becomes tiresome." There will be nothing like the Spectator's infamous "Germans" interview of Nicholas Ridley that cost him his Cabinet post. "No, no, I don't want that," says the new proprietor. It may be assumed that the new Statesman will not be relaunched, as it was in 1993, with a cover story about John Major and a female caterer.