Margaret Hodge: ‘I had my first death threat in 1976 – I’ve developed a hard edge’

Labour veteran Dame Margaret reflects on 30 years in Parliament battling racism, tax dodgers and death threats


Over the course of her career Dame Margaret Hodge has famously battled the BNP and confronted Jeremy Corbyn for presiding over an antisemitic Labour Party (Photo: Getty)

When Margaret Hodge was nine years old, an immigration officer in a black suit knocked on her family’s front door. Her father served cucumber sandwiches, fruitcake and tea as the officer grilled a young Margaret and her six-year-old sister about the books they read and toys they played with.

Seventy years on, the veteran Labour MP has surely passed whatever test she was being put through, while those early moments remain pivotal in her fight against racism.

“They were as hostile then as they are today,” she tells the JC, as she serves smoked salmon bagels at home in London.

Now, aged 79, Dame Margaret is standing down as MP for Barking after 30 years in Parliament and 50 as an elected official. Among the accolades she has collected and the achievements for which she has been celebrated during her career the parliamentarian has been awarded an MBE and a Damehood; has changed the way corporations do tax in the UK; and has fought both the BNP and Jeremy Corbyn.

Born Margaret Oppenheimer in Egypt in 1944 to German parents who left Europe before the Holocaust, Dame Margaret lived her early life in the shadow of the Shoah. Most of her extended family were slaughtered by the Nazis, and her parents feared surging Jew-hate in the Middle East. When a stone was thrown through her father’s office window in Alexandria, the family fled Egypt. They arrived as refugees in the UK, the only English-speaking country that would accept them, in 1948.

The Egypt of Dame Margaret’s infancy was “a very cosmopolitan community, it was a lovely life,” she remembers. She attributes her love of languages to this upbringing; a polyglot, Dame Margaret speaks German, French, Italian and a bit of Arabic.

After landing in RAF Northolt on the outer edge of west London, she and her family ended up in a B&B. Recalling her first impressions of the UK, with its grey skies, she says: “It was freezing, and the food was disgusting.”

The family had been rendered stateless in Egypt and her father had his daughter christened in the Greek Orthodox church in a bid to secure exit visas. Once safely in England, he was desperate for his family to integrate. They never attended synagogue nor had Shabbat dinner, but most of their friends were fellow German Jews who had escaped Hitler.

Reflecting on the first time she entered a shul, as an adult, Dame Margaret says: “It felt like my family, I felt comfortable.” Today she is a Jewish atheist, but concedes: "Synagogue life is quite attractive. For a lot of Jews, it is not the religion that takes them there.”

Dame Margaret joined the Labour Party aged 17, “because it was an international party and it fought racism.” Her father, a Tory-voting steelworker, nearly kicked his socialist daughter out of the family home when Harold Wilson was elected in 1964.

It was a friend who suggested she run for council when she tired of changing nappies as a young mother in the 1970s. She was elected to Islington Council in 1973, soon ascended to chair the housing committee and then became council leader.

At 34, she was appointed an MBE for her work on housing in Islington. Her father was “absolutely over the moon”, she says.

“I had become an established member of society. All he ever wanted to do was integrate – it doesn’t get more integrated than that.”

Dame Margaret’s mother died when her daughter was a child, and her parents never saw her elected to Parliament, or her Damehood, but she swells with pride when she considers what they would have made of her achievements.

While she never hid her Jewish identity — “it was never a big deal” — neither did it play a part in her political life for most of her career: "I've never been an identity politician, which is much more fashionable now. In the very early days, people would call me ‘Oppenheimer’, but it was it was a trope: ‘She's an Oppenheimer, she's rich, she's Jewish.’”

(Dame Margaret is not related to the South African Oppenheimer fortune, nor the infamous physicist, although she thinks there might be a connection via two marriages.)

Her first major public fight against racism occurred in 2010 when she took on the then British National Party leader Nick Griffin, who stood against her in Barking. Forced to change the way she did politics, Dame Margaret did away with party meetings and focused on talking to constituents.

"It is about connecting to people, not bothering with party meetings or trade union meetings or cutting ribbons for town hall events. It is all about coffee meetings and street meetings, campaigns around specific issues and door-to-door conversations. It is about always listening to what people want to talk about, not regurgitating what is going in the Westminster bubble.”

The BNP produced a leaflet that warned voters of “ten things you should know” about Dame Margaret.” The same wording was copied years later when supporters of Jeremy Corbyn sought to discredit her, she says.

“The hard left and the hard right have a lot in common,” she says, as she reflects on her time fighting antisemitism from within Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Having never drawn much attention to her Jewish identity, from 2015 she was confronted by a stream of “disgusting” antisemitic abuse. This period coincided with accusations that Ken Livingstone — then still a member of the Labour Party — was a “Nazi apologist” for describing Hitler as a Zionist. Livingstone refused to apologise, saying he “stood by” his comments and was suspended from the Labour Party.

Dame Margaret had an inkling earlier in her career that Livingstone might have harboured antisemitic prejudice: “I was running Islington Council, so I had endless meetings with Ken. I would walk in, and he would sneer: ‘Here comes the Oppenheimer.’ I would come home and say to my husband, ‘I am sure he is being antisemitic, but he cannot be because he is an antiracist.’”

Livingstone has denied he is antisemitic.

When she began to be bombarded with a torrent of antisemitic abuse on social media and in letters, emails and phone calls from 2015, she was ready to call it out, and met with fellow Jewish Labour politicians Luciana Berger, Baroness Ruth Anderson and to discuss the issue.

“We had these meetings where we said: ‘what can we do to stop it?’”

“All during the fight against Corbyn, the men did nothing. It was the four women. The men just wouldn’t stand up. We are stronger, Jewish women: Luciana, me, Ruth and Louise.”

By July 2018, after controversies including Corbyn’s support for the creator of an antisemitic mural and his remark that a group of Zionists did not “understand English irony”, Labour finally refused to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s full definition of antisemitism.

Dame Margaret confronted Corbyn in Parliament, accusing him of presiding over an antisemitic Labour Party.

“I could never have lived with myself if I hadn’t spoken up,” she says now, and she does not hold back in her criticism of the Jewish MPs who remained quiet.

“Ed Miliband never did a thing. There was a point during the IHRA definition debate, and we had a parliamentary Labour Party meeting. I said to him: ‘You’ve got to come.’ He could have made a difference — his status [as former Labour leader] was higher than ours — if he had intervened and said something. He didn’t.”

Although there are similarities in her battle with the BNP and Corbyn, it is with sadness that she notes: “When I came out of the BNP [fight], which was horrible, and there was a lot of antisemitism, I came out with joy, but when I defeated Corbyn, I never felt joy. I felt a disgust that antisemitism had infected our party.”

The Community Security Trust now monitors Dame Margaret’s social media mentions, such is the level of hatred she attracts. Many of the messages look like they are straight out of a Joseph Goebbels manual, but she doesn’t let them bother her: “I had my first death threat in 1976, so I have developed a hard edge.”

Much of the abuse she receives is focused on Israel — but Dame Margaret herself has had a fraught relationship with the country, pointing to the divides between Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and religious and non-religious.

She first visited Israel in the 1960s when she spent six months on a kibbutz: “I thought I was in heaven.”

A subsequent visit with a boyfriend turned her off, however: “I couldn't stand it. It was just after the war, so you went to the Arab quarters and there were some white flags or a torn white shirt, and people living in these hovels. And then you would go into West Jerusalem, where there were neon lights.”

On a trip in 1994, she met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and remembers his monogrammed cufflinks — she despairs over his leadership.

Gradually, she has grown more attached to the country and today is committed to Israel, working with the New Israel Fund to advocate for progressive politics in the region.

Shortly before the Hamas attack, Dame Margaret visited the country and met parties from most sides of the table, concluding: “The Israeli left is absolutely hopeless, although they’re getting themselves organised now; Netanyahu is awful; the PLO is ghastly. I felt there was such dysfunctional leadership in Israel, it needed external intervention to calm it down.”

She also travelled to Kfar Aza, which she described as “an oasis of tranquillity”. Just months later, more than 50 residents were murdered at the kibbutz and 17 were taken hostage. She felt “sheer panic” when the attack unfolded and has since returned on a devastating solidarity visit.

Although the “journey” to stamp out antisemitism on the left is not yet over, Dame Margaret believes that Labour under Sir Keir Starmer is a long way from what it was under Corbyn.

One of the only elected Jews left in the Labour Party, you get the sense from Dame Margaret that her work to rid Labour of antisemitism is done as she leaves the door open to a new generation of hopeful Jewish Labour MPs.

Beyond battling racism, some of Dame Margaret’s proudest accomplishments as an MP revolve around her work on early years intervention programme Sure Start, which she championed as minister for children in the early 2000s.

“If you really want to improve a child's life chances, investing in high-quality interventions in the early years is your best hope,” she says. “It is morally just, it makes economic sense so that each child can fulfil their potential, and it helps combat inequality and child poverty.”

She was dumbfounded when much of this work was undone by the coalition government.

Her time as chair of the Public Accounts Committee between 2010 and 2015 saw her become a household name for holding corporations to account for their tax bills, famously telling Google executives in 2014 that, contrary to their then company motto “Don’t be evil”: “I think that you do evil.”

“I made tax dodging not cool,” she says now.

Dame Margaret has also been working with shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, on the party’s tax agenda: “If you’re not going to raise taxes and you’re desperate for more money, one way you can get it is by collecting what is owed. There's a £36 billion gap between what they do get and what they should get. HMRC is simply not focused on pursuing individuals who fail to pay.

“It’s not about taxing the wealthy; it’s about having a fair system where everyone pays their share.”

And she is pushing for the Labour Party to combat dirty money in London: “A conservative estimate is £350 billion a year comes into the UK through economic crime, fraud and money laundering. That is twice the total health budget… We have allowed ourselves to become the jurisdiction of choice for dirty money and we’ve got to turn that around. If you become known as a dirty place, legitimate money won't come here. People have got to trust you.

“It just needs smart regulation, not more regulation, and massive transparency, as well as tough enforcement and proper accountability.”

So, what’s next for the Labour stalwart? She’s kept busy with her grandchildren, who live close by, and her grand piano — Dame Margaret is a keen musician. She is also the chair of Royal Holloway University, as well as Theatre Royal Stratford, and is a visiting public policy professor at Kings College London.

And then there’s her book. Titled Battleaxe, it will see Dame Margaret describe the battles that have punctuated her life: the battle to be British, the battle against antisemitism, against the BNP, against Corbyn and against tax dodgers.

As Sir Keir looks set to enter Number 10, Dame Margaret insists “I’m on the outside now” - but don’t be surprised to find her returning to the political fray.

Right now, she is off in her raincoat to canvass for Sarah Sackman, Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, and is hopeful for more elected Jewish Labour MPs come 4 July.

“There are not very many of us, we punch above our weight,” she notes, polishing off her salmon bagel.

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