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Greasy Pole: Hodge Podge

Greasy Pole

George Orwell must be turning in his grave at the very idea that his masterpiece Animal Farm may have been usefully instructive to the political hypocrites he so mercilessly exposed. For example there was the argument used by Squealer to persuade the other animals that the pigs' luxurious life style, in such contrast to theirs, was really in their interests and so perfectly in keeping with the revolution. "Day and night" he assured them "We are watching over your welfare...Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back!..Surely there is no one among you who wants Jones to come back?" And if there was one thing the animals were completely certain about, it was that they did not want Jones back.

There is no evidence that Tony Blair has read Animal Farm – or any other such book – but he and the other Labour leaders are adept at using the same argument as Squealer whenever anyone in their ranks questions what the government is up to and wonders whether this was why they joined the Labour Party in the first place. Any more of this destructive criticism, reply the leaders and we might let the Tories back in. We don't want that, do we? Remember the Tories? Remember Thatcher and her handbag technique of dealing with dissidents? Michael Howard, rated as the worst (meaning the harshest, most bigoted) Home Secretary ever? Peter Lilley and his creepy obsession with single mums jumping the queue for some poky flat on a decaying housing estate? Keith Joseph, who thought the best way of breaking what he called the cycle of poverty was to sterilise the poor? By any standards they were an historically gruesome bunch.

Margaret Hodge
But anyone who responds that no, they don't want to live under capitalism run by that kind of politician had better ask themselves what they think of the choice offered by the Labour Party. What about Blair and the transparent lies which composed his case for going to war in Iraq? Jack Straw, who did so much to snatch the title of the worst Home Secretary ever from Michael Howard? David Blunkett, who thinks that the children of awkward asylum seekers should be taken into care? Charles Clarke and John Reid with their regressive views on the uses of what is still called education? Is anyone happy about living under capitalism run by people like this? And if they are happy – what do they think about Margaret Hodge, Member of Parliament for Barking and the Minister responsible for Children?

Hodge came to fame – or, if you prefer, infamy – in 1982 when she was elected as leader of Islington Council. Her pedigree in Labour Party politics was impeccable – some might say almost incestuous. She was married to a lawyer who employed Cherie Blair (or Booth as she then was) and a previous husband married the former wife of Jack Straw. She lived in the same Georgian crescent as the Blairs, before they moved to the even more impressive address in Downing Street. That was the time when Islington was being dramatically salvaged from what had once seemed the fate of a declining canal-side slum mixed with high rise, crime riddled housing blocks. It was the likes of the Blairs and the Hodges, who knew a bargain when they saw one, who energised the change and the result was an estate agent's dream, as life – enriching, profit breeding life – was breathed into the area.

For the Labour Party those were heady, carefree days. Of course there was the trivial matter of them being out of power, apparently for ever unless the Tories managed to drum up a few men in grey suits to winkle Thatcher out of Downing Street and that was never going to happen. But one advantage for the Labour Party was that it was a situation which allowed them a pretty free rein in what they said and did, because they were unlikely to be called to account for it in the foreseeable future. Even Blair, a young barrister struggling his way up the greasy pole by contesting hopelessly impregnable Tory seats, was infected by it and gave vent to a number of ideas which he came to bitterly regret. Abroad among Labour Party supporters was the simple notion that all the problems of this country, and of quite a bit of the rest of the world, were caused by the Tory government here. The simple solution was to elect a Labour government and to help this along they could spout whatever left-wing policies, however rash, came into their mind at that time.

Islington
It was thus that the London Borough of which of Margaret Hodge was leader became known as the Socialist Republic of Islington – and testified to the fact by flying a red flag from atop the town hall. Naturally the racier parts of the media, in particular the tabloids, were delighted at this apparently endless source of column-filling material. There was one report – which Hodge said was untrue – that she had forbade the singing of Baa Baa Black Sheep in council nurseries because it had racist implications. Another report said that, on the grounds that it encouraged aggressive behaviour, musical chairs was also on the banned list. It is interesting to speculate on how much of that devotion to diversity and pacifism may have survived during Hodge's time as a Labour minister.

Rumour had it that Hodge was disappointed to be left off the list of ministerial appointments when Blair made it into Number Ten. What, after all, was all that cosying up in Islington for, if not to get some kind of reward? Her being passed over may have had something to do with the fact that the Social Services Department in Islington had recently been heavily criticised (“disastrous” was one word for it) in an independent report. In 1990 there had been concerns among social workers about organised sexual abuse of children in the borough's homes. In 1991 a worker at an Islington school went to prison for sexually abusing children. A year later the Evening Standard further ignited the issue with reports on widespread abuse in the children's homes. Hodge, showing the kind of skills which are demanded of all those who get into government, dismissed the allegations as “a sensationalist piece of gutter journalism” – which, even if true, did not diminish the seriousness of the situation. In 1992 she resigned from the council and took a job as a consultant to the trendily expensive auditing firm Price Waterhouse. There are no reports on how she squared this work with her incandescent left wing principles. In any case any discomfort she may have experienced was short-lived because she got into Parliament in 1994 and was made Minister of State for Education in 2001. She had, in a sense, arrived.

Climb Down
We all need a friend at times and in June 2003 Hodge got what she called her “dream job” – as Minister for Children. Understandably this enraged many who were familiar with the crisis in child care in Islington. In the event her dream turned into something of a nightmare because, in a letter to top management at the BBC which she intended to be private, she made an unguarded comment about a Demetrious Panton who had alleged he had been sexually abused while in care to Islington but in 1985 Hodge had not acted when he informed her of this. It was the intention of the Today programme on Radio 4 to expose the matter and Hodge intended to put a gag on them, on the grounds that the programme was “deplorable sensationalism” and Panton was “an extremely disturbed person”. The result was even more embarrassing publicity for the Minster for Children. In November Hodge was compelled to make a humiliating climb down in a full written apology for the label she tried to pin on Panton, when she accepted that her description of him “should never have been made”.

What emerges from this cruel mess is that in Margaret Hodge we have one of those politicians whose first reaction to being confronted with the evasions and deceptions they have applied in running capitalism is to deny any responsibility. For example there is the matter of Tony Blair, who is presumably still searching for those Weapons of Mass Destruction. Sometimes this works, the media interest evaporates, other more gruesome events take over the front pages. At other times the tactic backfires and the person is in a deeper mess than ever. This is now the case with Margaret Hodge, who was once a rising Blairite star, perhaps with quiescent ambitions to lead her party.

Barnados
Just as Hodge was being so glaringly exposed the charity Barnados were giving us some facts about children in this society. Poverty, say Barnados, wrecks lives and children living in poverty (by which they mean those in families below a certain income level) are more likely to end up homeless, develop drug addiction or alcoholism or become victims of crime. When these children grow into adulthood they are more likely to suffer ill health, be unemployed, commit offences and themselves get into abusive relationships. In spite of the government's claims to have diminished child poverty, about one third of all children in England, Wales and Scotland are still officially classified as suffering the condition. That is the true, inescapable abuse which children endure and which goes on to distort their lives. Politicians like Margaret Hodge persistently offend against us with their claims to have some kind of preternatural ability to cure poverty simply through being elected into power. This also is abuse of us, who are the useful, productive class in society. We don't need Jones back but that goes for Squealer and Napoleon as well because we can do better for ourselves.