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'I still want to change the world': Barking MP Dame Margaret Hodge on 25 years in role

PUBLISHED: 10:00 09 June 2019

Margaret Hodge, second left, in 1994 with acting Labour leader Margaret Beckett and three other Labour MPs elected on the same day - Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South), d Judith Church (Dagenham) and Stephen Timms (East Ham) Picture: PA

Margaret Hodge, second left, in 1994 with acting Labour leader Margaret Beckett and three other Labour MPs elected on the same day - Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South), d Judith Church (Dagenham) and Stephen Timms (East Ham) Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

From selling anti-war journals outside a bookshop on a Saturday afternoon as a schoolgirl to spending a quarter of a century as an MP, it's easy to see why Dame Margaret Hodge admits to having "always been political".

Margaret Hodge, minister for employment and equal opportunities, helps children to make monsters out of cardboard during a nursery visit. Picture: PAMargaret Hodge, minister for employment and equal opportunities, helps children to make monsters out of cardboard during a nursery visit. Picture: PA

And the Barking MP, celebrating the 25th anniversary of her election on June 9, has faced her fair share of challenges in that time.

She first stood as a councillor in her home borough of Islington on the recommendation of a friend.

"I was doing international work because I've got lots of languages and in those days, you wouldn't have dreamed of leaving your kids before they were five," she said.

"I thought I just wanted to be a mum but I got bored.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge uses her victory speech to attack the BNP leader Nick Griffin (left), after winning the Barking seat in 2010. Picture: PALabour MP Margaret Hodge uses her victory speech to attack the BNP leader Nick Griffin (left), after winning the Barking seat in 2010. Picture: PA

"One of my friends said to me, go on the council, it'll keep you sane whilst you're changing nappies. So that's what I did."

Having spent nearly 20 years on Islington Council, the death of long-serving Barking MP Jo Richardson prompted a by-election - and one that Dame Margaret was selected to contest.

"When I walked out of Barking station in 1994, what hits you was how white it was then.

"The other thing that really hit me was how many great-grandmothers I met who lived within walking distance of their great-grandchildren.

The Barking and Dagenham Post's coverage at the time. Picture: ArchantThe Barking and Dagenham Post's coverage at the time. Picture: Archant

"It was a very close-knit community and the thing that's changed the most is the people who live there."

Dame Margaret explained that she felt the introduction of Right to Buy had led to changes in an area that had consisted of predominantly council-owned properties.

"Some people bought to let and others bought and sold," she said.

"A bought to let meant that inner London councils started housing their asylum seekers here and bought to sell meant that for the Windrush generation, this was a place they could afford to buy."

The changing face of the borough led to the rise of far-right politics, with the British National Party (BNP) gaining 11 seats in the 2006 council election.

"The local Labour party was so different from what it is today," she said.

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"I said the BNP is going to get somewhere and they blamed me for the BNP because they said I gave them the oxygen of publicity.

"I've always believed that you beat the extremists by democracy, by challenging them openly, not by pretending they're not a problem."

She admitted that, already in her 60s by that point, she could have called it a day on politics at that time but said: "I thought, I'm here to fight racism. That's who I am. I'm not walking away from this one."

Another of Dame Margaret's personal highlights was winning the 10-year battle for the Barking Birthing Centre to be built.

"I'm really proud of the fact that babies can be born in Barking," she said. "I thought that was really important if you want to recreate that sense of community that everybody feels they've lost."

Dame Margaret said that she had "always managed" to juggle being Barking MP with her ministerial roles during Labour's years in power.

"When I was fighting the BNP, that was a really hard time. My husband was really ill at the time, he had leukaemia, and what Gordon Brown said to me is you can have a year off being a minister. I was minister for culture at the time.

"I was the first minister ever to get compassionate leave. But I didn't give up Barking. In a way it worked, I was caring for my husband but getting out the house to come down here, it meant I was able to carry on campaigning."

Other key political roles included chairing the public accounts committee and overseeing the review into the controversial Garden Bridge project.

In recent years, Dame Margaret has been vocal about antisemitism within the Labour party.

"I am Jewish, I'm an immigrant but I've never been defined in my politics by my background and identity," she said.

"The antisemitism I receive now is a zillion times worse than when I was fighting the BNP, and that's because of social media.

"I get quite a lot of social media abuse, and the abuse is misogyny, it's Jewish, it's age.

"'Go off, retire,' - that sort of stuff, but I get a little bit on the doorstep too."

Despite the challenges, Dame Margaret - who received her damehood in 2015 for politcal and public service - plans to continue representing the borough.

"I never in my life thought I would do anything for 25 years," she said. "I still want to change the world so I'm going to carry on."

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