View from Barking: “The trigger ballot process makes this sort of thing much more likely”

Margaret Hodge romped to victory in Barking last night. But the spectre of anti-Semitism loomed large over proceedings.

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It was cold in Barking. No one had made the mistake of turning up in a light autumn jacket. They queued in heavy parkas, breathing mist into the air.

"I don't know why Margaret has been triggered," said Temi Oloyede, stamping his feet. "I remember how she fought against the BNP."

Margaret Hodge, 25 years the Labour representative for Barking, was standing for reselection. She had fallen victim to the reformed trigger ballot process. A year ago, Labour’s National Executive Committee approved the change, whereby a sitting Labour MP now needs the support of two-thirds of a constituency's wards to remain in place. Previously an MP only needed half. Thus, a month ago, on a turnout of roughly 10 per cent of Barking Labour Party members, Hodge was triggered for reselection.

"It's nice to see a change," said Fozol Miah, a former councillor in Tower Hamlets. "Fresh blood is better."

There were some recurring grievances amongst Hodge's detractors. They said that they deserved an MP who actually lived in their constituency, rather than in Islington. They said that they wanted their MP to get behind "our leader". Hodge had moved a motion of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn following the EU referendum, and it had not been forgotten.

"The demographics of the area have changed," said Omar Mir, the brother of another candidate, councillor Laila Butt. "My sister raised three kids on a council estate on minimum wage. She is the only person who can represent the people."

The queue shuffling into the Jo Richardson Community School was fantastically diverse  a rebuke to the area's recent history. Heading into the 2010 general election, there were 13 members of the BNP on the local council. Nick Griffin fought a vitriolic campaign again Hodge. In the end, Hodge retained the seat comfortably and the BNP councillors eventually lost theirs.

However, the question of bigotry has raised its head again in Barking. In the year that both Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman quit the Labour Party because of anti-Semitism, it seemed an unlikely coincidence that a third Jewish woman should face a campaign to unseat her.

"Personally, I have seen no evidence of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party," said Kasia Trykozko, a Labour Party member who grew up in Mile End and moved east to Barking because of high rents in central London.

As proceedings got underway, only Barking members were allowed inside the hall. The activists who had come from elsewhere to lend their support waited nervously outside. In their lapels they wore a strange combination of Palestinian flags, poppies and portraits of Corbyn. Whenever the door to the gym opened, they would cheer through the crack.

Trykozko emerged a couple of hours later, having cast her ballot. 

"I was sat at the back of the hall and I heard people saying that anti-Semitism had been made up by Margaret Hodge. They were saying things like 'she's filthy rich'. I felt disbelief and disappointment that this attitude is present in the Labour Party."

Of the six questions posed to Margaret Hodge during the hustings, one demanded she provide her personal definition of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, if anyone cared to look at her Wikipedia page on the day of the ballot, they would have seen an alternative history of her 2010 battle against the BNP. 

According to uncited sources, Hodge was a "blatant fascist" who spoke the same language as Tommy Robinson. In a convoluted argument, someone had suggested that Hodge was a defender of Nazism. Hodge's parents, living in Egypt at the outbreak of war, in fact had their German citizenship stolen from them by the Nazis.

In the end the victory was crushing. Hodge secured 233 votes. Her nearest rival managed 61. Her campaign team leapt on to the stage amid whoops of joy. 

"I feel humbled and grateful," said Hodge, who looked emotionally exhausted but resolute. "I built this politics in response to the threat of the BNP, to defend against fascism in the borough."

As janitors started turning off the lights, and Hodge prepared to brave the cold, she described the anti-Semitism she had experienced on the streets of her constituency:

"There were some disappointing things said on the doorsteps. But my view is it's always been present on the fringes because of confusion over Israel and Palestine."

As for the question of the trigger ballot process, Hodge, demanding her scarf from an aide, was less sparing in her criticism:

"It's completely crazy. The trigger ballot in no way reflected the support I have in Barking and Dagenham. These are unfair rules that allow a minority to disrupt what I am doing. It's been a distraction from campaigning."

With an imminent general election, Hodge will soon be out again on the chilly doorsteps of Barking. 

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.

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