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12 April 2023

“It was an absolute riot”: nine New Statesman political editors reunite

As the magazine turns 110, its lobby team reflect on four tumultuous decades of the Westminster beat.

By New Statesman

On a day of torrential rain towards the end of March, eight former New Statesman political editors and commentators squeezed into the magazine’s smart but small podcast studio: five of them in person, including one couple (Andrew Marr and Jackie Ashley), and three appearing remotely by video link – from Washington DC, New York and Brighton. Some knew each other well; others had never met; together they spanned more than 40 years of the magazine’s political life. Helen Lewis, the former NS deputy editor and now a writer at the Atlantic magazine, recorded her interview a week later.

Most have continued to work in and around Westminster. Patrick Wintour joined the NS  in the 1970s, later becoming chief political commentator of the Guardian; he is now the newspaper’s diplomatic editor. Sarah Baxter joined in 1990, before a distinguished career at the Sunday Times; she is now director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting in New York. Steve Richards and Jackie Ashley joined before and after the 1997 Tony Blair landslide, respectively, before going on to write for the Independent (Richards) and the Guardian (Ashley); Richards is now a broadcaster and Ashley a trustee of the National Brain Appeal.

Mehdi Hasan, Helen Lewis and Rafael Behr covered the Cameron-Clegg coalition; Hasan went on to host US television shows, while Behr is now a Guardian columnist. They were succeeded by Stephen Bush, now assistant editor at the Financial Times, and then Andrew Marr, the NS’s current political editor and the chair of our discussion. He began by asking his predecessors about their first memories of the magazine.

Celebrating 110 years of the New Statesman

Andrew Marr: I’m going to ask everybody to introduce themselves, and remind us who the editor was at the time, because the New Statesman has hopped around London like a demented kangaroo for years.

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Patrick Wintour: My editor was the wonderful Anthony Howard [editor 1972-78], and I’m here under false pretences because I was never the political editor. I arrived straight from university and James Fenton wrote the political column. My chief memory was that I had to take calls on the internal phone system, from Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, to go and play table tennis in the basement. My other real job was to go out to lunch with Christopher Hitchens, which was incredibly time-consuming.

It wasn’t highly paid, but it didn’t involve a great deal of work. My main task was learning to drink, which is obviously important: I think Martin [Amis] called it a “yobs’ breakfast”.

Marr: James Fenton, of course, was a fantastic poet. Who took over from him – was it you, Sarah?

Sarah Baxter: No, I was appointed by the editor [1987-91] Stuart Weir, who was rapidly succeeded by Steve Platt [1991-96]. I arrived shortly before Margaret Thatcher was toppled as prime minister, and was in the Commons when Geoffrey Howe launched his attack on her: at that stage we knew it was all over. She had so dominated my life, just as an ordinary citizen, that to be present at her fall was quite extraordinary.

The last pieces I wrote were on the rise of Nelson Mandela. I spent a month in South Africa covering his election, so it was a historic span – but most of the time I was covering the Maastricht Treaty, which was endless and quite dull, but presaged the Brexit wars and the rise of a certain Tony Blair.

Marr: Which takes us to Jackie Ashley and Steve Richards.

Steve Richards: In 1996 Ian Hargreaves was the editor, and he had just joined. It was a fascinating time.

I left the BBC to do the job and they all thought I had gone crazy. But it was a privileged ringside seat in that year before the 1997 election and its aftermath.

Marr: Jackie, I remember you coming back mainly talking about the lunches.

Jackie Ashley: We should explain that I’m your wife, Andrew. I find it quite comical that, 20 years on, you’re in the job I used to have. But there’s hope for you yet.

We used to have amazing lunches. I was there from 2000 until 2002 under the wonderfully eccentric but brilliant Peter Wilby [editor 1998-2005]. The owner was Geoffrey Robinson, who had been in the Labour cabinet and was a very keen Brownite. It was the height of the Blair-Brown wars.

We had quite an easy week compared to young journalists now. Thursdays were dominated by a two-hour planning meeting and then a lunch that would start at 12 and usually still be going at six. Much gin and wine and whisky was drunk, and ferocious political debates were had, but it was an absolute riot.

[See also: Andrew Marr and Jackie Ashley on 110 years of the New Statesman]

Marr: Mehdi, were you next in line?

Mehdi Hasan: I was never political editor. Jason Cowley [editor 2008-present] had just joined and hired a bunch of new people. He was looking for someone to write the column, and he weirdly decided to hire me. I was a TV producer and I’d written nothing longer than a hundred words for an intro script.

This was just before one of the most consequential political elections in modern British history, in 2010, when Gordon Brown narrowly lost and Cameron and Clegg formed their coalition. Suddenly everyone was flying blind, because no one had ever covered a coalition government. I remember us all crowded into Jason’s office as Brown came out on to Downing Street and said, “we’re going to form a government”. And then he failed to do that, because Nick Clegg screwed everyone. It was a period of complete flux.

Helen Lewis: I joined in December 2010 from the Daily Mail, so there was a slight ideological switch. Labour had just lost power and nobody knew how long it would take them to get back in. And obviously the answer was a very, very long time – so my time coincided with a period of Conservative hegemony.

There was a feeling that this was a chance for Labour to think about what it wanted in a post-financial crash era. I remember Raf [Behr] used to talk about this: if you’re not growing the pie and then redistributing the proceeds of that growth, what does a social democratic government do? If everything is shrinking, who gets protected within that? This was the big economic question.

Hot off the press: the New Statesman editor Anthony Howard, March 1974. Photo by Volker Hinz Estate/Dr Henriette Vath-Hinz

Rafael Behr: Jason hired me to work alongside Mehdi. With this strange coalition government, it was felt the magazine needed to start reporting the other side of the divide and not concentrate so much on the left. Luckily for me, the Lib Dems in government were leaky as hell.

Marr: And at this point, where is the New Statesman? Have you left the whisky- and gin-sodden premises above Victoria station?

Behr: Yes, it was quite a sober business. Not just in terms of alcohol content: it was a sterile room in an office block in Blackfriars.

We had a meeting on a Thursday morning where we would discuss at length what was going on. I would spend the rest of the time in the lobby, trying to find out what was going on. Then we’d have a conversation on Monday where Jason would decide he was bored with everything and completely rip up the magazine. I’d have to write a cover story for a couple of days later: that was more or less the rhythm of the week.

Lewis: The same thing happened at the Daily Mail. A morning news list was signed off, and then the evening news list came out at 5pm. Paul Dacre, then the editor, would like the things on the evening list better because he hadn’t had all day to get bored of them. And I think one of Jason’s strengths as an editor is that he wants perpetual revolution. You have to get up every week and go, right, how are we going to make this better than last week’s magazine? Rather than just: here’s my machine that’s going to tick over until the end of time. This is making it sound like Ted Lasso.

Behr: I was on a train with the Ed Miliband campaign [ahead of the 2013 local elections] when we got the news that Thatcher had died. Miliband had to cobble together his statement and work out how to say something suitably sober and portentous, while recognising that a lot of our readers and his supporters weren’t particularly grieving.

Stephen Bush: I can’t recall when I started writing the political column, but I became political editor officially in 2018.

Ironically, when I was interviewed to edit the blog, I had this whole thing of, “I know the Lib Dems really well, I’m across the small parties beat.” At the time, that was the SNP, the Lib Dems and Ukip. But then in 2015 the Labour Party lost, which was not a surprise – but the Liberal Democrats also got wiped out, which, as someone who had made great play of my knowledge of that party, was a system shock. And then I covered Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, lockdown.

Marr: Let’s talk a little about the atmosphere of the New Statesman, because these days it’s a very serious, disciplined organisation. I get the impression it was rather more lush and literary in your day, Patrick?

Wintour: The circulation was in decline, but there was more emphasis on the quality of the writing than people getting scoops. There was Claire Tomalin, who was editing the books pages.

What followed was a period we should mention, which was [the editorship of] Bruce Page [1978-82], who came from the Sunday Times Insight team in 1978 and turned the whole magazine upside down: he decided it should be an investigative outfit. The classic Bruce Page layout was a diagram with an arrow pointing to the faulty parts next to a picture of the guilty man.

I adored Bruce, but he wasn’t the most disciplined of people and would allow long articles about the problems with monetarism with large amounts of mathematics in them. He also didn’t have the resources that were available at the Times.

Baxter: When I joined soon after, the New Statesman had a confusion at its heart as to whether it was a left-wing magazine or the standard bearer of great writing, that tradition coming from Kingsley Martin [editor 1930-60]. It wasn’t sure, and it was also quite broke. I didn’t mind. I was young. I was very excited about this great job. It was based in Shoreditch, which is now super-trendy but was then quite cheap. There were pubs around the corner that were still hangouts of the National Front. But I spent a lot of time at Westminster.

Marr: It was very much a left-wing, badge-wearing magazine in those days. It still had its donkey jacket on.

Baxter: Yes. John Pilger was the most famous writer at the time, covering the first Gulf War. But I was already pulling in another direction. I was beginning to identify with New Labour, and to be fair, I was allowed to write what I liked. I don’t remember long lunches. I do remember a few pints after work, and being out on the fire escape, having a fag. I could hardly think of writing an article without smoking.

[Explore the New Statesman’s 110-year archive]

Marr: I think what unites us is that nobody told or tells us what to write.

Richards: My period was the early New Labour period. Ian Hargreaves, the editor, wanted two things that were slightly contradictory. He wanted us to find out what was happening behind the scenes of this project. And he also wanted scoops and exclusives, which pissed off the very people that you needed to get behind the scenes. That was the never-ending dilemma.

I remember having an interview with Ian, in the spring of 1996, where he said: this is the most exciting project of my lifetime, politically. And I said, I don’t buy that [New Labour] is so radical: it’s very cautious and incremental. He still asked me to do the job, even though I wasn’t as evangelical, so it was constantly managing that. As Jackie said, the Blair-Brown tensions were there from the very beginning.

Marr: I want to bring in Jackie, because I remember friendships being broken, furious arguments around dinner tables.

Ashley: It was a passionate period, wasn’t it? In those days journalists and politicians were a lot closer, and it was probably a bad thing looking back. I had Blairite friends and Brownite friends and it got very difficult, because one would phone you on a Sunday night, the other on a Monday morning, both absolutely at each other’s throats. And then you write a column and one of them says, why did you do that?

Steve and I did a lot of broadcasting while we were at the New Statesman. In September 2001 I was presenting the TUC conference coverage [in Brighton] on BBC Two. Steve and I had had a swim the day before; it was beautiful weather. I was interviewing [the general secretary of the GMB] John Edmonds and the producer kept saying, keep it going, keep it going. Tony Blair was meant to be speaking, but he hadn’t arrived. So I was asking John Edmonds everything from what colour his favourite socks were to where he went on holiday five years ago. I had really run out of stuff to say.

And then Andrew, as the BBC’s political editor, came rushing into the studio and I thought, what’s wrong with him? He said, “There’s been a plane crash in New York,” and the rest is history.

Marr: I had been waiting to talk about Tony Blair. We had all these TV screens around the room, and we suddenly saw this plane going into a tower, and I thought, that is enormous. So I said to Jackie’s producer, I’ve got to go in and break the news. And he said, no, it’ll stop people watching the TUC coverage. And then the second plane went in and I did just push him to one side and go into the studio. It was a really terrible thing to do.

Baxter: I was in downtown Manhattan. By then, I was working for the Sunday Times as their New York correspondent. The only reason I was there connects back to the New Statesman because, like Jackie, I also did a lot of broadcasting while I was political editor. I had been invited to do an Archive Hour for Radio 4 on Ellis Island.

We were due to meet at 9am at Battery Park, to catch the ferry. So I was an eyewitness to the whole thing, and it was pretty shocking. I lived in Brooklyn, so if I hadn’t got that job I would have been shut on the other side of the bridge.

Hasan: It’s very interesting to hear everyone’s vivid memories of 9/11. Last night I was covering Ron DeSantis’s interview with Piers Morgan, in which the governor of Florida couldn’t remember where he was on 9/11 – a very odd moment that may come back to haunt him.

I was the New Statesman’s first Muslim political columnist and I brought a lot of religion with me, in the sense that I love writing about it. There was a war on terror still going on. We were at the height of al-Qaeda, just before Isis, and we did a lot of religious coverage, which divided the readers. People would complain: “This is a secular magazine.” But then we would put religion on the cover and it would be one of our bestselling issues.

[See also: Mehdi Hasan on 110 years of the New Statesman]

In terms of the work day, James Macintyre and I were the first people who blogged for the New Statesman. It kept us very busy: we weren’t doing a leisurely once-a-week column and long lunches. We were writing every morning with George Eaton [political editor 2014-18], who was then a graduate trainee. It was me, James, George, writing up a storm and pissing people off. I got my first major opportunity on TV because of a blog I wrote the day after the 2010 election, about Clegg’s betrayal of the left. I made my first ever appearance on Question Time, sparring with Michael Heseltine.

The reason Raf and Stephen had to come and do a clean-up, and get the New Statesman back in line with the centrists and the Lib Dems, is because I had pissed them all off. I wrote a big profile of Vince Cable at a time when people loved Vince Cable. It was called “Beneath the Halo”, and I took a hatchet to everything he stood for. And the Lib Dems said, we’re never talking to you again. It required the likes of Raf to come along with more finesse.

Behr: It was a curious time because we had this slightly foul backwash from the Blair-Brown rivalry. It was filtered through, at some level, the David and Ed Miliband stuff. The Labour Party was so disoriented. It took about ten, 15 years, but I think finally we’re at a stage when it is no longer meaningful at all to define people by those differences.

Mehdi and I were the generation where Twitter was suddenly a real factor in the political firmament. I commissioned an essay by David Miliband, and people were attacking us on Twitter for conspiring with David to launch this on the one day that Ed Miliband had had a good PMQs. I was thinking: you have no idea how this works. It was very, very petty.

Photo by Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy

Lewis: I remember that as an exciting and a pretty brutal time, because it was also the era in which the [Twitter] pile-on became the medium of enforcement. I think that had some difficult consequences, because my huge criticism of political journalism is that it’s very prone to groupthink. Boris Johnson himself acknowledged this when he said [in his 2022 resignation speech]: “When the herd moves, it moves.” It is very hard to stake out a position that is unpopular.

Bush: I had a story about the polling in the 2015 Labour leadership election, showing that Corbyn was going to win. After five years of Raf convincing the Blairites and Brownites that we weren’t against them, I set fire to it with one blog post. I got a phone call, and it was the Liz Kendall [Labour leadership] campaign going: you are lying, we hate you. And then I was, like, I’m sorry, I need to put you on hold because Yvette Cooper’s campaign need to tell me that I’m lying and they hate me. And then, oh wait, Andy Burnham’s campaign are calling, and Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign are angry as well.

The Corbyn era was a bit of a species extinction event for a lot of people on the Labour beat elsewhere. So we had this free territory of having to continually explain what the hell has just happened. There was a lot of lingering bitterness: it was an era when people would say, look, if it’s a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, I choose Corbyn because Watson said something faintly off-colour about a Blairite in 2007.

Marr: Like White Russians arguing about chess in 1920 in Paris or whatever.

Lewis: It took an enormous amount of chutzpah for Stephen to stake his reputation on [Corbyn winning the leadership]. I think of all the things we did, that is one that I’m really proud of. The other was getting Patrick Maguire, another excellent graduate of the New Statesman politics team, to write about whether there might be a confidence-and-supply deal with the DUP in the wake of the 2017 election. Even a couple of minutes before the exit poll, people were predicting huge majorities for Theresa May – and then, in fact, she was going to have to govern with the help of the DUP. Suddenly everybody googled: how does confidence and supply work? It was something we had thought about because of the lessons of Brexit, that idea of taking the counterfactual seriously, knocking the tyres of it and saying: OK, so everybody thinks this is really unlikely – is it? I think that’s a really good exercise in political journalism.

Marr: Steve Richards, can you reflect a bit on the way technology has changed the job, because after the New Statesman you completely reinvented what you do, in terms of live shows, podcasts and blogs.

Richards: I didn’t do that immediately, but the world is transformed from that period when you filed the column, you did an interview, and the following day it would be in the newspapers and followed up by the BBC. It was a rhythm that was recognisable and controllable. All that has changed, and for the better. It must be exhausting for the current staff, but I think it is much more exciting.

Marr: Mehdi, you went on to become a full-time broadcaster. You went from producing your 1,200 words to outputting all the time. The problem we all have is: how much of the time is spent inputting – by which I mean reading, listening, talking, thinking – and how much is just relentless output?

Hasan: It’s a great question. There was a period where everyone wondered whether anyone would consume long-form journalism. We live in the TikTok era where, aside from any concerns about Chinese surveillance, there is a question over whether anyone pays attention to anything that’s longer than 30 seconds. And I think that question’s been answered, and actually it’s not as bad as people thought.

People still enjoy long-form. I make a TV show where there is a tension between what clips go on social to go viral, and what are the long-form interviews that I enjoy doing. I wrote the politics column, but what I actually enjoyed doing were the 3,000- to 5,000-word essays, interviews, profile pieces. Now I do a show where there is a long monologue at the start, and that goes back to my days at the New Statesman.

But I vividly remember the day after I joined Twitter. It was 28 April 2010 and everyone in England was staring at the front door of a small house in Rochdale: Gordon Brown was inside, apologising to Gillian Duffy for having called her “a bigoted woman”. I’d never tweeted before. I said, I must get on Twitter to see what everyone is saying – and to my wife and children’s great consternation, I’ve never got off it. Thirteen years later, the addiction is killing me.

