Lunch with the FT

December 6, 2013 6:55 pm

Lunch with the FT: Margaret Hodge

The former leading lady of the hard left is now the scourge of tax-avoiding multinationals. Over tandoori chicken, she talks to Robert Shrimsley about boycotting Amazon, women in politics and her biggest mistakes
Luke Waller's illustration of Margaret Hodge©Luke Waller

My last meeting with Margaret Hodge was eight years ago when, as children’s minister, she invited me to lunch to set me straight on the issue of fathers’ rights in custody cases, gently but firmly berating me for an article I had written. It was not long after she had been handcuffed for an hour by an angry dad, and her already limited sympathies for their cause were particularly low.

Now we are back at the same restaurant: The Cinnamon Club, an upmarket Indian restaurant and popular political haunt five minutes’ walk from the House of Commons. Once the old Westminster library, it has retained the wooden fixtures, bookcases and high ceilings.

Much has happened since our last lunch, not least that Hodge – longtime a hate figure among British conservatives who appeared to embody a fashionable, metropolitan Labour agenda – has become a guardian of the public purse, a watchdog who has lambasted tax-avoiding US multinationals and the pay-offs given to departing BBC bosses. Suddenly, she is rather popular with her traditional opponents.

She arrives at our corner table; greets me with a kiss and begins peppering me with questions about my career since we last talked. When I remind her of our last meeting, she recalls her anger with Fathers for Justice, the handcuff incident and the subsequent trial that, to her fury, ended in an acquittal. “It was in front of a roomful of 200 lawyers,” she says, still sore at the outcome.

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But Hodge has always been a lightning rod for her opponents. She came to public attention as the leading lady of hard-left London politics, only to become one of the earliest Blairites in the New Labour project. While her views may have moderated, her political style has not, and those who cross her can expect no quarter.

In 2009 she lost her husband of 30 years, the High Court judge Sir Henry Hodge. She is, she admits, now living for her work – although she looks very well on it: Hodge turns 70 next year but looks about a decade younger. As we settle down, the waiter takes our drinks order: water for her, while I push the boat out with a ginger beer.

Since 2010, this former minister in a high-spending Labour government has chaired the Commons public accounts committee, which, with its investigative arm, the National Audit Office, goes through the accounts of government bodies. It is not exactly a backwater but Hodge has certainly raised its profile. Initially, she suggests, the attention was a complete surprise.

“When I started, did I think it would evolve into what it has become? Absolutely not.” I put it to her that she is too savvy not to have known that her targets were very newsworthy. “Did I know it would touch a nerve? I don’t know,” she says; later she will admit to spending time working out soundbites to capture the news bulletins.

First there was an investigation into an “unconscionable” tax deal between Revenue officials and Goldman Sachs. That morphed into a look at the aggressive tax planning of multinationals such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google. Confronting the Google representative, she threw the company’s famous “Don’t be evil” mantra at him, saying: “I think you do evil.” Now she wants Google taken to court over its European tax structures. “There is a question in law that Google has to answer. Do they sell to Britain or are they selling in Britain? I think there is strong evidence that they are selling in Britain and booking it in [low-tax] Ireland. If it goes to the courts and we lose, that will convince me we are wrong.”

Facing a consumer backlash, Starbucks offered to increase its tax payments but, I say, Google and Amazon are harder to boycott. “I don’t use Amazon,” Hodge says. “I’ve given up my Kindle. I’m actually reading books again, which is nice. I used to buy everything on Amazon. Now I use Waterstones online or I go in there.”

But can one blame companies for taking advantage of bad legislation that allows them to minimise their taxes? “Let me make clear, this is not anti-business,” she says. “But there is a spectrum between sensible tax planning and aggressive tax avoidance.” The problem, she says, is that the big accountants have far more staff than the government and many of these companies help write the laws. “It is David against Goliath.”

“You talk to the big four [accountancy firms] and they say they will launch a scheme if there is a more than 50 per cent chance of it not being challenged. So they launch with a risk because they know the likelihood is HMRC is poorly resourced and won’t go after them.”

. . .

