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Stand down, Margaret!

by David Rosenberg

NOT content with calling Jeremy Corbyn a “fucking anti-semite and racist,” and treating herself as the victim when the Labour Party threatened to act on a third party complaint about her use of outrageous and abusive language against a fellow Labour MP whom she has known for several decades, and is the leader of the Labour Party, Margaret Hodge has had the chutzpah to compare her fight against Corbyn’s alleged anti-semitism with her fight in her Barking constituency against the British National Party (BNP). 

She has cynically drawn on her family’s direct experience of the Holocaust to bolster her special right to pronounce on the subject.

The usual suspects who regularly target their venom at Corbyn instead of the Tory Party — and happen, coincidentally, to be members of Labour Friends of Israel — Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, Jess Philips, Chuka Umunna and others, have all lined up to defend Hodge’s comments and have praised to the hilt her proclaimed brave and courageous fight against the BNP.

Let’s unpick this a little. In 2006, the BNP certainly pulled off a political surprise in the council elections when it won 12 seats in Barking and Dagenham, where the local MPs were Jon Cruddas and Hodge. 

Labour paid the price of taking votes for granted and not doing the work on the ground to counter the narratives of the BNP. 

The BNP replaced Labour councillors and former Labour voters provided most of the new voting strength of the BNP. 

Nine out of those 12 new councillors were in the brave and courageous and effective anti-racist Margaret Hodge’s constituency. 

It was certainly a failure of that Labour council but it was equally her failure. Maybe even more her personal failure.

Singer and writer Billy Bragg, who grew up in Barking and still has family there, pointed out that she didn’t even have an office in the constituency until after those 12 BNP councillors were elected. 

She had effectively made a deal with the local Labour councillors that they look after the constituency and she would concentrate on her role at Westminster.

But it gets worse the more you dig. In the run-up to the elections of 2006, Hodge claimed that eight out of 10 white working-class people were thinking of voting BNP. 

For the BNP activists this was manna from heaven. Those who were leaning towards the BNP policies but couldn’t necessarily see the point in voting as Labour always got in were suddenly very motivated to vote. Small wonder that the BNP sent Hodge a bunch of flowers to thank her.

A year later, what do we find this brave and courageous anti-racist doing? She is busy advocating a housing policy that talks explicitly of privileging “the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by indigenous families” over the “legitimate needs demonstrated by new migrants.” 

Not exactly the words of an anti-racist champion who is entitled to casually throw accusations of racism at others.

She was widely accused, not least by the Refugee Council and several other anti-racist bodies, of legitimising BNP arguments, competing with the BNP on the territory they were establishing by absolutely conceding to their arguments. 

Not surprisingly then BNP leader Nick Griffin saw Hodge’s seat as vulnerable to a far-right challenge at the next general election. 

It is just a tad embarrassing and tasteless even that a politician who wields her family’s Holocaust history as a weapon to give her licence to say what she likes in arguments with fellow Labour MPs was being criticised then by leading refugee bodies for bolstering the racism of a party whose roots were in classical nazism.

What was Corbyn doing in the same period?

The same as he has always done — taking on the racists and fascists within his own and other constituencies, in tireless door-to-door work, on public platforms and on the streets, supporting grassroots anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and always advocating principled arguments that gave no ground at all to racism and helping to make Islington a borough that was proud to welcome refugees.

Hodge’s close pals on the right wing of the Labour Party talk of her “crushing the BNP in Barking.” 

Thankfully, the fascists were defeated, but Hodge was part of the problem not the solution. It was the round-the-clock efforts of local left-wing Labour activists, trade unionists and local and national anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations who were responsible for seeing off the BNP councillors and Griffin’s parliamentary challenge in 2010.

It was an extraordinary effort. In every council seat the total number of voters went up, but the BNP vote went down. I did the easy bit with my fellow trade unionists — we put anti-racist and anti-fascist literature through the letter boxes of every home in Barking and Dagenham.  

Bragg, though, returned to Barking and spent a month knocking on doors to have the face-to-face arguments with first-time BNP voters and to try to convince them to see things from a different perspective. 

We did a bit of joint personal work. I interviewed Bragg for the West Ham football fanzine. It was published about six  weeks before the election. 

We discussed football and his feelings about the area he grew up in and its current social and economic problems, knowing that the cross-section of people buying that fanzine would have included a significant number of first-time BNP voters. 

He gave sophisticated arguments for them not to vote BNP, without talking down to the voters or dismissing their sense of disenfranchisement and neglect.

In this, and in his work on the doorstep I am sure Bragg was much more effective than Hodge who had simply ended up boosting the BNP arguments in a typically unprincipled right-wing Blairite attempt at triangulation.

Bragg who, like Corbyn, has impeccable anti-racist credentials, has also commented in recent days on the controversy around the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism. 

He is very supportive of those who have raised perfectly legitimate criticisms of it and in particular has praised and promoted the arguments of the Jewish academic Brian Klug, who in turn argued that what Corbyn and the NEC have done is a significant attempt at improving the IHRA document and making it fit to challenge anti-semitism and protect free speech and comment about Israel, Palestine and zionism. 

If Hodge was consistent she would have a go at Bragg, but she sees Corbyn as a more suitable target because this is not really about anti-semitism but is a battle to defeat the left of the Labour Party and defend Israel from criticism.

If Hodge and her sisters in struggle, Smeeth and Berger, were not craven opportunists and selective anti-racists and defenders of human rights, they might have been speaking out more, or even at all, about the disgusting and openly racist nation state bill that the Israeli  government has just approved while Benjamin Netanyahu was simultaneously hosting a visit from the Hungarian PM Victor Orban — a political leader who is pushing anti-semitic, anti-Roma and Islamophobic themes at every opportunity.

You have chosen a side, Margaret. It is the wrong one. As The Beat sang about another Margaret, “Stand Down, Margaret, stand down please!”

This article appeared at rebellion602.wordpress.com.

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