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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.