In the polarised world we now inhabit, where so many media outlets seem to pursue a set agenda and so many readers seem happy to have their prejudices reinforced, it is refreshing when an editor takes a different course entirely.
The New Statesman's Jason Cowley did just that this month when he published, over nine pages, an interview with Theresa May, the left-leaning magazine’s first such engagement with a serving Conservative prime minister since Winston Churchill was in Downing Street.
Cowley put the Tory leader on the cover and, over 6,000 words, respectfully analysed her political record, her worldview and future plans. It was intended as a service to the title’s readership, despite its overwhelmingly hostile stance towards the party May represents, attempting to make sense of a political leader who is sometimes characterised as an inscrutable opportunist.
“Did I like her? I didn’t dislike her,” he admits. “I take her seriously. I quite want my politicians to be austere and not flashy and not to play the games that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove play – the op-ed columnist approach to politics. I don’t want that, these are really serious times.”
While the New Statesman has itself made a conscious effort to become more serious in these serious times, making such long essays a hallmark of its revitalised brand, Cowley was nonetheless taking a risk in giving a Tory such star billing, without turning her into an Aunt Sally.
Left being left behind?
The Statesman, 30-40 years ago, treated the rise of Margaret Thatcher with disdain. Some of its writers from that time may still feel they were on the right side of history in doing so. But Cowley believes that was a mistake which failed the readers. “We are taking May seriously, looking at her ideas, and that’s what the Statesman didn’t do in the 80s with Thatcher - they just dismissed her,” he says. “They never understood that this was a fundamental shift and the left were sort of left behind. And again I think we have entered a period of right-wing hegemony and the left don’t really understand that, sadly.”
So convinced is Cowley of this point that he later observes: “You are looking at a Labour Party that is out of power I think until 2030, possibly 2035, unless there is some cataclysm.”
These words might seem extraordinary from the steward of one of UK media’s most illustrious left-of-centre titles, founded in 1913 by two icons of British Socialism, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. But Cowley, who has during eight years in the editor’s chair steadily repositioned the Statesman to become a less partisan journal of contemporary politics and culture, says that the magazine had “become like the house journal of the Labour Party” and “that’s no good to anybody”.
The Statesman itself might be directly linked to the Fabians but its modern incarnation also has roots in a graveyard of other leftist titles that it has absorbed down the years, including New Society, the Nation and Weekend Review. Ironically, given Cowley’s barely concealed cynicism towards Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to revive Labour by taking it to to left, the editor has recently taken inspiration from another of these NS constituents, Marxism Today, which he praises for being more attuned than the Statesman to the impact of the Iron Lady.
He has borrowed the “New Times” label with Marxism Today’s Stuart Hall coined in 1988 to signal the defining impact of Thatcherism, and adopted it for a series of podcasts and essays dedicated to making sense of a world in flux. “I don’t think anyone would doubt that something profound is happening,” says Cowley. This week’s magazine edition uses the New Times headline as a gateway to examine cultural change, from the collapse of the press to pornography becoming mainstream.
'The Statesman is unpredictable'
By challenging the readership, Cowley is offering something different from the echo chambers of social media feeds, which left so many of the liberal left feeling dazed and confused by the outcomes of the EU referendum and the US election. “The Statesman is unpredictable and I think that’s what’s making it more successful than we have been in a long time,” says the editor.
The title now considers itself a “print-digital hybrid” and its success online - where it outperforms the rival and right-leaning political periodical The Spectator – has been crucial to ensuring that it still exists at all. The website registered peak online traffic of over 4 million monthly unique visitors and 27 million monthly page views in 2016, an almost 400 per cent increase in traffic since 2011. The magazine’s circulation, though still small, has moved steadily northwards from 24,000 in 2010 to 34,006, the highest figure since Margaret Thatcher’s first term in Number Ten.
Its digital reach has been driven by smart young writers such as Stephen Bush and Helen Lewis but the “Staggers”, as it is sometimes called, is becoming increasingly marked out by its long essays, exemplified by John Gray’s The Closing of the Liberal Mind, an assessment of the new world order that was widely read in Westminster and in America, which contributes 40% of the website’s traffic.
