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  1. The Weekend Interview
18 February 2023

Margaret Hodge: Confronting anti-Semitism in Labour was harder than fighting the BNP

After 50 years as a politician, the Blairite veteran reflects on Jeremy Corbyn, urges Labour to tax wealth, and says her party should be led by a woman.

By Anoosh Chakelian

For 60 years Margaret Hodge has stuck with the Labour Party – even after concluding Jeremy Corbyn was an “anti-Semitic racist”, and telling him so to his face. In fact, the only way she ever would have left was if the former Labour leader had become prime minister in 2019. “Had Corbyn won then, I think things would have been different; I couldn’t have stayed in the party.”

After serving half a century as a Labour councillor and MP, battling the BNP in her east London patch of Barking and humiliating Big Tech executives when head of the public spending watchdog, she is standing down just as Labour is on the brink of power.

“I know, it’s sad, isn’t it?” Hodge, 78, smiled, when we met at Barking Learning Centre, a scaffold-wrapped New Labour agora of whiteboards and municipal lime green. Hodge has a poky constituency office onsite, a lino-squeak along from the young adult fiction. A poster on the back of its door – “Cable Street 1936, Lewisham 1977, Barking 2010” – recalls Barking’s brush with fascism (Hodge crushed the BNP’s then leader Nick Griffin when he challenged her for the seat in 2010), along with a quote from Hodge: “Get out and stay out.”

Having bounced around the ministerial ranks under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and chaired the Public Accounts Committee, she has a grander office in parliament, a 35-minute Tube ride along the District Line from here. But it was in local spots like this where she passed her biggest political test. To defeat the BNP – which had found a foothold in Barking with 12 councillors by 2006 – by more than 18,000 votes, she invited thousands of locals to sit around tables over tea and “decent biscuits” in community spaces, and still does. Along with mass-action days and an alternative canvassing method – asking, “What’s bugging you?” rather than, “Which way do you vote?” – her approach formed what is now known in Labour circles as the Barking Model.

When Hodge was elected in 1994, Labour had long forgotten shoe-leather democracy in this outer London borough, where its votes were once weighed rather than counted. As it grew more diverse, the conservative values of the Essex borderlands began tipping the scales. “When I arrived here in Barking there was no campaigning at all, nothing, you were lucky to get a leaflet,” Hodge recalled, pushing her glasses onto her head and looking somehow regal amid the gloom of an empty classroom in her floral scarf, pale pink jumper and silver jewellery.

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Her “one mistake” was failing to see Labour’s disconnect from its voters sooner, reflecting that the party would have fared better nationally “if we’d done that in a lot of the Red Wall and Scottish seats earlier” too. The approach wasn’t seamless; she was accused of pandering to bigots when arguing that established locals should have housing priority over migrants.

Yet it was “racism and being an immigrant” that brought Hodge into politics. She was born in Cairo, Egypt, to Jewish refugee parents, who settled in Britain when she was four. Her grandfather’s diary describes leaving Vienna in 1938, weeping at his parents’ graveside over how they themselves had fled pogroms in Poland. A letter from her grandmother, who refused to leave, implores her family: “Don’t forget me completely.” Nine days later she was deported, and then killed outside a concentration camp.

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Upon discovering she was under investigation by Labour for her comments to Corbyn in 2018, Hodge remembered her father’s words to her as a child: “You’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door, Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.” She never packed that bag, but she found confronting anti-Semitism in the Labour Party “much more difficult” than facing down the BNP. An atheist, Hodge joked that where her father, her local rabbi, her Jewish friends at the London School of Economics and an old Israeli boyfriend all failed, Jeremy Corbyn succeeded in “turning me into a Jew”.

Hodge says the anti-Semitism row also felt “worse” than Labour’s infighting in the Eighties when, as leader of Islington Council, she was caught up in the rate-capping rebellion against Margaret Thatcher’s cuts. Labour still has to win back Jewish voters’ trust, she argued: “It takes a long time to build trust; it’s very easy to lose it. But we’re on the way.” After our interview, Britain’s equalities watchdog announced it no longer has to monitor the party.

[See also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

Having refused to retire at the last election (“I didn’t want to bequeath my seat to a Corbynite”), Hodge now feels ready to leave the Commons. She plays piano, has 12 grandchildren, and already chairs a university and theatre. When we met, however, she was making animated calls about the Economic Crime Bill with the fervour of a brand-new backbencher. “It is ridiculous. I’m supposed to bloody retire; I’m really old – well, I’m quite old,” she laughed.

Questioning quivering suits from Google, Amazon and Starbucks who appeared before the Public Accounts Committee in 2010-15 gave her a taste for exposing tax scandals and following money trails. Chairing the committee was also a chance to “put my all into working life” in her late sixties after she lost her husband in 2009.

“Britain has become a centre for economic crime,” she told me, blaming both Thatcher’s Big Bang and New Labour’s deregulation and golden visas. “Dirty money has now flowed into the public realm and into our politics… We will never get sustainable economic growth or a sustainable financial services sector on the back of dirty money.”

Should Labour be fighting harder for tax justice, following public anger over the tax arrangements of Rishi Sunak’s wife and his recently sacked party chair, Nadhim Zahawi? “I think they’re always nervous and reluctant to, and it is very difficult in opposition,” Hodge said. She remembers watching public support fall away from Labour ahead of the 1992 election, when the party announced a “shadow budget” including tax rises for higher earners.

“Where I would put the argument today is that you should tax the income that we as individuals get from our wealth at the same rate as you tax the income we get from work. It’s just common sense,” she said. “I think it should be the direction of travel for Labour. Probably I’d get hit for that by the front bench, but that’s where I think the debate has to go.”

Hodge, who is believed to have played a part in Keir Starmer’s decision not to allow Corbyn back into the parliamentary party (she wouldn’t comment when I asked), insisted she’s “not at the heart” of the current operation. “I speak to [Starmer], particularly about anti-Semitism, but I’m more detached, I do my own thing.”

In the 2020 Labour leadership campaign she voted for Lisa Nandy, one of Starmer’s opponents and now the shadow levelling-up secretary. Is it shameful that her party has never elected a female leader? “Yes,” she replied. “Oh, it’s horrible. There’s still sexism, which is why you can never take your foot off the accelerator.” Should the next Labour leader be a woman? “I’d love that. It should have been [in 2020]. I mean, just look at the women we’ve got: Liz Kendall, Bridget Phillipson, Thangam Debbonaire, Jess Phillips… You can go on and on, which is brilliant, isn’t it?”

Trying to avoid “in my day” nostalgia for her political experiences, Hodge nevertheless reflected on the advice she would give new MPs. “For women, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said. “My most successful part of my life was in my sixties.”

Read more:

The resurgence of anti-Semitism on the left and right is a warning to us all

What David Baddiel doesn’t get about anti-Semitism

Liz Truss’s conflation of anti-Semitism with wokeism is mad and bad