The waiter is hovering. “I could get a starter if you want one?” I say that one course is fine. We both order tandoori chicken breast with Goan spices, rich onion sauce and pilau rice, a side dish of stir-fry of seasonal greens with chestnut and garlic and a basket of bread. “I’m a cheap lunch date,” she says.

We move on to the inquiry into the BBC pay-offs – a total of £25m to 150 former senior staff. A feminist and a BBC supporter (one of Hodge’s four children works there) she nonetheless tore into its senior management, including Lucy Adams, its head of HR, who was subsequently pilloried in the media far more than her male colleagues. “Did we attack the woman? I worried about that.” But not for long. “She’s earning over 300k. She’s not just taking orders.”

Hodge, it seems, feels she is free of normal constraints. “One of the joys of this stage of my life is how detached I am from Westminster.” Her outlook was changed by her election fight with the anti-immigration British National Party’s leader Nick Griffin. He stood against her in her east London constituency in Barking, sensing that she and Labour had neglected the ultra-safe seat. It was a vicious fight. Faced with the BNP threat, she “changed my whole way of life for four years. Voters were angry and apathetic and I didn’t do a lot about it. I had to reconnect – street meetings, door-to-door campaigning.” Such pavement politics is hardly new, but for Hodge it was a revelation. In the 2010 election, she doubled her majority.

Talk of the BNP brings us to immigration, a key concern in her constituency and many others in Britain. “Migration is a feature of globalisation,” she says. “You can’t stop it; so every time a political party says it is going to be tough on immigration, it fails to deliver and loses trust.”

. . .

Hodge is an immigrant herself, born in Alexandria after her Jewish German father, Hans Oppenheimer, moved to Egypt in the 1930s. Many of her family were wiped out. “My mother’s mother from Vienna was shot outside the gates of a concentration camp. The worst story was my Dad’s sister,” she breaks off. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” Her voice is suddenly very soft: “They went to Switzerland and then down to the Ardèche. Then, in 1944, the local postman came and said they were rounding up the men – and her husband was so law-abiding that he went.” He died in Auschwitz. “I went to Auschwitz, eight or nine years ago. There is this room with all these confiscated suitcases and as we walked in, we saw his name and initials on one of them.” When she was five, the family fled to England to escape the anti-Semitic attacks that followed the declaration of the state of Israel. Understandably determined to assimilate, her father settled the family in Bromley, southeast London, far from the traditional Jewish areas. The young Margaret’s first memories were of the food: “The porridge, the tasteless veg. Remember, I was used to spicy food.”

As if on cue, the meal arrives. The extravagantly described chicken breast is not wildly different from high-quality chicken tikka masala, but it is delicious. Hodge pulls a face. “This veg is very spicy,” she exclaims, digging into the stir-fry till she spots the chilli flakes. “What were we saying?” she asks. You were telling me about being used to spicy food, I say.

Hodge’s mother died when she was 10. “She died on Christmas day . . . no one sat me down and said, ‘She’s died.’” Her father was no help: “He was, obviously, completely . . . five little kids. That was a bad way of handling it, it was bad; it was bad.” Unsurprisingly, Hodge rebelled, fought her housekeepers and was ultimately sent to a boarding school, which she hated.

Political rebellion naturally followed. While her father and brother built up the trading giant Stemcor (“Only the boys worked there; isn’t that terrible?”), her political passions ultimately came together in Islington, where Hodge pitched up in the 1970s with her first husband.

Islington, now a fashionable inner London area, was just beginning its gentrification and many future Labour ministers cut their teeth in its local politics. She had got a job at Unilever but was angered that women were given more menial research than similarly qualified men. When she had her children, she gave up work – “because that’s what you did” – and became active in politics instead.

She spent 10 years rising through the council ranks, becoming head of Islington’s housing committee and taking over as council leader in 1982 just as Labour and its municipal wing took a ferocious turn to the left. At the same time, her first marriage unravelled and she married Henry Hodge, a fellow councillor and human rights lawyer.

As one of the most identifiable members of the so-called “loony left” that had taken over Labour in local government, Hodge was known for brooking no dissent in the forward march of progress, earning the nickname Enver Hoxha (a play on the then Albanian dictator whose surname is pronounced “Hodger”).

One of her most disarming traits, however, is her readiness to admit past errors. “It was a different era, with different priorities. I remember we won the council and that first day we raised the red flag and a bust of Lenin was brought up. My heart sank because I knew it was a silly gesture.” She is not entirely apologetic. “We did stuff which was lambasted but has become conventional wisdom – monitoring access to housing to ensure proper equality; workplace nurseries.”

There were, however, some staggering insensitivities. When her housing committee decided that council tenants could not have dogs, she told residents to choose between putting down their pets or losing their homes. Again the disarming, and partial, admission of error: the policy was not hers, she insists. She knew it was crazy but she had to defend it. “I got the biggest death threat mailbag ever in my life.” Hodge also made what she refers to as “my biggest mistake” when she turned on a man who had been a victim of child abuse in council homes. Defending her staff, she rubbished him as disturbed and was later forced to apologise.

I ask how someone who can show such empathy could take such insensitive stances. She pauses, then reiterates the specifics of some cases. I say that it seems to me that when she believes she is right, the blinkers come down and she just goes full-tilt at her opponents. “I think you’ve got me there,” she laughs. “I think that’s me”.

By 1987, Hodge had seen the futility of the gesture politics. “We had to stop grandstanding and start delivering a decent service.” Seven years later, she was a modernising MP. Through her husband, she had become friends with Tony Blair and nominated him for the Labour leadership. He rewarded her with ministerial posts, including a role as the first ever children’s minister, but never put her in the cabinet. I ask why she thinks that was. “Because I’m too outspoken. Also I was older. That didn’t help. I was 50 when I became an MP. I do think age – and I do think it is a women thing. Do you read the parliamentary sketches? If it is ever about a woman it is always what she looks like, the tone of her voice.”

She will not criticise the Labour leader Ed Miliband, though she backed his brother David in the leadership election, but she does lament Labour’s more “managerial approach” to politics. “It’s a bad thing. If you believe political parties are important in a democratic society; you need to have real choice and we are all fighting over this little bit of centre ground.”

. . .

Over coffee for her and mint tea for me, she rams home her point about managerialism in politics. “Look at this, she says, whipping out her smartphone and showing me emails from the party setting out the “lines to take” for the day. “Every day I get these endless messages . . . PLP [parliamentary Labour party] briefing, PLP briefing 2, PLP briefing 3 – that’s three today – ridiculous.”

This is where her age helps, she says, as she is committed but no longer climbing the career ladder. “I’m full of ambition and aspiration – and energy, I’ve got lots of ideas I still want to contribute. Look at Joan Bakewell – I went to her 80th birthday party – fantastic – she looks amazing. Or David Attenborough, he’s 89.”

Although she refers to herself as a “Jewish mamma”, sitting back and enjoying her 10 grandchildren is not an option. “I would hate to be retired – the idea of getting up, worrying about your health, talking about the grandchildren . . . That’s just not me.”

I ask how Henry’s death has changed her. “He’d be absolutely gobsmacked to see me doing what I’m doing because he always worried for me. He kept me a bit more cautious. ‘Don’t mouth off – think about what you say.’ Whereas nowadays I think, ‘What have I got to lose?’”.

Our time is up but we are still so engrossed in talk as we head to the cloakroom that my coat is half on before I remember that small formality of the bill. I signal to the waiter but he seems unconcerned. As she heads to the door, she asks about my family; where are my children at school? I admit one is at a private school. The reproach duly comes, gentle but unmistakable. Her children took a different route and they turned out all right, Hodge says, as she leaves. There’s no opportunity to reply.

As I watch her depart, I reflect that tandoori and a ticking-off seemed destined to forever define my Margaret Hodge experience.

Robert Shrimsley is managing editor of FT.com and an FT Weekend columnist

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The Cinnamon Club

3032 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BU

Ginger beer x 2 £6.00

Sparkling water £3.80

Bread selection £7.50

Stir-fry of seasonal greens and chestnut £4.50

Tandoori chicken x 2 £36.00

Mint tea £3.50

Filter coffee £3.50

Total (incl service) £72.90

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