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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.