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18 March 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 5:28pm

Everyone is getting very excited about something Margaret Hodge didn’t actually say

It’s a shame, because what she actually said is worth understanding. 

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s Margaret Hodge is under fire for comparing Labour’s disciplinary processes to Nazi Germany, and the criticism is not just confined to supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The comedian David Baddiel dubbed the comparison “bollocks” and privately the similarity has drawn raised eyebrows from Hodge’s allies. The Labour party press office, has you would expect, also reacted angrily.

But there’s a problem: what is driving people’s anger on Twitter came not from the word of Hodge –  but a tweet from Sky News, which ran the interview.

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(A push notification from the Sky News app, which is used by many Labour MPs and party staffers, also carried the same paraphrase.) But what Hodge said was actually very different. She recalled her father’s advice to her that  “you’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door, Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry”, and said “when I heard about the disciplinary action, my emotional response resonated with that feeling of fear”.

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To some people that will feel like a distinction without a difference, but it’s a shame, because Hodge’s words are a useful starting point to explain something that mystifies many New Statesman readers: why are the bulk of Britain’s Jews so worried about the state of the Labour party? Even those NS readers who accept that there is a problem with anti-Semitism on the left are often mystified by some of the language used. Do Britain’s three biggest Jewish newspapers really believe that the Labour party currently presents an “existential threat” to British Jewry?

The fear that you might have to move countries unexpectedly and for reasons not of your choosing is, for obvious reasons, present in most diaspora communities. The vast bulk of global movements of people are not wholly voluntary, whether you be one of the 50,000 French Protestants who fled to the United Kingdom in the late 17th century, a Ugandan refugee escaping Idi Amin in the 1970s, or a Somali arriving in Britain in the 1990s. That holds true whether you are fleeing political, ecological or economic collapse.

For settled communities – particularly one as settled as England, a nation that, as I write in my i column this week, is historically unique in Europe in having known neither occupation nor revolution in the 20th century – this fear is often difficult to understand. I’m not saying that English politics has never taken a turn for the worse, but the irrevocable and seemingly permanent catastrophes that have befallen most other polities have not happened here, or at least, they have not had the same cultural purchase. (It’s striking that France experienced the loss of Algeria as a domestic catastrophe that triggered a full-blown coup attempt, while the collapse of British rule in Rhodesia, which still has terrible consequences in Zimbabwe now, was experienced as something that happens “over there”, and much of English political discourse essentially forgets that Northern Ireland exists and was subject to a prolonged civil war in in the 20th century.)

That worry also has significant repercussions for how diaspora communities experience policies, whether that be the Muslim community’s concern about Prevent, or unease about the hostile environment policy among Commonwealth migrants, or registration schemes by the three million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom.

That fear is obviously particularly acute in the Jewish community. There is a reason why, after the Second World War was over, my great-grandfather didn’t abandon his Gentile disguise of “Bush” and return to his old surname of “Shimanski” and indeed that reason is why I also haven’t decided to trade in the rebrand in exchange for a cool alliterative name.

It’s also why during the 2015 Labour leadership election I was left slightly blank when one campaign aide said they “couldn’t understand” why I kept banging on about the various candidates’ position on immigration.

That same fear is why, when Len McCluskey signals his support for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance with an op-ed that criticizes the Jewish community in a bid to reassure his own base that he has not gone soft (Adam Langleben explains the internal politics well here), a lot of British Jews feel uneasy and unwelcome, or when the commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan describes questions about Corbyn’s own associations as a coordinated attack  it raises both hackles and worries.

And understanding that fear is a vital part of understanding why the majority of British Jews are concerned, which is why it’s a real shame that the conversation about Margaret Hodge is about something she didn’t actually say.

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