News Of The Skews
After five years at the New Statesman, Steve Platt describes the political manoeuvres behind his ousting from the editor's chair.
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pg. 28.
The rally I’d been chairing in Westminster Central Hall had just been brought to a premature end by someone setting off a firework rocket.
It had singed the dreadlocks of the man playing a trumpet on the balcony, shot over the heads of the 2,000 or so people in the main auditorium and crashed into the huge organ pipes above the speakers’ platform.
The smoke from the rocket triggered the fire alarm which in turn cut off the loudspeaker system, prompting an early and unscheduled evacuation of the building. Billy Bragg, who’d just managed to finish a version of The World Turned Upside Down in the face of raucous heckling from a group of people who wanted to turn it upside down there and then, was the first to take his chance and join the exodus, fearful that I might hold him to his promise to “come back and do some more songs later”.
Outside the police had decided to prove that you can’t pass a Criminal Justice Bill without breaking a few heads. A raggle-taggle army of protestors, most of whom had come to the House of Commons for the first time in their lives in a last ditch attempt to persuade their MPs not to pass the bill, were being forced to run a gauntlet of snapping police dogs, riot shields and truncheons. A number of them, together with an MP who’d got caught up in a police charge to drive some of the demonstrators across Westminster Bridge, were now on their way to hospital.
It was at this point that I bumped into Robin Cook, Labour MP for Livingston and shadow foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s new leadership team, who a few months earlier I and others on the Labour left had been urging to stand against Tony Blair in the party’s leadership contest.
“We got a good result tonight, didn’t we?” he said as an Asian taxi-driver nearby told a television interviewer how he had seen police clubbing a young woman to the ground for no reason other than that she’d been there.
Now Robin Cook is one of Labour’s most able and intelligent MPs, an instinctive libertarian and a long-standing left-winger. What did he mean, “we got a good result tonight”? Had the House of Commons suddenly seen sense and voted down the Government’s bill? Had some liberal Tory backbencher moved an amendment to mollify its most oppressive provisions?
Unfortunately it was nothing of the sort. On the night that one of the most illiberal measures to be introduced in a democracy since the second world war got its second reading in the Mother of Parliaments, Robin Cook’s reference to a “good result” concerned his performance in the shadow cabinet elections that had taken place that afternoon, when he topped the poll.
The incident was symptomatic of the attitude of most Labour politicians to the Criminal Justice Bill. Even those - like Robin himself - who didn’t support the bill didn’t pay it much attention. In common with most people involved in the orthodox political scene, including most of the traditional left, they failed to recognise just how oppressive and far reaching its provisions were. And when the series of protests during the summer of 1994 finally brought it to public attention, they were shocked by the level of opposition it succeeded in uniting from such a wide variety of different sources.
As editor of the New Statesman at the time, I took an early decision that the bill amounted to such an onslaught on civil liberties, that simply writing about it - and editorialising against it - was not enough. I threw myself and the New Statesman into active campaigning.
The New Statesman espoused other views that were not entirely to the liking of the new Labour leadership, not least in giving space to critics of some aspects of new Labour policies or Tony Blair’s leadership style. But this opposition to the CJB - and support for protest and DIY politics - probably did more to drive a wedge between the magazine under my editorship and Labour’s “modernisers” than anything else.
A whispering campaign started which said that we had become “extreme”, gone “outside the mainstream”, were now “marginal” to British politics.
When, as one of the organisers of the mass trespass protests against the CJB at Chequers and Windsor Castle, I was arrested, the fact was pointed out by a leading labour figure to the then majority shareholder in the New Statesman. Was “someone who gets arrested on demonstrations” really the sort of person that should be editing the magazine, it was asked.
The majority shareholder - my boss - thought I was. Others, very close to the Labour leadership, didn’t. Their line of reasoning, then and now, doesn’t hold out much hope that Labour would make substantial changes to the Criminal Justice Act if it wins power at the next election.
In an interview with Tony Blair just before he became Labour leader I asked him about the criticism that parliamentary opposition to the CJB had been partial and ineffective. He said that “the idea that we simply sat there quietly and did nothing is absurd”. Labour had opposed the abolition of the right to silence, the new laws on trespass, the way juvenile offenders would be dealt with and so on.
“But you never satisfy people,” he went on. “People don’t want the half inch. What they want is a yard, and then when you’ve gone that yard they want five yards as well. I do not believe that Labour’s policy should be determined by lobby groups of whatever sort.”
The dismissal of the opposition to the Criminal Justice Act as being merely the work of “lobby groups” is telling. Labour’s policy will not be determined by lobby groups. Lobby groups are the people who want the act abolished. Therefore the act will not be abolished.
I’ll still be working hard for a Tory defeat at the next election: I still happen to think that there is enough of a difference between the parties for it to matter a lot. But if I bump into Robin Cook again on polling day and he says we got a “good result”, I expect I’ll feel the same as I did the day the Criminal Justice Bill got its second reading in the House of Commons.
Steve Platt was editor of the New Statesman from 1990 to 1996.