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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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How will Theresa May meet her commitment to low-earners?

The Prime Minister will soon need to translate generalities into specifics. 

The curtailed Conservative leadership contest (which would not have finished yet) meant that Theresa May had little chance to define her agenda. But of the statements she has made since becoming prime minister, the most notable remains her commitment to lead a government "driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours." 

When parliament returns on 5 September, and the autumn political season begins, May will need to translate this generality into specifics. The defining opportunity to do so will be the Autumn Statement. Originally intended by George Osborne to be a banal update of economic forecasts, this set-piece more often resembled a second Budget. Following the momentous Brexit vote, it certainly will under Philip Hammond. 

The first priority will be to demonstrate how the government will counter the threat of recession. Osborne's target of a budget surplus by 2020 has wisely been abandoned, granting the new Chancellor the freedom to invest more in infrastructure (though insiders make it clear not to expect a Keynesian splurge).

As well as stimulating growth, Hammond will need to reflect May's commitment to those "just managing" rather than the "privileged few". In her speech upon becoming prime minister, she vowed that "when it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you". A natural means of doing so would be to reduce VAT, which was increased to a record high of 20 per cent in 2010 and hits low-earners hardest. Others will look for the freeze on benefit increases to be lifted (with inflation forecast to rise to 3 per cent next year). May's team are keenly aware of the regressive effect of loose monetary policy (low interest rates and quantitative easing), which benefits wealthy asset-owners, and vow that those who lose out will be "compensated" elsewhere. 

A notable intervention has come from Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee. He has called for the government to revive the publication of distributional analyses following Budgets and Autumn Statements, which was ended by George Osborne last year (having been introduced by the coalition in 2010). 

In a letter to Hammond, Tyrie wrote: "I would be grateful for an assurance that you will reinstate the distributional analysis of the effects of the budget and autumn statement measures on household incomes, recently and mistakenly discontinued by your predecessor." He added: "The new prime minister is committing her government to making Britain a country that works 'not for a privileged few, but for every one of us'. A high level of transparency about the effects of tax and welfare policy on households across the income distribution would seem to be a logical, perhaps essential starting point." 

Whether the government meets this demand will be an early test of how explicit it intends to be in reducing disparities. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.