The veteran Labour politician, Dame Margaret Hodge, has said she was “wrong” about her previous opinions of Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn, before her denunciation of the Labour leader as an antisemitic racist in July this year.
Speaking to Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland in the Jewish Labour Movement’s one-day conference at JW3, Dame Margaret said that she had previously encountered Ken Livingstone when she was the Labour leader of Islington Council and he was at the Greater London Council.
“He would call me by my maiden name, Oppenheimer, and draw links with the rich South African Oppenheimers”, she said. There was no relationship and Oppenheimer was a common name in Vienna, where her father came from, but she admitted she “didn’t appreciate” what Livingstone was doing by defining her in this way.
Asked to spell out exactly what she had said to Jeremy Corbyn, Dame Margaret insisted that she had not sworn at the Labour leader when she verbally attacked him. What angered her, she said, was that “in the middle of one of the most crucial votes on Europe, Labour was concerning itself with whether or not to adopt the IHRA [resolution on antisemitism]”.
There had been a parliamentary meeting on the night before the vote, she said, which Labour were losing, but “Jeremy Corbyn didn’t bother to come to the meeting”. Instead he was having dinner in the Commons.
After she had spoken to him, she said, “he wouldn’t engage. All he said was, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’, and walked off.” She cited the “antisemitic rant” made at an NEC meeting by Pete Willsman and said that for Jeremy Corbyn to have sat there and listened to it without intervening was “unconscionable”.
Dame Margaret had previously defended Jeremy Corbyn against charges of antisemitism but said she had changed her view of him after the row about the controversial mural showing stereotypical “Jewish bankers”. Nobody, she said, could look at such a mural and not conclude that they were looking at antisemitism, but Corbyn had initially accepted it.
Asked by Jonathan Freedland whether, if Labour passed the IHRA definition in full, with no caveats, that the antisemitism issue would be over, Dame Margaret said: “I think the moment has passed. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn is the problem.”
Nevertheless, despite rumours to the contrary, Dame Margaret made it clear that she was prepared to stay and fight. “It’s my Labour Party,” she said, “and the party is bigger than Corbyn”.
She conceded that she had not had a great deal to say or do about her Jewish identity in earlier years, despite being a typical Labour story — an immigrant, from Cairo, who fought for equality and social justice.
But she said her two sisters had been going through family papers and had found distressing letters and diaries of relatives who had been killed in the Holocaust. Her father had famously warned her to keep a packed suitcase in the hall in case once again, she needed to be a Jew on the move. But she admitted to the Jewish News that she had not taken his advice literally — “I do have a packed case in my head”.