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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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Interview: Momentum’s vice chair Jackie Walker on unity, antisemitism, and discipline in Labour

The leading pro-Corbyn campaigner sets out her plan for the party.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters celebrate after his second win, Jackie Walker – vice chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign organisation Momentum, a Labour member and an activist – talks about the result and the next steps for Labour’s membership.

Walker is a controversial figure in the party. Her history as a black anti-racism activist and advocate for Palestine, and her Jewish background on both sides of her family, did not keep her from being accused of antisemitism for a February Facebook post about the African slave trade. In May, she was suspended from the Labour party for her comments, only to be reinstated a few weeks later after a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee.

Anger was reignited at an event hosted by Momentum that she spoke at during Labour party conference, on whether Labour has an antisemitism problem. Walker said the problem was “exaggerated” by Corbyn’s critics, and used as a “weapon of political mass destruction” by the media. (We spoke to Walker before this debate took place).

After a summer plagued by suspensions of Labour members, accusations of hateful speech on both sides, and calls for civility, Walker discusses what steps need to be taken forward to help bring the party together.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke in his acceptance speech about wiping the slate clean and the need to unite the party. What steps can members from all sides take to unite the party?

I think people have got to stop using antagonistic language with each other, and I think they’ve got to stop looking for ways to undermine the democratic will of the membership. That has now been plainly stated, and that’s even with something like 120,000 members not getting their vote because of the freeze. He has increased his majority – we all need to acknowledge that.

Is there anything that Corbyn’s supporters need to do – or need not to do – to contribute towards unity?

I can’t speak for the whole of Jeremy’s supporters, who are numbered in their hundreds and thousands; I know that in my Labour group, we are always bending over backwards to be friendly and to try and be positive in all of our meetings. So I think we just have to keep on being that – continue trying to win people over by and through our responses.

I was knocking doors for Labour last week in support of a local campaign protesting the planned closure of several doctors’ surgeries – I spoke to a voter on a door who said that they love the Labour party but felt unable to vote for us as long as Corbyn is leader. What should we say to voters like that?

The first thing I do is to ask them why they feel that way; most of the time, what I find is that they’ve been reading the press, which has been rabid about Jeremy Corbyn. In all the research that we and others have done, the British public agree overwhelmingly with the policies espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, so we’ve got to get on the doorstep and start talking about policies. I think that sometimes what happens in constituency Labour party groups is that people are saying “go out there and canvass but don’t mention Jeremy”. I think that we need to do the opposite – we need to go out there and talk about Jeremy and his policies all the time.

Now that Corbyn has a stronger mandate and we’ve had these two programmes on Momentum: Channel 4’s Dispatches and BBC’s Panorama, which were explanations of the group, Momentum’s role will be pivotal. How can Momentum contribute towards party unity and get its membership out on the doorstep?

I think we have to turn our base into an activist base that goes out there and starts campaigning – and doesn’t just campaign during elections but campaigns all the time, outside election time. We have to do the long campaign.

The Corbyn campaign put out a video that was subsequently withdrawn – it had been condemned by the pressure group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which has filed a disciplinary complaint against him. What are your thoughts on the video?

I find their use of accusations of antisemitism reprehensible – I am an anti-racist campaigner and I think they debase the whole debate around anti-racism and I think they should be ashamed of themselves. There is nothing wrong with that video that anyone could look at it and say this is antisemitic. I would suggest that if people have doubt, they should look at the video and judge for themselves whether it is antisemitic.

There’s been a compliance process over the last several months that’s excluded people from the party for comments on social media. Now that Corbyn is in again, how should compliance change?

One of the issues is that we have gotten Jeremy back in as leader, but control of the NEC is still under question. Until the NEC actually accepts the recommendations of Chakrabati in terms of the workings of disciplinary procedures, then I think we’re going to be forever embroiled in these kinds of convoluted and strange disciplinary processes that no other political party would either have or put up with.

There have been rumours that Corbyn’s opponents will split from the party, or mount another leadership challenge. What do you think they’ll do?

I have absolutely no idea – there are so many permutations about how this game could now be played – and I say game because I think that there are some who are Jeremy’s opponents who kind of see it as a power game. I read a tweet somewhere saying that the purpose of this leadership election – which has damaged Labour hugely – has nothing to do with the idea that actually Owen Smith, his challenger, could have won, but is part of the process to actually undermine Jeremy. I think people like that should really think again about why they’re in the Labour party and what it is they’re doing.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.