From Corbyn to Keir Starmer: the battle for the heart of Labour
The FT follows prominent Jeremy Corbyn critic and veteran MP Margaret Hodge as the opposition searches for a new leader. What kind of Labour party does the country now need? She joins the campaign trail and interviews key Labour figures including Alastair Campbell, Owen Jones, and Jess Phillips about their hopes and fears
Produced by Tom Hannen and Juliet Riddell
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You can change the world to meet your values when you are in government. You can't when you are in opposition.
Getting into government has to be the first and sole purpose of any political party. I was there in the 1980s when the hard left held a dominant position in the Labour party. When Labour had 18, 19 years of continuous opposition. And I learned the hard way really, that extreme left politics just didn't connect to the voters. But I was also there in 1997 and through the years of the Blair-Brown governments. When I saw what impact one could have when we controlled the levers of power.
I am virtually the last Jewish woman Labour MPs left standing.
If we don't learn the lessons of why we have lost the 2019 election. If we allow the heir to Corbyn to be Rebecca Long-Bailey...
Did you stand up at any point, and call it out?
I did, but was that enough? No. It wasn't.
The idea that we will ever get a Labour government, certainly in my lifetime, will disappear.
I mean, if I had a majority of 80 Margaret, just think...
...even just one thing, you'd be like giddy. Like a child in a sweet shop.
The last four years, we have to be honest with people, it's been a fucking disaster for the Labour party.
The last thing I want is more, more Corbyn. You said last time you wanted to win, didn't you?
I've known Corbyn since '82. If there's one thing he really believes in, it's all that massive world view, which is hostile to Nato, hostile to the States, leads to the anti-Semitism.
Rebecca. We're going to take .... once Adrian's finished.
I didn't break rank and tell people what's going on in the shadow cabinet, on this or anything else, because I don't think you should.
I consider my position in the Labour party, over the last few years, to be honest...
I put myself forward, for frankly, the worst job in the world, which is being leader of the Labour party when we're in opposition.
For me, I'm going for Jess Phillips. When I've seen the others against her, a lot of sort of traditional politicians.
We need someone who can stand opposite Boris Johnson, and wear his government in his face.
The Labour leadership race is narrowing from 5 to 4.
This time, that person isn't me.
So, Jess was due to come and speak at the event.
But she's gone back to Birmingham, so she can't.
Yeah. We've sent her some flowers. What could have been? Oh goodness, that is really hard. I mean, I watched Jess's video, and it's really moving, and I wanted to cry when I watched that for I think, what the Labour party's lost. But I'm a sort of, you know, I'm an old, old fighter, that's the real truth. So I'm going to carry on fighting. And I just want to see what the other candidates, there's three of them really, that I'm looking at. Who can fill the void that Jess's departure has created.
When I've seen the others against a lot of the most sort of traditional politicians, men in suits quite often.
He's triangulating like mad. Somebody said to me, I don't mind what he does as long as he wins, beats Rebecca Long-Bailey. And I thought you know, Tony never did that. Tony was completely straight, completely honest. It's a different way of doing your politics. So is Keir lying to get the job? And will he then change? That's what this person was saying to me as a way of promoting Keir. I mean that's... so I know. So it's sort of, in a way, you then think, um.
Right. Who's not got their seat belt on? Those people who chose to join Momentum, I think probably a lot have left now, are young idealists for whom at the time Corbyn was a message of hope. They are the ones who don't like the politics, don't like the anti-Semitism, and don't like the anti-Europeanism. You'll start to see this in who's nominating Keir Starmer. You know, Momentum is cracking up, it's sort of you know, the old Trots will all go for Rebecca. As will the out-of-date, fat bellied, beer bellied, trade union barons. I don't know where's Owen. Is Owen pro-European? Probably he is, actually.
I am cross because he is 40 minutes late. You know, everybody's busy, and you just - if you busy people make me busy people, don't piss him off for being late. Anyway, we are where we are. Why do I talk to him? Because Owen is a Corbyn supporter, and also he's been a pretty consistent critic of the Blair-Brown years, actually of Labour in power and in government, and I want to challenge him a little bit on that too.
You are very late. I've been in the Labour party for a very long time.
Longer than I've been alive.
Indeed. So I remember the 80s, which you know were very uncomfortable. Where you used to go along to Labour party meetings and if you dare to put up your hand on something you believed in - all you were doing was following your values, which may be different, there was intolerance of it. People would shout abuse at you. I had bricks thrown at me during discussions on cuts in local government. I did. I've had death threats. I've had it all my life, and I got it from the left then.
The Labour party then went through, under the Blair-Brown years, which you like to dismiss.
I don't dismiss. That's not true.
OK. The Labour party went...
I was a Labour member under Blair and Brown.
Brilliant. Well, I'm really pleased. So it went through a really tolerant period, when you could get up and you could dissent within the party.
That wasn't my experience at the time, by the way. It was the experience for the victors, but - no, anyone to the left...
You wouldn't have been shouted at.
Trots. All the time. Used a catch-all term for anyone vaguely on the left. All the time.
OK, that was not my experience. There was a much more open discourse.
But it's not... because you were on the winning side.
Of course you didn't get...
No, I just...
You'd won. Your side won and the left fell ostracised and besieged.
Well, can I just say, this left-right really irritates me. Really irritateS, it does irritate me. Because you know, here you are...
There's a left and right flank of the Labour party. That's just... I mean, people on the...
Yeah, but I do not understand what it means. Because I think your definition of left, which is around big state, nationalisation...
Democratic. Democratic ...
No, it was... you're joking.
No, I'm not joking.
I've just been through reselection, Owen, OK?
In my party. The whole triggering of that process was by the few, to defeat the will of the many. So all this stuff about we're fantastic, democratic. The Labour party now is the most...
You won the selection.
...intolerant, centralised, bullying. It's a terrible, terrible institution.
OK. I obviously strongly disagree with that. And I don't think democracy is bullying. You won your selection.
It isn't democracy.
You won your selection fair and square because the many voted for you.
But the fact I went into it in the run-up, is completely crazy. It distracted me from what I should have been doing, because it was obvious we were going to get a general election, and I should have been out there in the community reconnecting with my voters.
Can I ask you? This, I think, because here we are. We are from different wings of the Labour family, let's just put it that way. But it's interesting we're having this argument, or discussion, or whatever you want to call it, when actually, if we're honest and humble, neither of our brands of politics have any easy answers at the moment. And the reason I say that is, you talk about the 90s, Blair and Brown and so on. A period before the financial crash. A period of rising living standards. There was a financial bubble at the time, which seemed to be generating ever rising living standards.
The problem is at the moment, there is a general crisis...
...of social democracy, and there is nowhere either of us can point to on a map and say, aha, here's where my brand of politics has truly, truly flourishing. Because Clinton was defeated by Trump.
We're agreeing on this.
But that's why I look at this mess now. I mean, what's the answer to that? I don't have one.
I don't have on either. I mean that - I agree with you about the challenge. I think it's really tough. I think it's really, really tough how you build on the eternal values, which I hope you and I do agree about, and challenges, which I think lead to massive insecurity, so the changing world of work and artificial...
Climate crisis. All those are really tough challenges for the left.
And that, I would love to talk about.
That in fact, on that, that's what I'd be fascinated to hear. Because I think even some more perceptive thinkers on your flank of the Labour party.
Don't call me a flank. I get...
Well I can't call you from the right, because you get even angrier about that. Is that wing, was politically and intellectually exhausted in 2015.
What I would say is the challenge facing anyone who does become leader is huge. With a culture war which has opened up in British society, which Brexit both kind of encouraged, but also reflected, and has wreaked havoc in Labour's electoral coalition. And I don't think anyone, from whatever wing of the Labour party, has an easy answer, to how they bring younger people from - who are economically insecure - and have very strong progressive values, which they think are under attack, with older people who rightly have their triple-lock pensions protected, home ownership's gone up, and they feel quite socially conservative. And how Labour wins some of those over, and keeps their younger voters, is a real challenge. And I think all of us be humble about discussing how difficult...
You know, I totally agree with that analysis, and I just hope that there can be a civilised, non-blaming debate about what are really, really tough issues. These are probably the toughest philosophical, political issues, that I have confronted in my very long political life.
Hi, It's Margaret Hodge. Listen, I'm ringing you about next Thursday when we've got the meeting to do the nomination for leader. I mean, this is really important, getting the right leader. You know, if we want to bring the party back to sensible Labour politics, you know. OK, thanks so, so much, and see you on Thursday. Bye. Bye.
Well, I don't know where Sienna is, but...
I'm going to go and try and find her.
Are you? Good, because otherwise it can be chaos. We're going to be here forever otherwise, Cameron.
I really believe that the Corbyn project, the socialist manifesto, the return to true Labour values, has actually been a really good success.
Would you like some...
No, thank you very much, indeed. The last thing I want is more, more Corbyn.
You should be thinking about it too. You think...
Well, you said the last time you wanted to win, didn't you?
Are you a member of the Labour party? Are you?
Should we just count them up now and close it? Um. Fingers crossed.
15, 16, 27, 28. Two short of the required number to get 50 per cent.
So did Emily...
...candidate, and we go on eliminated.
The result is - Keir Starmer is number one, so he won. So...
The continuity candidate didn't get anywhere tonight. And I've always said well, you know, there are arguments for Lisa and for Keir. I would have marginally gone for Lisa, but I'm absolutely delighted that we've got a sensible candidate. A sensible candidate from this constituency.
I don't think you can just sort of say, oh well, let's assume Corbyn isn't gone. Because the party is... I think the party has changed fundamentally. You can see this in the leadership election going on now. None of them can quite bring themselves to say that Corbynism was a disaster. Jeremy is this sort of sainted figure.
I mean, I agree with you about that. I so agree with you, because there's a central dishonesty in the non-Corbyn candidates.
You know. And if you compare that to Kinnock, Kinnock when he fought for the leadership of the Labour party in the 80s, came from the left but he was completely honest about the sort of reform that had to be undertaken.
I mean, Neil was very good a kind of, political management. But I had a very interesting exchange with Keir when he launched his leadership video. And it was you know, miners' strike and poll tax. And I sent him a message saying, I'm really pleased that I gave most of my adult life to trying to help the Labour party into power. Three terms in office, so that a future leader could launch his campaign, where the only mentions of that period of Labour in office were the Iraq war and cutting asylum seekers' benefits.
And it's just playing into that Corbynist agenda. So he then sent me a message back and said, yeah well, I'm doing this new thing now where I'm saying, we shouldn't trash the last four years, and we shouldn't trash the last Labour government. Like they recall. The last four years, I get why he can't say it, but we have to be honest with people, it's been a fucking disaster for the Labour party. The elections alone were a disaster.
I think too much of our politics is about saying, oh, this is what people want to hear, let's say that to them and play it back to them. So when...
You did a bit of that in the 80s.
I did a bit of it.
You did a bit.
The message can be simple, but it's got to be underpinned by something that is real. Real policy, real stuff, real choice, real decision. If you look at our last election, Corbyn or Johnson. The country was repelled by the choice, but in the end realised well, we have to make a... we have to choose one of them. One of them is going to be prime minister. Who's it going to be?
But go beyond that. So we got a charismatic leader. I feel more confident than you do that we're going to get a change of leader and that will try and put us back...
Oh, we are. There's definitely going to be a change of leader.
Well, it's not going to be Rebecca Long-Bailey.
OK. It's my view.
Well, if it is Rebecca Long-Bailey, I think that's the end.
I think we might as well go home.
Some of the values that now inform people's voting decisions are really hard for us to tackle. So let's assume we've got a charismatic leader who can connect to people. How are they going to tackle the issues of immigration? Which is really tough. Which we have to think about, we didn't do. We didn't really get to the bottom of. And how are they going to tackle tax and spend in an environment where people don't want that? How can I create a more equal society, out of this brief that I've now been given.
This is why I think it goes beyond what... Corbynism goes beyond who actually becomes the leader. You know, look, I can't stand Johnson on many, many levels, but one of the reasons he won is that, he gave a kind of, albeit riddled with lies and all that, he gave a sense of kind of, optimism to people.
Yeah, and hope.
So I would say, take all of those issues you mentioned, climate change being the biggest. I think a leader who came out now and was truthful about the consequences of climate change, and really led on them, and really fought on them, gives themselves a fighting chance.
The other thing that's changed I think - the left-right arguments are less straightforward than they were.
But I hate this term left-right. I mean...
But we're trapped in it. Don't underestimate the impact of Trump in framing the debate right around the world. The whole kind of nationalist, populist language,
That is easy to articulate, it's easier to get people to resonate with. So but the way you frame the debate is to decide that is the debate I'm going to frame. Now, at the moment, I feel that it's being framed within this...
Historical analysis of the Labour party.
Pretty much, yeah.
The other thing that fills me with hope is the leader we elect now is unlikely ever to become prime minister, given the mountain we have to climb back.
I don't think you should say that.
You don't think we should say that? You think it's so volatile that we can't bring it back...
Yeah. I think things are so volatile, things move so quickly.
I think some of the most...
That is... that will definitely be the case if the leader that the Labour party elects plays safe.
So if I were leader tomorrow, what would I do to create something true to my lasting values, relevant to today, that gets me a majority?
OK. Well neither you and I would be elected, because I think we would both start from a position of saying, we have to be absolutely honest about how we've got to this position. And we have to be absolutely honest about the challenges we face to get back. So I would build it on understanding and accepting that the right, the nationalist, populist right, is going to be very difficult to beat. And then saying they will not be beaten by aping them. They won't be beaten by beating them halfway. They have to be beaten by a bigger better, bolder, more optimistic vision about what Britain can be.
This idea that, you know, that it's all got to be about getting the right northerner, as a response to the north just putting a bloody old Etonian in power. They won the referendum. They won the election. They have a lot more power than they did. Now, the difference, I think, between when I was with Tony, and Cummings now with Johnson, I never really had an agenda of my own. I had things I agreed with, and things that I disagree with, but I kind of, I didn't see my position as been there for my agenda.
Go on. You're back in the Labour party. You've got to vote Alastair. How would you use it for the leadership?
Well, I'm not back in the Labour party.
Yeah, but assume.
Eh. I think probably Keir. Probably Keir.
And do you think he can turn it around?
I really don't know, because I think it's... I think a lot of these top jobs in politics, I don't think you really know until they get to them.
My fear is that the only way he can turn it around is by doing something different from what he's telling us he's going to do now.
I think the short answer is, I don't think any of us know yet, whether they've got it in them.
I've taken over the chair of the, the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour movement. Really, because everybody else who's done has gone. Scary, but it's true. And there are very, very few Jews now, on the Labour side in parliament. And probably I'm the only one who is willing to put my head above the parapet, around my Jewish identity. And also it's symbolic of what the Labour party ought to be all about. How we're going to build that confidence quickly? It was really uncomfortable for me during the election, going out and trying to persuade Jewish people to vote Labour.
Oh my God, there's going to be absolutely loads of people, aren't there?
Jews come in all different shapes and sizes.
... but I'm the only one whose fucking left. Are they not going to come in?
No. They're just going to ...
I was going to ask some questions.
That - we're going to bring them on a - we're going to bring them all on together. It's fine, but we need to begin now. Otherwise, we're going to...
Thanks Mike, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to say a few words, because I am virtually the last Jewish woman Labour MP left standing.
Rebecca, we are going to take them in once Adrian's finished.
If you look at after the war and before, to the mid '70s, most Jewish MPs were Labour MPs because being in the Labour party was the natural home for Jews. Sadly, we're not in that position today.
I hope the candidates... I was hoping they'd be in when I said all this, but they're not. So maybe some of you can ask them the questions afterwards. I think for all of us, I felt at the last four years, for me, have been the most miserable, challenging, and lonely years in my nearly 60 years of membership of the Labour party. And I know that's what every Jew sitting here tonight feels too.
The history of the last four years is being rapidly rewritten by those who are seeking our support, and my commitment to you is I will not cease fighting until we are clear that we have eradicated anti-Semitism from the soul of our great Labour party.
I know all of these individuals extremely well, and they're all thoroughly nice, thoroughly decent people. And they're doing a very tough job, and we have to treat them with respect. Because you know, we're just bloody lucky to have people in this country prepared to put their necks on the chopping block for our welfare.
Becky, did you stand up at any point, and call it out?
I did, but was that enough? No. It wasn't. And why? What I did was, I did speak in shadow cabinet about this a few times.
I believe that you speak out, and speak up in private, and you try and get something done. If you can't get something done and it's still wrong, then you leave. And you speak out, and you speak up, and you make sure that something is done.
Oh no, I just sat there thinking, I've got to shut up. I mustn't say anything.
This was the big fight for the heart and soul of the Labour party. If a Corbyn follower succeeds Corbyn, then I think the position for Jews in the Labour party, long-term, is completely untenable.
Jeremy Corbyn's office?
You are a breath of fresh air, and that's why I'm sure you've got a great future in the Labour party. But for me that's why I wanted you as the leader. That you were authentic, you told it as it is. That you were brave, and that you really, really could connect with ordinary people. And for me, in all the battles that I've done through my life, maybe the battle against the BNP, I understood from that the absolute importance of being both honest, but really listening, acting, and connecting. And that's why you're so important to the Labour movement. And will be in the future.
Well, let's hope so. The idea of standing up, regardless of the struggle, regardless of how difficult something is. That sort of courage, and that sort of bravery, it has felt sometimes as if that has just no longer been part of the battle. It was that we had to you know agree with the crowd, regardless of what the crowd felt.
Yeah. Truly, the other thing I really feel strongly is, in the anti-Semitism fight.
Oh gosh, yeah.
You know, it was the women.
It was totally...
And then, I will never forget you. Just after Luciana Berger had decided to leave the Labour party, and you rushed over to sit behind her.
Behind her, yeah.
So you showed some solidarity with her. It's always been the women. And then you demonstrated in that very clear way, that even though she felt forced out she was still your sister.
Of course she will. Labour women standing shoulder to shoulder, is the reason that I, no matter how hard things get within the Labour party, the reason I cannot walk away is because my life was genuinely changed by the fact that loads of Labour women came in here in 1997. They never ever forgot to remember me, people like me in the community.
Exactly. Your sure start, your tax credit, your childcare. I will never, ever be able to pay back the debt of the fact that my children have more secure lives than I would have had they been born under a Tory government. And so the idea that has been presented to us for the past four or five years, whether it's over anti-Semitism, whether it's over women within the Labour movement, whether it's ever sexual harassment - they've been like, you're disloyal for struggling.
And I'm like, no, I'm here to help the Labour party. I didn't do it for me, I did it because I believe it's the right thing for our movement.
And actually, I joined the Labour party...
Because it's a struggle?
To fight it. Fight. How do you think you square the circle between the traditional working class support that we used to have, and we want to get back, and the more middle class, liberal support that comes out of the city?
It's absolutely not my experience of working class communities in the Midlands and the north, that they all hate immigrants, or that they all...
The Labour party being the party of the self-interest of the masses has been lost, because we stopped being able to say the word self-interest. And my nan and granddad - my great-grandfather was one of the people who set up the independent Labour party in Birmingham, and it wasn't because he was... had big ideas about the way that the world should be. It was because he lived in a slum and he didn't want to live in a slum anymore. He had self-interest.
And my nan and granddad's politics was about moving out of the slum and getting a decent wage. It was self-interested. It wasn't so that everybody has enough. It was for them and their families, to be able to do all right. And then their children, the baby boomers, my parents, they had enough to care about everybody having enough, and then it became an ideological movement, rather than a self-interested one.
But there's absolutely no reason why you cannot square ideologically wanting everybody to have enough, with the idea that you and your family feel like we haven't got enough and need it. Those two things. My nan and my mum, they're cut from the same cloth, they were the same, exactly the same sort of person. They both would have voted Labour until they died, and it was rooted in something completely separate for both of them. That is the coalition.
I think we think it's a harder job than it is, to make people in Bassettlaw feel the same way as people in Brighton. They essentially do feel the same. I feel like this should now be an opportunity to look up to the country a little bit more. To look up from the script. I don't feel that there's any sense that world leaders are getting together to deal with the pandemic.
I don't quite know how he's going to rise to that.
I think that the connecting with the country is vitally important. Now, I think that he will inevitably get a bounce. Also, I hate this, because it is got so much sort of, horrible, sexist connotations - he looks the part, doesn't he?
I hate that. The number of people who said to me...
I hate it too.
The number of people who've said to me, you've got to vote for Keir, because just think of if Boris implodes, you trust Keir opposite you. Why wouldn't you trust a woman?
Well. Well, quite. Absolutely. But he's got good hair, doesn't he? I mean, he has got good hair. My dad is always like, lovely hair. He's ticked that box, but that is a tiny box of connecting with the public.
I mean, I think we can all understand that the candidates have got to build a majority within the party. Right?
But once that election is over they've got to turn to the public, and they've got to be bold. And that means not sticking to what's happened in the last five years. It means breaking from that.
And last 20 years. You have to think of...
Except. I agree with that, but the thing that really, really pisses me off...
Is slagging off the last Labour government.
Why would you slag off your record in office when the government's degrading it all brilliantly by itself? In the face of a Boris Johnson government - remember, he's got a majority of 80, and is he doing anything with it? I mean, if I had a majority of 80 Margaret, just think. Just even just one thing. You'd be like, well OK, we're going to end child poverty. We're going to sort the social care crisis. You would just be like I'd be like giddy, like a child in a sweet shop.
So Jess, it may have been a bit too early this time, or it may have been the wrong time, but I want you to stand again for the Labour party leadership. You've got to promise me you're going to have a go at it.
I mean, I promise you that I will have a go. But regardless, I promise you that I will always try and make sure that I have the biggest role that I can have in making the Labour party the best it can be.
You're welcome. Thank you.
I did say to people before the election hang on in there because the battle after the election will be the most important battle in the life of the Labour party. I now think that the way in which the next leader chooses to use that position will be the most important.