Margaret Hodge’s diary: Goodbye to all that

Nothing prepared me for the abruptness of the end of my time as a MP. Suddenly one’s political identity is disrupted and dismantled
June 5, 2024

I decided it was time to leave the House of Commons shortly after the 2019 election. After nearly 30 years as the MP for Barking, in east London, it seemed right to pass the baton to a new generation. I might have quit sooner, but I wasn’t willing to let Jeremy Corbyn place one of his supporters in what is regarded as a safe Labour seat. So I waited until he had gone.

But nothing prepared me for the abruptness of the actual end. On Wednesday 22nd May, the prime minister, looking wretched and bedraggled in his rain-soaked suit, proclaimed the proroguing of this parliament to the sounds of the New Labour anthem “Things can only get better”. 

On Friday 24th May, I gave my last speech from the green benches alongside others leaving parliament. The following Thursday I was locked out of the office that has been my home for nearly 10 years. This was brutal for me and my brilliant staff. Like others, we had been planning for the autumn. If Rishi Sunak wanted to surprise us, he succeeded.

Suddenly one’s political identity, one’s status, the structure of each day and the focus of one’s energy is disrupted and dismantled. No wonder we all felt not just weird, but emotional.

Politics is like a drug that is difficult to give up. I originally stood for Islington Borough Council in 1973. At the time I thought it was a temporary role that would keep me sane while I was changing my babies’ nappies. All these years later, I reflect on what a privilege it has been to spend so much of my life as a councillor and an MP. I’ve met amazing people and listened and responded to thousands of individual problems. I’ve had the opportunity to campaign on issues that I care passionately about, and have managed to make a small contribution to changing the world for the better. There have been difficult lows and extraordinary highs.

Defeating the British National Party (BNP) in Barking in 2010 will always be top of the list of highs. Nick Griffin, the BNP’s leader, had promised a “political earthquake”, but he came third in Barking, where I was re-elected. The BNP lost every councillor it had on Barking and Dagenham Council. Not only did we stop a despicable ideology from gaining democratic legitimacy, but the experience transformed the way that I did politics. I stopped going to ribbon-cutting events, cut back on Labour party meetings and ceased talking to local people about the latest Westminster bubble obsession. My focus was on reconnecting with voters and rebuilding trust. Through coffee afternoons, street meetings, targeted campaigns and doorstep discussions, we talked directly with people, listened to their concerns, responded where we could and communicated regularly. 

It’s not rocket science. Everybody’s politics starts from the local. It may be broken pavements or it may be a national issue that has an impact locally, such as immigration, but by enabling your voters to set the agenda, you can listen, respond and start to build trust. That is when you will earn their vote. 

As I leave the House of Commons, the lack of trust in politics and politicians is an enormous challenge for the new generation of MPs. Over the last decade there has been a completely understandable erosion of trust in politics, with Boris Johnson leading the charge by regularly lying with impunity; with money—sometimes dirty money laundered into the UK by Russian kleptocrats—used to buy access to politicians and gain honours; with people being given jobs and contracts because of whom they know; with individuals moving seamlessly from government jobs to private sector jobs while continuing to exploit their political contacts. 

At the same time, the government has systematically weakened the institutions that provide a check on the executive’s power, from parliament to the judiciary, the civil service and even the media. 

Rebuilding trust will be a major mission for the incoming government, essential in enabling them to tackle all the problems they face in the economy, with our depleted public services and growing child poverty.

Cleaning up politics should be a first order task for an incoming Labour government. It will involve being more transparent and accountable in how we govern and how political parties are funded. It means giving up executive power and strengthening the role of parliament and local government. And if we don’t enshrine these changes in law, covering how ministers are held to account, how honours and peerages are awarded, how we control the revolving door and how we fund our politics, we won’t build the trust we need to change our country. So good luck to you all; I wish you well.