Lewis: It was a fashion for a while to have journalists and politicians chumming up to each other on Twitter, and quite quickly I think everybody realised that it was quite bad to show people the way the sausage was made. It significantly reduced their trust in the integrity of the sausage. There was a period where it looked like everybody was their own mini brand, tweeting mini scooplets.

There was a famous briefing by [the Conservative election strategist] Lynton Crosby, I think in the 2015 election, where he told Tory MPS: do you want to be participants or do you want to be commentators? You can have big thoughts and meta commentary on this, or you can get in there and actually be campaigners.

I see that period as a strange bubble of time when things really changed. And to some extent, the status quo has reasserted itself. Some things have got better, and some have got much worse, in terms of political discourse. What’s got better is that people have an awareness of some of the cosiness [between journalists and politicians] and they don’t like it. And what’s got worse is a general stompy-bootedness, the degradation of expertise; the shouty have ended up with more of a voice.

[See also: A decade on from the New Statesman’s 100th anniversary, I’m flushed with reminiscence]

Wintour: Some of this discussion has brought out one problem with the New Statesman, which is that it’s lurched quite often ideologically. As an outsider, you sometimes get confused. What’s good now is that there’s some continuity, and incredibly high-quality people writing. I cover international relations and I find Jeremy Cliffe’s insights stunning, and I would read it for that alone. But there is the problem of shifting around so much.

Ashley: I think that is a good thing. In my day we had Peter Wilby, who was very much to the left. And the deputy editor was Cristina Odone, who was fairly right-wing and Catholic. Their political views were completely opposite, really, and yet we got this creative tension and a sense that anyone could say whatever they wanted.

Marr: Sarah, the American media has quite an array of political magazines. I guess the most obvious rival [to the New Statesman in the US] would be the Atlantic. What is the difference between what the American magazines are doing and the New Statesman?

Baxter: I think the American magazines have traditionally been incredibly good at long-form writing: the New Yorker being the case in point, but the Atlantic has been a pioneer of blogging, that 24/7 digital coverage which the New Statesman now does so well. And I think [that] has really reinvented the concept of what a magazine is: why long-form still matters, and why it’s very important to send your correspondents, columnists and long-form writers out into that digital world. I think British magazines have learned a lot from that example.

Lewis: I’ve just finished writing a piece [for the Atlantic] about Florida and Ron DeSantis – I started in October and it went online in March. There is a level of investment in American journalism, in terms of time and money – because the market is so much bigger – that is unachievable in British journalism.

But the things I learned at the New Statesman I still use all the time. One of which is the sense of, what is interesting, what are people talking about? What are the tectonic plates that are moving in politics? We’re having this argument, but what’s this argument really about?

Marr: One final question. What is the job of the New Statesman political editor?

Bush: I think to explain why it is that the key players are doing the things they’re doing, with – because of our historical ties and brand – a special emphasis on the parties of the left. So, currently, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens – and because of their sizes, in that order.

Behr: I’d second that, with the additional sense that, for me, it was an ambassadorial role. I was representing the ideological heart of liberal-left politics when speaking to people from the right, and then reporting back their point of view – with some aspiration to empathy – to readers who came largely from the left. And as is the way of all ambassadors, there’s that tension between understanding someone’s point of view without being captured by it.

Lewis: Whatever the political editor of the New Statesman wants it to be is the answer to that question. Mehdi was doing a combination of high-frequency blogging and very spiky features about Jesus. Raf wrote a brilliantly polished column every week, and intellectual essays. Stephen, who knows absolutely everybody in Westminster, could break stories. I feel privileged to have seen lots of people do the job, all excellently, but in very different ways.

[See also: Jemima Khan on 110 years of the New Statesman]

Marr: I think the job is to say to the centre-left audience out there: this is the shape of the week you’ve just been through. This is where the ball is going next. This is what politics really means. It’s a very simple thing to say and I think we still find it quite difficult in practice.

Thank you all very, very much – I’m not going to go around the table because there are too many of us, but it’s been a really interesting conversation.

Ashley: You can’t remember everyone’s names.

Marr: That’s true as well.

This is an edited and abridged transcript of a longer conversation, available as a podcast. To listen, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts. Jackie Ashley, Rafael Behr, Andrew Marr and Steve Richards all appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, 19-23 April; cambridgeliteraryfestival.com. NS readers get a 20 per cent discount on all events: use the code NSSPRING23 at checkout

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue