Margaret Hodge: My advice to Ed Miliband? Relax and be yourself

The chair of the public accounts committee talks to Harry Lambert about Labour’s fortunes, beating the BNP, and why we should be building more houses.

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A longer version of this interview appears on our elections site, May2015.com.

Talking to Margaret Hodge is refreshing. Unlike some of her ladder-climbing colleagues, she doesn’t think that questions are an opportunity to recite soundbites – she no longer needs to.

Now 70, Hodge was first elected to Islington Council in 1973, when Ed Miliband was three. She is in the midst of her most successful political decade. In 2010, Nick Griffin and the British National Party tried to defeat her in Barking. She ended up winning more votes than she ever had. Since then, as chair of the public accounts committee, she has won plaudits for taking on tax avoiders, the coalition and parts of the civil service.

Two great challenges confront the left: how to tackle Ukip, and how to create a fairer society in an age of austerity. Few MPs are better placed to offer answers.

Harry Lambert How similar are Ukip and the BNP?

Margaret Hodge Well, you can’t accuse Ukip of being a racist party – they are xenophobic.

HL How did you beat the BNP?

MH I completely changed the way I do my politics. I totally stopped doing the traditional things: cutting ribbons, going to town fairs. I asked people to come and have a cup of tea with me. Then I would go table to table, and say: “What’s bugging you?” People’s politics starts from the local.

HL And how did you fight them on immigration?

MH My script on immigration has been the same since 2006. I have never promised to cut immigration numbers, not once. The way that politicians believe they can con voters is just so misplaced and misconceived, it’s completely ridiculous.

HL Can you name three things the next Labour government will achieve?

MH Building more homes? That would be my number-one priority. I think really creating opportunities for young people . . .

HL Is that what Labour will do?

MH Well, they could do that. It’s doable.

HL Can you name two other Labour plans?

MH I just wonder – it needs sorting out, it’s a really big issue – whether Ed can actually improve the way in which we regulate energy suppliers. I think we’ve got regulation badly wrong; it’s one of the lessons I’ve learned on the PAC [public accounts committee].

HL Do you think Ed Miliband has learned those lessons?

MH Um, I hope he [pauses] . . . whenever I hear a Miliband speech, I can understand the coherence of the argument.

One of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t just proclaim a policy: the implementation is key.

HL Why do you think the current Labour team haven’t managed to win back economic credibility?

MH Because it’s all still raw. We weren’t off the mark quick enough after the 2010 election. We allowed the Tories and the Lib Dems to tell the story.

HL How can Labour be more effective?

MH Clear messages. Simple messages. Consistent messages. Focusing on what matters to people. If you go back to 1997, we had five very simple pledges.

HL Can you give me five pledges now?

MH Oh my God [laughing]. Well, I think build homes. Skills and jobs for young people. You have to say something about fiscal prudence. Make sure everybody pays their fair share of tax. I mean, there’s so much. Childcare.

HL Should you ever have a prime minister who’s never worked in a business?

MH I think it’s important to have leaders who’ve had life experience.

HL Ed Miliband is one of those career politicians . . .

MH . . . so is David Cameron.

HL What do you think is Ed’s greatest quality?

MH Um . . . actually, his analysis, of where we are and what we need to do, I buy into.

HL What could he improve on most?

MH Communication.

HL What one personal thing would you say to Ed?

MH Relax. Be yourself – actually, he’s a really nice guy.

MH Do you think he ever won over MPs who didn’t back him in 2010?

MH There isn’t a mood, an appetite, to replace him. There’s a frustration. We want to do better. But this so-called letter that was around? I never saw it. Nobody approached me. [Laughs]

HL What do you think Labour has missed by losing David Miliband?

MH He was an intellectual giant – as is his brother. He had a lot of really good experience. We used to have fantastic discussions. It was a joy to engage with him. 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

This article appears in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents