Friday, 26 January 1996


Paul Anderson, New Statesman & Society column, 26 January 1996

Forget legal constraints – there's no press freedom unless you're stocked at the newsagent's

The unnoticed bad news of the week is that one of Britain's biggest retail newsagents, W H Smith, is planning to drop a large number of the small-circulation publications it currently sells. Forget the fiasco of the Maxwell brothers trial and what cannot legally be said about their father even after his death. The biggest threat to press freedom in Britain today is posed not by the Contempt of Court Act, but by market forces.

For W H Smith, it's simple. There are 100-odd publications which it currently stocks that are no longer worth carrying, for purely commercial reasons. New Statesman & Society, despite its current problems, is not one of them. But my old flame, Tribune, is. As a former editor of that venerable weekly organ of the Labour left, I know that it isn't exactly a mass-circulation business. It relies on subscriptions for most of its 6,000-odd circulation, but it sells more than 2,000 copies a week through newsagents – nearly all of which these days go through the big chains, of which W H Smith is one of the most important. And those 2,000 sales are near enough to being crucial –  don't I know it – to the continuing survival of the paper. Tribune could not keep going if you couldn't buy it at the railway station or in the high street.

Which means that Smith's decision – taken, it seems, because of the competition the big newsagents now face from supermarkets – could be fatal for one of the most important institutions that underpin the pluralism of the British press. Like it or loathe it, long after Aneurin Bevan and George Orwell, Tribune still plays an essential role as a conduit for the opinions of Labour's grassroots, as a forum for debate and as a school of journalistic talent. And it does so these days without any major subsidies – unlike in the not-so-distant past, when its relationship to the trade union bosses was rather like a drunk's to a lamp-post.

But it's not just Tribune: the point is that the imperatives of the supermarket can do disastrous damage to the prospects for any small-circulation serious political magazine. Unless they have the cash to invest in the subscriptions market in a big way – as NSS has had, at least recently – they are, on current trends, doomed to be marginalised and die.

Should we care ? There is an argument that the whole culture of small magazines and j ournals of opinion is irrevocably part of the past, superseded by television, the expanded daily and Sunday newspapers, the booming consumer magazine sector and the development of electronic communications. But a commitment to a critical democratic culture dictates a different point of view – or, rather, an infinite variety of points of view. Tiny, cerebral, awkward publications of all political persuasions are an essential part of any democracy's intellectual culture, and that they are unsaleable in Safeway should not be a matter of their life or death.

Of course, it's not the fault of WH Smith. Like any business, it operates to maximise profits. But there is a way of protecting the Tribunes of this world from the ravages of untrammelled market forces without causing much offence to capitalist ethics. After the last war, many continental European countries introduced "right to distribution" legislation to ensure press pluralism after fascism, passing laws to ensure that periodicals of democratic opinion were sold, as of right, in retail newsagents at least in all maj or towns and cities.

Those laws still exist today. A similar law here would make an excellen t addition to the list of no-cost legislation for an incoming Labour government compiled by Chris Mullin, another former Tribune editor. Press diversity is too precious to be thrown away.

Friday, 12 January 1996


New Statesman & Society, leader 12 January 1996

The idea of a "stakeholder society", as advanced by Tony Blair in his speech in Singapore this week, is an excellent one. But what would it mean in practice?

Tony Blair's speech on the "stakeholder economy" and the "stakeholder welfare system" in Singapore this week was one of the most significant he has made as Labour leader. It contained nothing in the way of detailed policy. But for the first time Blair articulated an overarching ideological theme for what he hopes will be a long spell in office.

So what's the big idea? Essentially, that the central aim of all economic and social policy must be to encourage the involvement and participation of all citizens in economic activity and welfare provision, within the broad framework of a market economy. "It is a stakeholder economy in which opportunity is available to all, advancement is through merit and from which no group or class is set apart or excluded," said Blair. If we fail to create such an economy, "we waste talent, squander potential wealth-creating potential and deny the basis of trust upon which a cohesive society, One Nation, is built". "The development of an underclass of people, cut off from society's mainstream, living often in poverty, the black economy, crime and family instability," he went on, "is a moral and economic evil."

None of which is particularly controversial or even novel, one has to admit. But Blair went on to discuss what the imperative of discouraging exclusion means in practice – and in doing so gave a tantalising glimpse of what could be an extensive and genuinely radical programme for government.

Most attention has been given to what he said about a "stakeholder welfare system" – which is not altogether surprising. Blair was in Singapore, after all, and Singapore has a welfare system very different from our own, one feature of which is a compulsory savings scheme to provide pensions and other benefits.

It is no secret that Labour is looking very closely at this idea, and so it should: it is in essence a genuine national insurance scheme along the lines recommended by William Beveridge in his 1943 report but only imperfectly implemented after 1945, and, as Frank Field and others have argued, a version of it could serve Britain well. Of course, the devil is in the detail with anything like this, and the value of a compulsory savings scheme would depend crucially on its size, the extent of any compensatory tax cuts, what happens to non-contributory benefits and a whole lot besides. But the principle is sound enough, and it would be foolish for the left to dismiss it out-of-hand because of lack of familiarity or because other elements of Singapore's welfare system are deeply unattractive.

Welfare reform, however, is just one part of the "stakeholder" idea. Blair also talked of guaranteeing that education serves "all our people, not an elite", and of ensuring that new technologies "are harnessed and dispersed among all our people".

More interestingly, he went on to suggest that far-reaching change is needed not just in the relationship between business and government, but in the whole British business culture. "We cannot by legislation guarantee that a company will behave in a way conducive to trust and long-term commitment. But it is surely time to assess how we shift the emphasis in corporate ethos, from the company being a mere vehicle for the capital market, to be traded, bought and sold as a commodity, towards a vision of the company as a community or partnership in which each employee has a stake, and where a company's responsibilities are more clearly delineated."

Once again, the devil is in the detail here. If all that a Labour government does is exhort companies to be nice to their workers and to resist the temptations of takeovers, it won't have very much effect. What is exciting is the prospect that it would do a lot more – from legislation to make takeovers and asset-stripping more difficult to the introduction of incentives for the creation of worker co-operatives. A Labour government that is really serious about tackling the domination of the British economy by what Will Hutton calls "stock-market capitalism" would be a novelty indeed.

Of course, there are plenty of problems with Blair's approach, the biggest of which is that it relies on Labour's ability to make rapid and massive reductions in unemployment. That would be difficult enough at the best of times: as Blair and shadow chancellor Gordon Brown have argued consistently in recent years, the globalisation of the economy means that a Keynesian "dash for growth" is no longer a feasible option for a medium-sized country like Britain. It will be even more difficult if Britain is struggling under self-imposed austerity to meet the conditions laid down in the Maastricht treaty for economic and monetary union. What price stakes when the chips are down?