It’s been an exhausting, tense and yet exhilarating week. Two Labour MPs, Diana Johnson and I, have just been through an open selection process after we found ourselves “triggered” by our local parties. The trigger took me by surprise as those who watch my back in my Barking constituency convinced me that I would easily be reselected. But it was not to be, and 28 October was dominated by my local selection meeting.
I hit all the buttons with critics; I’m a woman, I’m an outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn, and I’m in my seventies. The entrenched bigotries still hold sway, both in society and in the Labour Party, and the hard left finds it hard to tolerate dissent. I was an obvious target.
I could have walked away, but it’s not in my nature to run from a political battle and I want control of my own destiny. So for four weeks, we worked around the clock to secure the support of hundreds of local party members. Of course, the process was an absurd distraction from holding Boris Johnson to account as we had to focus solely on this internal contest.
But there were some great bonuses, too. Reconnecting with old party members and getting to know the new; the warmth and support I found from local activists and Labour members who came from Ilford, Camden, Walthamstow, Barnet, Southwark and Slough was fantastic. And on the night of the selection meeting: Barbara who travelled from hospital to attend, and Victoria who brought her four-day-old baby with her to cast her vote, and Anita who had recently broken three of her four limbs! And an unintended consequence of this flawed system is that I now know all my party members really well should there be a future leadership contest.
Consensus, not confrontation
Much has been said in the past few days of this parliament about the torrid abuse women MPs receive and the impact this could have on halting the progress we have been making in encouraging more women into parliament. Women are staying in parliament for a shorter time and leaving at a younger age.
One study of anti-Semitism on a particularly vile far-right website found that female Jewish MPs such as Luciana Berger and I are 15 per cent more likely to receive abusive posts than male – and much better known – Jewish MPs such as John Bercow and Ed Miliband. Tackling the online anonymity that allows sad idiots to be so abusive must be a priority.
But the culture of our politics also puts women off. Seeking confrontation rather than consensus has become the political norm. I remember highly contested issues such as Iraq, 9/11, Northern Ireland and the financial crash being debated in the chamber. You had to be there because these were significant historic occasions, and the speeches from those such as Robin Cook, David Blunkett and Gordon Brown were powerful, well-argued and moving – but not confrontational. Contrast that with the laddish Bullingdon Club debating standards that prevail today. I find it hard to sit through any significant debate, even to listen to the opening speeches.
It is in our gift to change our political culture. But the extremist views that have infiltrated both our main political parties, and the intolerance that brings, will make this a big challenge for the next parliament. My only reason for optimism is that I see so many brilliant younger women coming into politics. One hopes their idealism and passion will help to create a more open, consensual and tolerant politics that celebrates dissent as well as seeking consent.
Fighting the fight from within
On Thursday I got a letter from an organisation called the Campaign Against Antisemitism. They had approached me when I first became embroiled in Labour’s anti-Semitism row over a year ago, offering to help and asking me to become a patron of their charity. I didn’t need their help, but they were keen that I should become a patron, so I agreed. Their letter last week asked for my resignation because I was standing as a Labour Party candidate in this general election. They invited me; now they have disinvited me. That is their choice.
But after everything I have done to call out anti-Semitism on the left their decision seems to me both astonishing and wounding. There has always been anti-Semitism on the right, but its existence in the mainstream of the Labour Party is new and abhorrent. Some of us have chosen to fight the scourge from within the party, and our decision to fight to do that is as tough as the decision of others to leave the party.
I feel that it is still worthwhile fighting for the anti-racist values that brought the Labour Party into existence some 120 years ago, and that brought me into the party 57 years ago. The party has always been the home for people like me and we should not be hounded out. I would have hoped anti-racist charities would respect that decision and not impugn my integrity. As I told my Barking selection meeting, I will always call out racism – in all its forms, wherever and whenever I see it – even when this is difficult and uncomfortable.
And we must never forget that our party is greater than its leader.
The witching hour
I was knackered by Friday night and flopped in front of the television when I got home. But I’d forgotten Halloween and trick or treat. No respite allowed. My grandchildren rang the bell in three different groups to show off their costumes and hold out their begging bowls for sweets. It’s a grandparent’s privilege to indulge little ones with treats that are bad for their teeth and their diet. Usually I get told off by my own children for doing this. So a double celebration on Halloween night – no Brexit and lots of sticky toffee.
Margaret Hodge is Labour MP for Barking
This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong