Dame Margaret Hodge: ‘Keir Starmer gets a big tick on antisemitism… and a but’
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Dame Margaret Hodge: ‘Keir Starmer gets a big tick on antisemitism… and a but’

INTERVIEW: Veteran Jewish MP says it will 'take a long time to change the legacy of a culture left by Corbyn' but cautiously welcomes Starmer's measures to root out Jew-hate

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

2D8DAF0 Dame Margaret Hodge, Parliamentary Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, during a press conference by the JLM at the offices of Mishcon de Reya in London, following the publication of damming anti-Semitism report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
2D8DAF0 Dame Margaret Hodge, Parliamentary Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, during a press conference by the JLM at the offices of Mishcon de Reya in London, following the publication of damming anti-Semitism report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Dame Margaret Hodge has revealed she would award Labour leader Keir Starmer a “big tick” for his efforts to defeat the antisemites within the party – but she warns it will “take a long time to change the legacy of a culture left by Corbyn.”

Speaking exclusively to Jewish News ahead of the Labour Party Annual Conference, which begins this weekend, the outspoken MP admitted that so far as rebuilding trust with the Jewish community, Labour were still “at the starting gate, I recognise that.”

But while accepting that the toxic culture from the Corbyn era is still to be entirely extinguished, Hodge insisted the former leader should no longer be recognised as a “force”.

In a wide-ranging interview, the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement stopped short of calling for Corbyn’s expulsion from the party, following his suspension last November over comments suggesting the scale of antisemitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated” by his opponents.

Despite famously once branding him an “antisemite and a racist” Hodge suggested Corbyn could return from his suspension as Labour MP if he gave “a completely unconditional apology” to the Jewish community over his failings as a leader towards them and “accept in totality the EHRC recommendations”.

Speaking from her north London home, the former minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour governments was asked to give her verdict on the current party leader’s vow to make tackling antisemitism a top priority of his leadership.

“I think you could put a big tick against that, a big tick – and a but.” she responded.

Dame Margaret Hodge MP

“Keir has made it a priority, and I think we have taken massive action, expelled and suspended people.

“Hopefully this weekend, conference will agree the rule change that will enable us to have a sensible complaints mechanism.

“We are rolling out the training programme, (teaching members to recognise antisemitism), that’s been really good. ”

But the 77-year-old parliamentarian was more considered in her response as she reflected on the lasting damage inflicted on her party, particularly with regards to relations with a large section of the Jewish community.

“Corbyn has left a legacy of culture which is really, really hard to change,” she reasons. “It’s going to take a long time.

“And building confidence with the Jewish community – we are at the starting gate, and I recognise that.”

She recalls mulling over how to tackle “the Corbyn issue” ahead of a round of high-profile media interviews set up to coincide with the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report in antisemitism last October.

“I genuinely came to the conclusion he was irrelevant,” recalls Hodge. “I went into that day thinking I’m not going to talk about Corbyn.

Corbyn has left a legacy of culture which is really, really hard to change. It’s going to take a long time. And building confidence with the Jewish community – we are at the starting gate, and I recognise that.

“The victims of this ought to be the focus. It was about us, the Jewish community and its future relationship with the Labour Party.”

It was just ahead of her appearance on the BBC’s 1pm news bulletin, when Hodge learned Corbyn “had made himself the story” by issuing a statement questioning the extent of antisemitism in Labour at the same time as Starmer issued his response to the EHRC report.

“I was pretty furious,” says Hodge. “I thought this is an unsustainable position.

“And then Keir suspended him just as I was about to go on the news.”

Sir Keir Starmer (left) alongside former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (centre)

Arguing that Corbyn had himself “created the situation whereby he was suspended”, Hodge says she was “deeply upset and taken aback” when without warning the Labour leadership held discussions to readmit the former leader.

“I was not forewarned at all that they were going to have a disciplinary to readmit him,” she says.

“That was a shocking day – one of the most difficult.

“There I was having stayed in the party all through the Corbyn era. And suddenly I thought what on earth can I do now?

“I thought if they let him back with his views on the EHRC, I think I would have been in an impossible position.”

I genuinely came to the conclusion he was irrelevant. I went into that day thinking I’m not going to talk about Corbyn

Hodge reveals she was “quite close” to quitting the party she joined over 60 years ago for good last October.

She confessed: “My daughter said ‘mum you are crazy, you survived all of the Corbyn years – so you can’t go now’.”

As the Labour conference approaches, Corbyn’s staunchest allies, including John McDonnell, have called for the former leader’s continued suspension as an MP to be dropped.

Many in the Jewish community continue to call for him to be expelled.

Former Shadow chancellor John McDonnell. Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“The answer is in Jeremy’s hands,” says Hodge, when asked how she thinks the situation around the former leader’s future in Labour can be resolved.

“I’ve always thought he has got to offer a completely unconditional apology.

“He has got to accept in totality the EHRC recommendations and then he can think about his future – that’s up to him.

“But the longer it goes on the more difficult it is for him to give that apology – and the harder it is for the Jewish community to regard it as genuine.”

Hodge says that today, no longer able to exert any authority over the party, Corbyn is “not a force.”

“I’ve always thought he has got to offer a completely unconditional apology. He has got to accept in totality the EHRC recommendations and then he can think about his future – that’s up to him

She adds:”Have you looked at a Jeremy tweet recently? Who is he? Who does he get following him?”

Questioned about her view of Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford’s decision to speak at an event next week in Brighton alongside Ken Loach – the film director auto-excluded from Labour over his link to a now proscribed group that regularly downplayed allegations of antisemitism – Hodge again gives a response that will surprise some.

“If I am honest, I think you need to take a more sophisticated approach on this,” she says.

“If I’d have been Mark Drakeford, I’d have thought twice. I’d have asked who else was speaking at this event.

“But let me put this in a bigger context, because I once fought Nick Griffin, (the former leader of the far-right British National Party).

“During that whole period there was the idea that you shouldn’t share a platform with people who help views such as his. Do you remember he went on BBC Question Time?

“I’ve always believed the only way you really defeat race hate and promote anti-racism is through democratic discourse.

“Drakeford has been careless, but I don’t believe in silencing him.

“What I hope is that when he gets up on the platform he makes a very clear statement about antisemitism and the Labour Party.”

In an apparent olive branch to those on the left, Hodge said she believes Labour should always represent a “broad church” of views.

Mark Drakeford

She would appear to be content to allow Corbyn to rot on the Labour back-benches, if he could bring himself to properly apologise to the Jewish community.

Hodge, who was born in Cairo in 1944, to parents who had left Austria and Germany and who then moved to the UK, reflects on the time Labour was “the natural party for a Jew, an immigrant, which I was all of those things.”

She contrasts Labour one-time attractiveness to the UK Jewry, with the party’s struggle to win over some in the community today.

“You look at it in 2021 and Charlotte (Nichols) has joined us and has done very well. Alex (Sobel) is OK.

“Then there are a few men who it takes a lot to get them to stand up and be counted.”

She reasons that within the community itself – despite the near universal loathing of Corbyn – there is now a widespread demand for a “reconstituted Labour Party that they can vote for.”

I’ve always believed the only way you really defeat race hate and promote anti-racism is through democratic discourse. Drakeford has been careless, but I don’t believe in silencing him

For many years, Hodge herself had led a distant path in terms of engagement with the Jewish communal organisations during her distinguished political career, which included leading Islington Council in north London and going on to chair the powerful Public Accounts Committee.

It took the battle against rampant antisemitism in Labour after Corbyn become leader in 2015 to bring Hodge much closer to the community again, even though she had always stated that her Jewish roots were “what defines me.”

For someone with such an outwardly confident, (and charming) persona, it is a surprise to hear that Hodge was nervous at first speaking at communal events about her fight against antisemitism in the Labour Party.

She admitted the reception she received from most in the community as she spoke at events “warmed my soul”.

There is, Hodge reflects, “a very strong strain of radicalism within the Jewish community – a lot of young people that give me hope for the future.”

She singles out the activists from JLM who turned out to support her in her successful fight to defeat a hard-left attempt to have her deselected from her parliamentary seat in Barking, an area she had represented since 1994.

(back row left to right) Mike Katz, Ruth Smeeth, Adam Langleben, (front row) Margaret Hodge and Peter Mason, during a press conference by the Jewish Labour Movement at the offices of Mishcon de Reya in London, following the publication of damming anti-Semitism report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

“The Jewish Labour Movement came out and were utterly stunningly brilliant it helping me fight that nomination,” says Hodge, who also stressed how many young Muslim party members in Barking also stood up to support her in her eventual defeat of who she described as the “old left.”

In her wider battle against the anti-Jewish racists that entered the party under Corbyn, she, perhaps surprisingly stops short of calling for him to be booted out of the party.

Hodge has known Corbyn since they crossed paths regularly during her days at the helm of Islington Council.

Indeed, she recalls a time when Nicaragua, rather than Palestine, appeared to be the Islington North MP’s main priority.

In July 2018, in one of the most high-profile incidents of a summer dominated by headlines around the antisemitism crisis under Corbyn, Hodge had openly confronted the then Labour leader in the House of Commons over his refusal to adopt the full IHRA definition of antisemitism.

It was an incident that ensured the MP became a hate figure amongst Corbyn’s hardcore activist base, and Hodge has publicly spoken out about barrage of online hate directed towards her.

While some in the Jewish community lauded her actions, other questioned her decision to remain in the same party as Corbyn, especially after the departures of other Jewish MPs such as Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman.

Labour MPs Margaret Hodge (second left), Jess Phillips (third left) and former MPs Luciana Berger (second right) and Louise Ellman at a demonstration outside the Labour party disciplinary hearing for Marc Wadsworth in London.
Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Perhaps less well known, is the hatred directed at Hodge from right-wing elements within the Jewish community over this period.

One vile message the MP shows to Jewish News that arrived via email in July 2019 read:”Kapos made it easier for the concentration camps to exist. You are doing the same for Corbyn’s Labour Party.”

Hodge, who will be amongst the speakers at JLM’s event at Labour conference on Sunday, reflects on a period in which there was from all sides “one hell of a lot of hostility.”

On the confrontation with Corbyn she says;”I did call him an antisemite and a racist.

“I said to myself ‘don’t swear ‘ because it will diminish my words. And I also said he was making it a hostile environment for Jews. All that stuff.

“What is interesting is that he is passive aggressive, so he can’t really engage.

“And I’ve had my arguments with leaders in the past – Tony Blair and Ed Miliband. But Corbyn he is passive aggressive. ”

Hodge recalls the daily conversation with her legal team at Mishcon de Reya during this period over a disciplinary case brought against her for the confrontation with Corbyn, which would have led to her being kicked out of the party.

While her lawyers put up a stout defence, Hodge reveals John McDonnell, then shadow chancellor, was a surprising voice who argued to keep her in the party.

“I’ve known him forever, he used to work for me,” she says of McDonnell. “I always describe him as Jeckyll and Hyde.”

Hodge speaks more enthusiastically again about the state of the Labour Party today.

I’ve had my arguments with leaders in the past – Tony Blair and Ed Miliband. But Corbyn he is passive aggressive

On the party position regarding Israel – so often an inflammatory zone under Corbyn – she credits both Starmer and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy for recognising there must be clarity over “support for the existence of a state for the Jews. ”

She also says there is recognition of the anger caused within the community when there is an apparent obsession with Israel while “atrocities” committed by other countries go unnoticed.

“People talk about the excesses of the Israeli government without understanding the threat to the state,” says Hodge.

But in regards to highlighting human rights issues around the Palestinians, she says the party must continue to be outspoken.

“I think there are a lot of Jews who just wish the human rights abuses, the excesses when there is a genuine threat, they have to be called out.”

On Sunday, Labour’s conference will take the crucial vote on the changes to the disciplinary procedures and the need for an independent process on cases involving antisemitism, as laid out in the EHRC report.

I’ve known him [McDonnell] forever, he used to work for me. I always describe him as Jeckyll and Hyde

“I’m hoping the vote will go through unanimously,” says Hodge. “But there are a small number of antisemites we haven’t dealt with. There’s no room for them.”

Her message to those who intend to defy the party leadership with what is a legal requirement by the EHRC?

Hodge responds: “Can’t we ever learn from our mistakes?

“We must never, ever let this happen again. For me it has been emotionally draining, this whole period.

“I never thought I’d be fighting anti Jew hate in the Labour Party. If they don’t get it by now I will be deeply shocked.”

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