Margaret Hodge interview: Corbyn and his clique will never win power

Written by David Singleton on 21 September 2016 in Interview
Interview

The former chair of the public accounts committee discusses five years of fighting for taxpayers - and the ongoing battle over Labour's future.

Margaret Hodge is sporting a healthy glow after a summer break in Sicily. “I’ve had a really good holiday,” she beams. “You can tell – I’m bronzed!”

The Labour MP for Barking has evidently enjoyed being far removed from her party’s internal squabbles. Having previously plunged the knife into Jeremy Corbyn and prompted numerous MPs to express their dissatisfaction with the leader, Hodge makes it clear that she did not speak to Labour colleagues over the summer. And she appears all the merrier for it.

But having returned to Westminster, Hodge is ready to engage once again.

“I’m absolutely convinced that Jeremy Corbyn and his clique who are in control will never be in government. I’m convinced that’s the case,” she says, as she sits down to chat shortly after the summer recess.

She stands firmly by her letter of no confidence in Corbyn, which was subsequently backed by 172 Labour MPs and led to a spate of shadow cabinet resignations.

“I think that figure would be up today. But it says something about the arrogance of the man doesn’t it, to think that he can lead when the overwhelming voice of the PLP says we have no confidence.

“It’s extraordinary. I used to think he was a decent man, I’m now not so sure.”

She is also deeply unimpressed by rumoured Corbynite plans to remove Labour’s general secretary.

“The whole thing is so inward looking, it’s pathetic,” she says. “I lived through the 80s… so I know these guys. I knew John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone and those people in the 80s. I know how they operate and what their real agenda is. And that’s not an interest in winning, it’s an interest in the movement and creating impossible demands so that capitalism implodes.”

Hodge clearly prides herself on getting things done. While Corbyn supporters may never forget her no confidence motion earlier this year, more seasoned political observers will know Hodge for her five year stint as chair of the public accounts committee.

Those five years are the focus of her new book, Called to Account: How Corporate Bad Behaviour and Government Waste Combine to Cost us Millions.

From her parliamentary office with impressive views over the Palace of Westminster, Hodge says the book is “not a traditional memoir, more a recounting of that period”.  It explains how she forced the issues such as corporate tax avoidance and the failings of HM Revenue and Customs to the top of the political agenda.

What is she most proud of? Hodge says that shining a light on tax avoidance is probably the thing that most people will remember from her time in the chair. But there are “the small achievements that are really important”, such as stopping public service organisations from using 0845 numbers.

She also enthuses about hauling up outsourcing firms such as Serco, Capita and G4S to make their case to the committee: “In the past no-one had ordered a private company to give evidence to the public accounts committee, they’d always done it through the permanent secretary. I changed that.”

 

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During her five years as committee chair, Hodge became well-known for her tough questioning, with many newspapers describing her as “fearsome” in their write-ups.  She acknowledges that her approach often annoyed people – and is entirely unapologetic.

“The civil servants hated it… they disliked the way I performed and made that clear to me. And I think my riposte is: it wasn’t my job to make them like me, it was my job to defend and promote the taxpayers’ interest. And actually if they did like me I probably wasn’t doing my job properly,” she says.

“I came into the job having just fought a four-year campaign against Nick Griffin in Barking and Dagenham and that really transformed how I chose to do my politics.

“I was very conscious of that… I felt I was asking what the people of Barking and Dagenham wanted me to ask. Not what the elite establishment that constitutes the Westminster bubble are used to.”

One company that famously came unstuck during a Hodge grilling was Google. As the firm’s northern Europe boss Matt Brittin stood accused of misleading parliament over the firm's tax affairs, Hodge told him: "You are a company that says you 'do no evil'. And I think that you do do evil."

Asked whether the soundbite was pre-prepared for the evening news and the next day's newspapers, Hodge suggests not:  “I was so cross by the end of the session with the arrogance of Google, not feeling any sense of responsibility… I was so incensed by it all that I just let it slip. And it became a headline.”

But presumably she did prepare the odd phrase with a view to grabbing the media's attention? “Out of the questions would come a few soundbites," she concedes. "But more often than not they were instinctive.”

Who was the worst witness? Hodge is momentarily lost for words as she considers the cast of characters that appeared before the committee during her time at the helm.

“Oh my goodness…. There were a few. People got a tough time from us when they were evasive, when they didn’t answer questions directly, when they waffled on and didn’t address the issue."

Hodge recalls one particularly poor performance by an executive from Amazon. “They clearly thought the way of dealing with us was to send someone low down the pecking order with orders not to answer the questions. He was deeply irritating. He irritated the whole committee.”

She also had a tough time with one senior civil servant. “One witness I found most frustrating was the permanent secretary at the DWP, because he tried to be too clever by half. He was a statistician by trade and you know how you can use statistics to divert and obfuscate and cloud the issue. And that’s what he did.”

 

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Before she was elected as chair of the public accounts committee in 2010, Hodge held a variety of ministerial jobs under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

She struggles to say which of her posts had the most influence, but she is that sure that she had “more public connection” as public accounts committee chair. And more job security.

“I knew I was there for five years. Knowing that made a huge difference to your approach, because you knew that you didn’t have to do everything yesterday because there might not be a tomorrow. I could plan to do things and come back to issues. So that was completely and utterly brilliant.”

Despite her attacks on Corbyn, Hodge is similarly confident that she will not be turfed out of her constituency any time soon. “I’m certainly not worried about deselection – my party are completely behind me. The vast majority do not support Jeremy Corbyn,” she says.

Like most Labour loyalists, Hodge is vehemently opposed to any kind of split. “Oh no. We stay in the Labour party, it’s our party,” she insists.

So what can Hodge and her fellow moderates do to save the party? After 12 years as a minister and five as a powerful select committee chair, the Barking and Dagenham MP suggests that she might finally be passing the baton to the next generation.

“I know that there are a lot of young people in there, men and women of all colours and backgrounds who have got huge talent. And I can see potential David Blunketts, Charles Clarkes, Robin Cooks – there’s a lot of talent there, it’s just got to be given the opportunity to blossom and show itself.”

 

 

 

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