Interview'The hard left has completely imploded very, very quickly'

Veteran MP calls vote for new UK Labour head ‘a fight for the soul of the party’

As British opposition picks successor to Jeremy Corbyn on April 4, head of the Jewish Labour Movement Margaret Hodge believes the party is about to turn a corner

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Margaret Hodge speaks during the Jewish Labour Movement Conference in London, September 2, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/via JTA)
Margaret Hodge speaks during the Jewish Labour Movement Conference in London, September 2, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/via JTA)

LONDON — For British lawmaker Margaret Hodge, the anti-Semitism crisis which has roiled the opposition Labour party for the past four years has been intensely personal.

“It’s affected my sense of identity,” says the veteran MP and former minister, who in January became the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).

“I have always been a very secular Jew,” Hodge tells The Times of Israel in an interview as Labour prepares to announce the results of its vote for new leader on April 4 following the party’s landslide defeat in December’s general election.

“I’m an immigrant; we came here when I was four,” Hodge says. “We never really kept the festivals. We were part of that generation that assimilated. My parents were refugees. I think that [they] were really anxious that we should be part of British society.”

But all that changed when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party in September 2015.

My Jewish identity has now become part of my political action

“I suddenly started receiving a lot of anti-Semitic postings on social media and I realized that it was an issue,” recalls Hodge. “So, ironically, on a very personal level, my Jewish identity has now become part of my political action. I never believed that that would happen; I just never ever, ever thought that it would be part of what I worked on.”

Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks on stage at a rally as he campaigns for the general election in Swansea, south Wales on December 7, 2019. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

But Hodge has also never been one to back away from a fight — as she showed in 2010 when the leader of the British National Party (BNP), Nick Griffin, attempted to unseat her in that year’s general election. Barking — Hodge’s largely white, working-class constituency on the outskirts of London — was seen as fertile ground by the far-right party and its best shot at a parliamentary breakthrough.

But, at the end of a bitter and divisive campaign which received intense media scrutiny, Hodge easily retained the seat and doubled her majority. Griffin and the BNP, whose national vote fell from over 500,000 in 2010 to barely 500 in last year’s general election, never quite recovered from the humiliation inflicted by Hodge.

Defeating the BNP was, Hodge says, “the most important battle of my life” until the Labour anti-Semitism crisis broke. “Fighting racism is what I am about; it’s me, it’s my identity. The fight for the heart and soul of the Labour party has… been a very all-encompassing and important fight for me.”

Illustrative: British National Party (BNP) former leader Nick Griffin, center, talks to his supporters during a demonstration in central London, June 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

“The pressure has been enormous,” she admits, “and there were times when you just felt it was a fight you could never win.”

It also appears to have been somewhat disorientating for her. “I joined the Labour party because I was an immigrant Jew,” the former minister says. “It was the party that stood up against racism, that was internationalist in its outlook and promoted equality. This whole set of values that had made it the natural home for people like me was suddenly being challenged.”

This sense of the political ground shifting beneath her feet was coupled with a “constant stream of abuse.” It has been, she says, “horrible, ugly and unpleasant.”

I joined the Labour party because I was an immigrant Jew

“You’ve got to build a very sort of tough barrier so it doesn’t really impact on you personally,” Hodge says. “That’s been rather difficult and it’s also spilled over in terms of my family.”

The twin fights she has engaged in — against the BNP and anti-Semites in the Labour party — have, Hodge argues, taught her the “similarities between the extreme left and the extreme right.” Indeed, she says, one of the staff who monitors her social media even discovered that BNP material which had been produced in the run-up to the 2010 generation had been “copied and pasted and used by the ultra-left to abuse me now. That is shocking and shows the links between the extremists.”

Margaret Hodge addresses the UK’s Policy Exchange think tank, March 16, 2012. (Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-2.0/ flickr/ Policy Exchange)

The abuse 75-year-old Hodge received was a noxious cocktail of anti-Semitism, misogyny and ageism.

“I got a lot of that ‘you old, Jewish, Zionist hag’ thing,” she says. Hodge points to research which shows that she and another Jewish parliamentarian, former Labour MP Luciana Berger, received about 20 percent more abusive postings on social media than two prominent male Jewish MPs, former Labour leader Ed Miliband and the former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Hodge makes clear, however, that she no intention of letting it deter her. “I think women are tougher anyway,” she says. “In the Parliamentary Labour Party the women have led the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Asked if she ever considered leaving the Labour party as a number of other MPs, including Jewish parliamentarians Louise Ellman and Berger, did, she responds: “Obviously, all the time. I think this is a very personal decision and I totally respect people have gone different ways.”

Illustrative: Activists outside a meeting of the Labour National Executive Committee in London, Tuesday, September 4, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)

Hodge, however, decided to stay. “I’ve been a member of the Labour party for a long time — 57 years — and the party has been around for 110 years,” she says. “Corbyn had only been there for three or four years. I wasn’t prepared to allow him — him as an individual or Corbynism as a movement — to just completely destroy the party that had been such an important part of my life, so I wanted to fight for it.”

A turning point?

Last December’s general election, at which Hodge was reelected for a sixth time, may prove a turning-point, she hopes. The former minister, who has long been associated with Labour’s once-dominant, moderate wing, is dismissive of the reasons provided by Corbyn’s supporters for the party’s crushing defeat.

“The ultra-left tried to create a narrative which made them blameless — so the reason that they lost the election was Brexit and the media full stop,” she says. “That is just a deliberate attempt to rewrite history.”

Instead, Hodge insists, the blame for Labour’s defeat lies squarely at Corbyn’s feet. Voters, she notes, thought he was incompetent and, because of his anti-American and anti-NATO stance, did not believe that he would keep the country safe. Corbyn’s program for a Labour government played a part too. The party’s manifesto, Hodge argues, was “a confetti of promises. Nobody believed them and they were unaffordable.”

Crucial too, she says, was voters’ belief that Labour had become “the nasty party.” When she began campaigning on the subject, pollsters warned Hodge not to use the term “anti-Semitism,” telling her that “nobody understood it.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on December 19, 2019. (HANNAH MCKAY/POOL/AFP)

What was “sad but interesting,” she says, is that by the time of the general election “everybody understood anti-Semitism.” The issue had, moreover, come to symbolize “the nasty, bullying culture that the ultra-left had stimulated” within the Labour party.

Hodge says she is surprised that, in the wake of Labour’s defeat, “the hard left has completely imploded very, very quickly.” She is buoyed by the fact that “huge numbers of people joined the party after the election to ensure that we don’t just get rid of Corbyn but we get rid of Corbynism.”

The nature of the party, Hodge believes, “will change much more quickly than I had thought it would.” She now thinks it likely that Sir Keir Starmer, the choice of most moderate MPs and party members, will defeat the hard-left candidate, Rebecca Long Bailey, and be announced as the winner of the 2020 Labour leadership election — and Corbyn’s replacement.

Britain’s opposition Labour party Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Keir Starmer delivers a speech at their election campaign event on Brexit in Harlow, England, November 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

“I thought this was going to be the most enormous tussle of my life,” Hodge says. “Before the election I’d have been in a very different place from [now]. Thank goodness it’s been a much easier battle than I thought it would be.”

Steps to eradicate anti-Semitism

Hodge recognizes that there are still huge challenges ahead. She says a new leader should take three immediate steps to show their seriousness about tackling anti-Semitism.

First, the party needs to introduce a “completely independent” complaints system to restore shattered confidence in its disciplinary processes. Second, it must adopt a “zero tolerance” policy and ensure that the cases of those accused of anti-Semitism, especially “some leading figures in positions of power and authority,” are dealt with “really firmly, explicitly, quickly and thoroughly.” Finally, Hodge wants to see Labour “open the door” to mainstream Jewish organizations so that talks with the party can begin again.

As parliamentary chair of the party’s Jewish affiliate, Hodge pledges to ensure that, if he wins, Starmer “really sticks to what he has said and roots out anti-Semitism absolutely.”

The recommendations of the investigation into anti-Semitism in the party being conducted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Britain’s anti-racism watchdog, are expected this summer and must be “strongly adhered to,” Hodge adds. While accepting that it will be a “massive struggle” she says she also wants to begin the process of “rebuilding confidence in the Labour party” among the Jewish community.

Hodge says a key test — one that Starmer has himself set for eradicating anti-Semitism in the party — will be the response of Jews who have left Labour.

Louise Ellman resigned from the Labour party due to what she described as systemic anti-Semitism within the party. (Courtesy)

“It is only when people like Louise Ellman feel that [they] can come back into the party that [we] will really have sorted it,” she says. Ellman, herself a former parliamentary chair of JLM and a member of the party for 50 years before she quit last year, is “very symbolic.”

Hodge says that surveys which show that nearly three-quarters of Labour members believe the issue of anti-Semitism in the party was either “invented” or “wildly exaggerated” by the “right-wing media and opponents” of Corbyn are “depressing.”

“There’s always been anti-Semitism on the ultra-left,” Hodge argues. “What changed under Corbyn was that it went from the fringes to the mainstream and became accepted. So the task of now expelling it has to be led by the new leader.”

She draws on her experience of fighting the far-right to call for a battle to win the “hearts and minds” of party members. “I always believed when I fought Nick Griffin [and the BNP] that you had to beat him democratically,” Hodge says. “You had to expose the evil nature of their project democratically and wins the hearts and minds of people against them, which is what we did in all sorts of ways. And I feel the same with the ultra-left.”

Margaret Hodge addresses the UK’s Institute for Government, January 20, 2011. (Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-2.0/ Institute for Government)

Can such a strategy work? Hodge says she has had conversations with Labour members who joined the hard-left Momentum pressure group — some of them “young idealists who thought Corbyn was giving a message of hope when everybody else was being more managerial in their approach” — who have “been disgusted by, and have understood, the appalling nature of the anti-Semitism” which has been allowed to grow in the party.

“In the talks I do, I often just read out some of the abuse I have received and it’s shocking,” Hodge says. “But it’s really important that people hear it, because then they can understand the depth and the reach of the abuse. My job is to convince people that this is real abuse that needs to be tackled.”

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