The Jewish Chronicle

Margaret Hodge


THE CHANCES are that executives at the Starbucks coffee chain will not be raising a cup of festive froth to Margaret Hodge this month. Neither will the top people at Amazon, Google or eBay, all of whom have come under the sharp gaze of Margaret Hodge, the feisty former Labour minister who is now chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Last year, she publicly humiliated the head of the Inland Revenue when her committee discovered that it had done a deal with Goldman Sachs that let them off millions of pounds of tax. Now she has set her sights on foreign companies who appear to make large profits in the UK but pay less corporatio­n tax than some high-street businesses.

Since her early days in politics, Hodge’s combative nature has made her a formidable foe, initially on the left wing of the Labour Party. She was born in Egypt in 1944 to Hans and Lisbeth Oppenheime­r, a Jewish family who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. As antisemiti­sm grew in Egypt around the time of the Israeli War of Independen­ce, the Oppenheime­rs were forced to move again, in 1948, this time to London, where Oppenheime­r founded Stemcor, which is today one of the world’s largest privately owned steel companies.

After a spell in market research following a mediocre degree from the LSE, Hodge (then Margaret Watson, following her first marriage) was elected to Islington Council. In 1978, she married Henry Hodge, then a Labour councillor and eventually a High Court judge. He died in 2009.

In 1982, Margaret Hodge became council leader, gaining the nickname Enver Hodge — a reference to Albanian despot Enver Hoxha.

In 1985, Demetrious Panton complained that he suffered abuse while in the care of Islington Council in the 1970s and 1980s, and claimed that Hodge, as council leader, had ultimate responsibi­lity. The controvers­y rumbled on, coming to a head when Hodge was appointed as the first Minister for Children by Tony Blair in 2003. After a media campaign calling for Hodge to resign, she described Panton as “extremely disturbed”, and was forced to apologise publicly.

In 2005, she told the Sunday Telegraph that eight out of 10 voters in her Barking constituen­cy might be tempted to vote BNP because no one else was listening to them. When the BNP did well in the subsequent local elections, some Labour activists blamed her and called for her de-selection. However, she held on to her seat and went on to contest the 2010 election against BNP leader Nick Griffin. On Griffin’s reason for fighting the seat, Hodge concluded that: “He hates women, he hates Jews and he hates immigrants — and I am all of them.”

She faced abuse — one BNP activist told her on election day to “go back to Germany with the rest of the thieving MPs”.

But Hodge, undoubtedl­y one of this country’s great political survivors, doubled her majority to 16,000 and pushed the BNP into third place.

Controvers­y still follows Hodge around. There have been attempts to destabilis­e her in her job at the PAC. The Telegraph published a story last month that Stemcor, whose chief executive is Hodge’s brother, Ralph Oppenheime­r, and of which Hodge is a shareholde­r, paid just 0.01 per cent tax on the £2.1 billion they generated in the UK last year.

Hodge replied with typical pugnacity that the company “have always promised that they do absolutely nothing to avoid tax. I would be very mad if I found out differentl­y.”

It is a warning that Stemcor bosses would do well to heed.

I naively thought that, with the ceasefire called for Operation Pillar of Defence, I might have a quiet week. But there is no such thing as a quiet week if you work for an organisati­on that is focused on Israel.

On Monday I meet leaders from the youth movement FZY to talk about how Bicom and We Believe in Israel can help with their Israel education work and training their members in campaign skills. We are planning to meet each of the UK Jewish youth movements — mobilising young people in the community is a top priority. In the evening, I meet up with three local activists to discuss grassroots advocacy: Steven Jaffe from Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, David Levenson from Belmont for Israel and Jack Green from Kingston, who is doing interfaith outreach with some fairly hostile audiences, including Methodist and Quaker groups. Being a foodie I am pleased to have this meeting over a salt-beef sandwich at Reubens.

The next day, I am the guest speaker at the executive of the Jewish Labour Movement, the successor of Poale Zion. The JLM is a much underused resource — it gives Jewish members of the Labour Party a formal voice at every level of the party’s policy-making. Despite the best efforts of Bicom colleagues, I am still not sure I pronounce “chaver” properly when starting my speech.

Wednesday is spent preparing for an event in Glasgow at the weekend, writing a response to some very searching questions about the peace process put to me and Caabu staffer Seph Brown by blogger Emma Burnell, and sending my weekly We Believe email. The obvious focus is the UN vote on Palestine’s unilateral upgrade bid.

I take Thursday off work, partly for a hospital appointmen­t. I am recovering from a rare cancer and neurologic­al disease called POEMS Syndrome, and need to have sixmonthly blood tests. I am delighted to hear that I won’t need any more PET-CT scans, especially as my consultant tells me that each one was putting as much radiation into me as 1100 chest x-rays. In the afternoon I go to Croydon with some fellow Hackney Labour activists to campaign for my friend Steve Reed in the parliament­ary by-election. As I’m an election junkie, this really is my idea of a relaxing day off.

The evening is a bit of a game of two halves. As a supporter of Israel, I have a miserable time watching the UN vote 138-9 for Palestinia­n unilateral­ism (at least Palau is on our side) but, as a Labour supporter, I get to watch three thumping by-election wins (including a crushing rejection of George Galloway’s Respect in Rotherham).

On Friday night, we host dinner for my friend Joe Goldberg, a senior councillor in Haringey, and his wife Jo-ann, my former boss at PR company Weber Shandwick. Strangely enough, we end up talking about Israel a fair bit. After a lovely Saturday with full attention on my two sons, who are aged seven and 11 months, the week ends on a high note on Sunday. I fly up to Glasgow and speak to 80 Israel activists from across Scotland, Jewish and Christian, at Giffnock Synagogue, alongside Hasan Afzal, a very brave Muslim supporter of Israel. It is an inspiring meeting and it is great to see links made between different activists that will help us make Israel’s case in Scotland. Luke Akehurst is director of the We Believe in Israel network

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