Cowley claims “the push back hasn’t been extreme” against his decision to lead with his “The May Doctrine” interview with a Tory PM. “The Statesman readers are loyal and intelligent and they let you know if they are unhappy with something. One person accused me of prostrating myself before power but on the whole the letters have been really constructive; they thought we did the right thing in talking to her, they thought we could have pushed her more on things like the NHS, but on the whole they were pretty open-minded.”
It may be that those at the Momentum end of the Labour Party have already given up on Cowley. “In the last two or three years we have changed the readership a lot,” he says. “Some of those unreconstructed left wing readers who want a more aggressive approach have probably left us.” In December, the editor published a long interview with Jeremy Corbyn, after he accompanied the Labour leader and his wife on a trip to Prague. It was headlined “The Last Comrade” and noted how Corbyn carried his past with him “like a ball and chain” and was apparently unconcerned by Labour losing its deposit in the Richmond by-election. But it was also a 7,000-word piece (even longer than the May piece) and an earnest attempt to understand its subject.
“I’ve never been a member of a political party and I don’t see my role as a journalist is to get a certain party into power,” Cowley says. “It’s to try and document and interrogate the defining complexities of our times.”
For all this, New Statesman still remains in touch with its origins, he says. “We still hold a liberal editorial line, that is our position. We lean left and we are an open-minded liberal title. But we are also interested in ideas.” The core staff is tiny, just 15 people, but is comprised of “an interesting mix of conventional Labour people, London liberals... and my politics are more sceptical”, Cowley says. “I’m not really a cheerleader for any party.”
During the EU Referendum he was a “reluctant Remainer”, he says. “I see the EU as a failing project, sadly. Because of the crisis of the Eurozone, because of the collapse of the Schengen free movement zone, the failure of the Dublin agreement, and also the austerity that has been imposed on the southern Eurozone economies – just go to Greece or Portugal or Spain and the youth unemployment rate is 50 per cent or above. This isn’t a thriving bloc.”
But that same Referendum campaign exposed the limited outlooks of other UK media, he believes. The BBC’s studiously neutral performance was “feeble”, he says. “Its own experts weren’t even allowed to weigh the evidence.”
Much of the press resorted to a “very programmatic” reporting pattern designed to support an editorial agenda. “There wasn’t an open minded approach but a political approach.”
Although Cowley worked for the Observer and the Times (which he praises for the range of its current op-ed pages), his model for the New Statesman has always been the great American magazine titles, especially the Atlantic.
He detests the polarised stance of many UK news outlets. “I really hate that. Some New Statesman writers, when I took over, had a preconceived worldview and everything had to conform to the fixed position. They are the good guys and everything fits into this binary or Manichean world view. They won’t approach things sceptically and you see that with a lot of journalism on both left and right – sadly too much of the British media is like that.”
The Statesman even carries a literary column this week titled “How Reading a Book You Disagree With Sharpens Your Thinking”. But in an era when social media seems to put even greater pressure on publications to have a well-defined political identity, it remains to be seen how big an audience Cowley can find with his model of unpredictability.
He acknowledges that the UK does not have a “liberal elite” on the scale of that in America, where titles with similarly high-minded ideals to the New Statesman continue to thrive even under President Trump. “One of the great frustrations and sadness for me, is that the great American publications are liberal titles – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, they all lean left, whereas in this country it is dominated by the right in quite an alarming way. And a particular kind of right wing; strident and neoconservative in its outlook.”
The New Statesman talks a lot about a neo-liberal era (“Theresa May gets this”, Cowley says, pointing out proudly that his magazine is read inside Downing Street).
But the magazine is not about to call for a fresh political movement of the centre left. Cowley, who has consulted Labour rebels on the subject, says the new movements of Spain and France could not have been born in the UK. “When you have a constituency-based first past the post system, it is incredibly difficult to form a new party.”
Instead of splitting up, the Labour Party will fight on, he believes. “Labour could fall as low as 25-26pc in the vote and still return about 180-190 MPs, which is quite a lot. They can’t win power at the moment, there’s no chance of that, but they can remain a very powerful bloc at Westminster.” The “Last Comrade”, he feels, will “suffer a historic defeat” and the party will “regroup”.
But then being Labour’s “house journal” is no longer the Statesman’s job. Its task is to “get a sense of exactly what it is that is going on”, in a world where “new winds are blowing”, Cowley says.
“If we were just turning up every week, knocking out columns about Corbyn and the Labour Party what a bore that would be for everyone.”
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell