Margaret Hodge after her victory in Barking in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Margaret Hodge against the world

Caroline Crampton speaks to Margaret Hodge about the Google, the BNP and the "loony left".

Margaret Hodge is very sure of what she is trying to do. “I want to change the world,” she tells me over a mug of tea in the front room of her home in Islington. She is deadly serious.

As the chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC), Hodge is in a good position to realise her ambition. The PAC’s dry, procedural-sounding remit to examine “the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted to parliament to meet the public expenditure” gives her latitude to investigate every aspect of our government’s finances. When she speaks, everyone from Google executives to the BBC’s senior management pays attention.

Hodge is the committee’s first female chair, as well as the first to be elected, rather than appointed. Although she was a minister for 11 of the 13 years of Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, she feels that what she does now has a greater impact. Issues such as tax avoidance by companies including Starbucks, Google and Amazon and, more recently, the pay-offs for BBC executives have resonated with the public.

She works hard – particularly since the loss of her husband, Henry, to cancer in 2009. “I’m on my own now, so that’s become a way of managing my life, focusing my life. I put a lot of work in.”

Hodge has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity, yet she cannot escape the legacy of her time as a minister – the first report the PAC published under her leadership looked at the failings of a welfare-to-work programme that she had helped to design.

Taking on Labour’s failures isn’t new to her. At the 2010 general election, she fought the “Battle for Barking” against the BNP (the party’s leader, Nick Griffin, stood against her). “I really think they [the BNP] had a chance of taking over the council and taking my seat . . . The underlying issue was Labour’s failure to connect with people on local concerns. We looked inwards; we didn’t look outwards.”

Hodge went on to double her majority in Barking; the BNP lost all 12 of its seats on the council. The answer to the kind of concerns that led to Griffin’s popularity, she says, is to focus on fairness. “If you’re coming in as an economic migrant, you’ve got to work your time, you’ve got to earn your rights, and I think people get that, whatever your race. For instance, access to social housing ought to be based on how long you’ve lived in the area, not just your need. When I first said that in 2008, it was very controversial but that’s the way you deal with racism.”

The role of PAC chair has freed her from party politics. Though still a Labour MP, she no longer attends Parliamentary Labour Party meetings and relishes the freedom to speak her mind. Once, during a committee hearing, she threw Google’s corporate motto – “Don’t be evil” – back in its executives’ faces, declaring, “I think that you do do evil.” This outspokenness isn’t new. “I say it as it is. That’s the joy of being my age [she is 69]. I’m not trying to climb any greasy pole any more. It always used to get me into trouble but now, in this new role, it’s a positive.”

Would she ever consider returning to the front bench? “I don’t think so. I’ve got lots of ambition . . . but I don’t think I could go back to that. Your life has to move forward.” Hodge speaks proudly of her socialism – formed, she says, by her background as an immigrant Jew, which had always made her feel like an outsider. Her family came to Britain in 1949 from Egypt, where increasing Arab-Jewish tensions after the creation of Israel made it difficult to stay. Laughing, she says of her father: “If he was alive today, I think he would be completely gobsmacked by me being such a member of the establishment.”

Before she entered parliament in 1994, Hodge worked for a decade as the leader of Islington Council. She and her Labour colleagues were nicknamed the “loony left”. Her handling of a child abuse case at a council care home (for which she has since apologised) is what her tenure there is principally remembered for, but she feels that a lot of the council’s other work has “stood the test of time”.

“We did a whole load of stuff around the equalities agenda that was thought to be off the wall at the time and which is now absolutely mainstream. We invented Sure Start [in Islington] . . . We worked on maternity rights, which were terrible at the time. All this stuff about one-stop shops for services – we created them.”

She has a long political career behind her but Margaret Hodge isn’t done yet. She will be standing again in 2015 and says: “We’ll just have to see what the electorate does.”

After all this time, has she worked out how to change the world? She smiles. “I haven’t got an answer but I’ve got a question,” she says.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories