Sunday, 20 July 2008

Total Politics: that review in full

In a rash moment the other week, I bought a year's subscription to the new monthly magazine Total Politics. My copy of the first issue has now turned up, after a delay.

It's published by Tory activist and blogger Iain Dale, but it aims to be politically neutral. To guarantee this, it has an all-party/non-party editorial board including Paddy Ashdown, Chris Huhne, Denis MacShane, Shami Chakrabarti, Caroline Lucas and David Trimble. The editor is one Sarah MacKinlay, whose only previous claim to fame, as far as I can discover from Google, is that she is the daughter of a Labour MP.

The first thing to be said is that, in terms of design and presentation, the magazine certainly looks good. But so do lots of glossy mags, some of which look better than they actually are (think dentists' waiting-room fodder or in-flight airline mags). Does the content of Total Politics, on closer inspection, match up to the first impression?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. You could divide political journalism into perhaps four broad categories:

(1) Debate about policies themselves, or "policy wonkery": what are the issues, and what should be the policies to tackle them?

This is a pretty saturated area, and it's hard to see that there is any room in the market for more. For instance, all the posh dailies and Sundays have plenty of this kind of stuff, and if that's not enough there is the Staggers, the Speccie, Prospect, Progress, Tribune, the Economist, the LRB, etc. etc. There is no shortage of opinions about policy. In fact, in my view there is already far more of this than anyone can cope with. What's lacking is a consensus, on almost any subject you care to name. But we knew that already, and perhaps it was ever thus.

The main example in this issue is a head-to-head on the smoking ban, one year on. It's certainly good to look at past reforms and take stock of how they worked out in practice, and we could do with a lot more of that. I always think there is not enough learning from past experience. (Railway privatisation, anyone?) The protagonists in this (smoking ban) case are Madsen Pirie, long a leading member of the "revolving bow-tie" wing of the loony far right, and Polly Toynbee, high priestess of the social-democratic nanny state. These are two old pros, and Ms Toynbee's piece in particular is probably the best-written slab of text in the whole mag. No surprise there -- not for nothing is she the top columnist on a big newspaper.

The trouble is, there can hardly be anyone out there who can't guess exactly what both these writers are going to say, before they have even read a word. It would have been much more interesting to find somebody less predictable to comment on this issue. This piece could perfectly well have appeared in the Mail, and for all I know it probably has.

The other significant policy-wonk item is a rather partisan article by Labour MP Denis MacShane, arguing that the Tories currently lack a coherent foreign policy.

(2) "How to do politics", and discussions of the machinery and processes of parties and the political system.

This is potentially much more interesting and useful, and there is quite a lot of it. Some of this is the kind of thing Alan Watkins and Anthony Howard often write about, with a valuable historical perspective. (We need old men to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun.) But there is also stuff here you might not easily find elsewhere, which could be very handy, less perhaps to sitting MPs than to those who hope to be elected some time soon: Tory spin-doctor Lynton Crosby on how Boris won in London, how to handle negative campaigning, what to do about your internet presence, tips for making good speeches (though these could surely be found in any of dozens of self-help paperbacks in your local WH Smith), how to choose the right PR outfit, and more.

There is also a moderately interesting article about the armed forces and the little-considered question of their voting rights and voting behaviour.

(3) Psephology, in its broad sense.

Under this heading we have such items as Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher on the relationship between local and national elections; and Andrew Hawkins of pollsters ComRes on the parallels between 1997 and now. This is all good, interesting, workmanlike stuff, though again there is little here that one would be surprised to find in any of the broadsheets or the political weeklies.

(4) Who's up and who's down, gossip about personalities, the lifestyles of politicians, where are they now .....

TP contains a good deal of this much more superficial material, and most of it I can take or leave. There are the obligatory gobbets of unfunny "humour", mercifully confined to about three pages in total. There is a little bit of intriguing history: I never knew Sir Francis Drake was an MP. The diary page, by somebody called Clemency Burton-Hill, is actually quite sharply written, and ably captures the essence of the current mood in the Westminster bubble, except that one paragraph of it has got completely garbled, presumably at the production stage.

Most interesting to me, no doubt because this is a hobby-horse of mine, is an article by a David Seymour (who he? we are not told) arguing that the political world in this country has become far too fixated on youth, and that we ought to give older contenders more credit for their accumulated wisdom and experience. Amen to that, say I.

Two items I could very happily have done without are (a) how to buy a good suit, as if anyone would look to a political magazine for such advice -- for heaven's sake, do please leave out this dreary "lifestyle" crap: we are all drowning in it everywhere we turn -- and (b) two whole pages of vapid Clarksonesque guff about various politicians' favourite cars (why is it taken as read that everyone has a car, and who gives a toss anyway?). Incidentally, the article about suits includes Alan Duncan telling us to "wear braces only if you want to look like a twit" -- so presumably we can now expect a certain froideur between Duncan and his Tory front-bench colleague Eric Pickles, who has proved such a star recently, his braces notwithstanding.

= = = =

Not really fitting into any of the above four categories is the cover feature, an interview with Gordon Brown. I suppose if you ask for, and unexpectedly get, an interview with the Prime Minister, you are more or less obliged to make it your cover story. Unfortunately it turns out to be not very interesting. Brown tells us nothing we didn't already know. The mag tries to sell us the idea that it got a scoop when Brown makes what can be seen as a veiled criticism of Tony Blair's style. But he said something more or less identical to this the day he took office a year ago, and it was widely reported at the time.

There is a breathless, schoolgirlish sidebar by the editor in which she tells us how thrilled she was at being let into 10 Downing Street. Bit of a giveaway, that: plainly these people are not the experienced journalists one might expect a serious magazine to employ.

A couple of minor quibbles on layout and design: some of the articles look like advertisements, and I almost turned the page without reading them. Don't set the body text of editorial in a condensed sans-serif face. Don't use white text on a black background -- it's much too tiring to read.

Less minor quibbles of a general nature: this magazine urgently needs a decent subeditor who understands about syntax and punctuation, and especially how to use commas. I'm afraid the editor herself clearly doesn't. There are dozens of missing commas. To quote only one example:

"All the more surprising then that he arrives for the interview, flanked by his special press advisor in a relaxed frame of mind."

This means that (a) it was surprising that he arrived for the interview at all, and (b) his press advisor was in a relaxed frame of mind.

I also noticed, just in the first half of the magazine until I got tired of counting, at least ten phrases whose sense would have been helped by the insertion of a hyphen ("create a two way dialogue", "thought provoking articles", and so on).

Having got that out of the way, I come to my one BIG complaint. There is an enormous elephant in the room, and it is this: You would never guess from this magazine that Britain is a key part of the EU, and has been for 36 years. There are some 30-plus articles in this issue, and in only one of them could I find any mention of the European Parliament, even in passing. That comes in the aforementioned Denis MacShane article about Tory foreign policy, and one could hardly imagine MacShane writing anything that was not at least partly about the EU, given his background; but even there, it is not really the main point of his piece.

As someone who worked for years in Europe as well as at Westminster, I find this lapse quite astonishing. I can only suppose that it stems, unconsciously perhaps, from Iain Dale's blinkered Eurosceptic mindset. But to any of the thousands of Brits working in politics in Brussels, it will seem utterly bizarre.

I note that there is one MEP (Caroline Lucas) on the editorial board, and MacShane himself is on it too. I trust that they will bang the table about this.

The net effect is to make the magazine seem terribly parochial. There are a couple of items to do with "abroad" - but both of them are about America, from which we all hear far too much already. The recruitment of somebody like Timothy Garton Ash or John Palmer or Mark Leonard is urgently indicated.

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