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Laurie Penny on opinion journalism: Columnists now are like street performers – collecting coins in a hat and dodging angry racists

By 70, will I be screeching about immigrants from an enormous throne made of my clippings?

People keep asking me when I’m planning to sell out. Over the past 100 years of British punditry, the trajectory of the angry young leftist columnist growing up to develop a taste for smart dining, Botox and bigotry has been well established. I’m told that it’ll happen whether I want it to or not: no matter how many communiqués I read or marches I go on, by 35 I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrats and by 70, presuming my hate-hardened arteries make it that far, I’ll be screeching about immigrants froman enormous throne made of my clippings, clutching a set of pearls that once belonged to Maggie Thatcher. This is nonsense. Even if I had the inclination, there won’t be a Liberal Democrat party to vote for when I’m 35.

The New Statesman’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, believed in 1913 that sincere political writing could move hearts and minds and bring about social change. The European tradition of radical opinionating has deteriorated since the days when George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf wrote for these pages and expected to make a positive difference. In 1968 Ulrike Meinhof wrote: “Columnism is a personality cult. Through columnism, the left-wing position . . . is reduced to the position of one individual, an isolated individual, to the views of an original, outrageous, nonconformist individual, who can be co-opted because, in being alone, they are powerless.”

It’s worth noting that, a few years later, Meinhof decided that armed insurrection was a more efficient route to the revolution she wanted to see and helped form the militant Red Army Faction. For Meinhof, the pen may have been mightier than the sword but home-made explosives got the job done quicker.

She was wrong about at least one thing: columnists do still have power.

Unfortunately, it is easier to wield that power in the service of lazy reaction than use it to change the world for the better. Right now, as the British newspaper industry panics about its vanishing returns, “star” writers are encouraged to abandon nuance and say the most shocking, hateful things they can think of to attract controversy. They target welfare claimants, women, minorities, immigrants, disabled people, single parents and, if all else fails, each other.

This produces casualties. It spreads suspicion in communities, provokes incoherent violence and murders compassion. Last month, Lucy Meadows, a woman hounded by the media and attacked for being transsexual in an article by Rod Liddle or Richard Littlejohn – forgive me, I can never tell the difference – took her own life.

Hate and empty controversy are used to titillate readers and advertisers. The rightwing and centre-right press is dominated by largely indistinguishable, middle-aged bigots, most but not all of them men, who know each other and are paid handsomely to make prejudice palatable. When they bother to engage with their readers, they do so with deep distaste, outraged that mere civilians have dared to answer back. Fortunately, a change is coming.

On 4 April, Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor responsible for, among other things, the front page that blamed victims of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster for the tragedy, started a new online column for the Telegraph. A day later, the column was cancelled. Editors have begun to realise that their readers have the power to coordinate their disgust.

The elitism and entitlement that have long poisoned the British commentariat are beginning to disappear and, despite itself, the industry is becoming more ethical. Eventually, one hopes, the Littlejohns and MacKenzies of this world will be relegated to a time loop of irrelevance in which they can attend the same awards ceremonies, drink the same champagne and eat the same olives for ever while more competent people get on with capturing the public consciousness.

I count myself extremely lucky to have grown up as a political writer in the age of the internet. Suddenly, where once there were only a few privileged pundits talking to each other and expecting the proles to listen, there are writers from all walks of life producing dazzling, meaningful prose and finding their audience. I’m part of a growing cohort of reporters and columnists who are not surprised when our readers chat to us like old friends, correct our mistakes or call us unprintable things in the comment section – because we started out online and have never experienced anything else.

The most forward-thinking “dead-tree” magazines and papers, including the New Statesman, have recruited hard from this new cohort, treating the internet as an extension of their editorial mission. They have understood that the age in which middle-aged white men pontificated from rarefied platforms and expected to be listened to is over.

To be a columnist today is no longer to stand on a stage alone, reciting marvellous soliloquies while a paying audience waits to applaud. Apart from anything else, few publications can now afford to fork out the kinds of salaries that make principled writers lose perspective. Being a columnist today is more like being a street performer – collecting coins in a battered suitcase, telling stories about a better world and understanding that the audience might change the story.

It’s hard work, because you’re competing with everyone else on the block, including the drunk, deranged old racist shouting abuse and the naked exhibitionist who does - n’t ask for money, and you have to move fast to avoid the pelted sandwiches and, occasionally, the police. In other words, it’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.