Barking racist

JVL Introduction

Another article from last year – by Richard Seymour – complements David Rosenberg’s critique of Margaret Hodge, reposted earlier today.

Her disgraceful capitulation to BNP rhetoric is laid bare, with Seymour concluding that “if Hodge is your “anti-racist” hero of the hour, then you are either shockingly, culpably ignorant, or you don’t really care about racism”.

This article was originally published by Patreon on Fri 20 Jul 2018. Read the original here.

Barking racist

Margaret Hodge the ‘anti-racist’? Margaret Hodge, the hero who “saw off the BNP in Barking”? Are you serious? Only in the absurd, hall-of-mirrors context of Labour’s antisemitism wars could such a downright, delirious falsehood be believed.The context, as you know, is that Labour’s NEC has decided to implement new rules on antisemitism. It has adopted the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to guide its disciplinary actions.

Now I give credit to the Labour NEC for taking antisemitism seriously, and recognising it as a rising global problem. But I don’t think this definition is very good. As Jamie Stern-Weiner rightly points out, it isn’t actually much of a definition.

Judging from the testimony of one of its lead drafters, the nebulous wording arose from a good faith effort to define antisemitism in such a way as to allow that some criticism of Israel might be antisemitic, taking “the overall context” into account, without having a chilling effect on pro-Palestine speech.

However, as Jewish Voice for Labour points out, it is precisely the nebulous wording and open-endedness of the examples that has been used in some contexts to exert a chilling effect on pro-Palestine speech. That sort of practice, aside from being completely unacceptable on its own terms, obviously wouldn’t be very useful in the fight against antisemitism.

However, critics on the centre-right of the Labour Party and beyond, have a different critique. Because the NEC, rightly, was very careful to distinguish the IHRA definition, from the illustrative possible examples accompanying it. The critics therefore claim that the NEC, has not adopted the ‘complete’ definition, thereby leaving the field wide open to Jew-haters. As Brian Klug points out, the critics are simply wrong. They are mangling the definition of definition.

There may be various reasons why this mangling is happening. And not everyone who gets it wrong has an axe to grind. For example, practically every journalist in Britain, including the usually reliable Stephen Bush, has reiterated this canard. But for those grinding axes include, obviously, those who want Labour to define anti-Zionism as antisemitic, thereby shutting down an intra-Jewish debate. And those who are so utterly, sociopathically opportunistic, that racism is simply another angle to be played first one way, then the other.

That brings us back to Margaret Hodge. Hodge is entitled to disagree with the NEC’s decision, and to vent her anger and frustration about it. She’s wrong, but she’s allowed to be. But her calling Corbyn a racist — a charge that the Jewish Chronicle disgracefully reiterated, uncritically, without scare quotes, probably libellously, on its front page — is replete with irony.

It’s an irony that is only underlined by the talking points of Progress-affiliated MPs, which include the absolutely, ludicrously false claim that Margaret Hodge saw off the BNP in Barking. Margaret Hodge did not see off the BNP in Barking. Hodge spent most of her time legitimising BNP arguments.

The background to this is well-described by Daniel Trilling, author of by far the best book on the BNP’s rise throughout the 2000s. Barking and Dagenham at the time was suffering from a terrible housing crisis. It was also suffering the fall-out from de-industrialisation, including the loss of local car manufacturing. And spatially and socially, it felt palpably isolated and in decay.

The BNP claimed that the housing problem, the most pressing issue, was caused by “indigenous” families were being driven out of Barking by an “Africans for Essex” scheme implemented by the Labour government. This was, of course, a ludicrous conspiracy theory. But, the problem was that, absent a left-wing policy equal to the scale of the problem — say, major investment in new council housing — people were listening to the BNP.

But Hodge played a role in gaining an ear for BNP arguments. Her response, which was typical of an authoritarian-populist strand within New Labour at the time, was to adopt a domesticated version of far right rhetoric.

Beginning in 2006, when New Labour’s electoral difficulties were increasingly obvious, and when Blair’s leadership was under attack, Hodge began to identify “indigenous” concerns as a major problem. In her constituency, she said white people saw “black and ethnic-minority communities moving in and they are angry”.

Finessing this rhetoric, she later made to sure to stipulate that black, Asian and white Britons were all “indigenous”. The problem was no longer “black and ethnic-minority communities” per se, but new migrants. Therefore, she argued that “indigenous” families have a “legitimate sense of entitlement” to social housing that should trump the needs of migrant families. She gave credence to the BNP claim that, contrary to this “legitimate sense of entitlement”, migrants were jumping ahead of the queue. And she said that, to address this, New Labour should block benefits for migrants for up to twelve months.

This tactic of appropriating fascist language — “grist to the mill” for the BNP, as Alan Johnson said at the time — was a comprehensive failure. The BNP expanded its representation on the council, and their arguments were increasingly normalised. I remember this vividly, when I briefly participated in the big, multi-organisation anti-fascist campaign, which saved Hodge’s seat. Ordinary people on the doorsteps and in the streets were making BNP arguments, and no one until that point had seriously challenged them.

It fell to a coalition of trade unionists, Labour activists, and antifascist campaigners to make the principled political arguments that Hodge should have been making, and prevent Nick Griffin from taking his first seat in parliament. Had he won that seat, ironically, you can be damned sure a far bigger faction within the Parliamentary Labour Party would have started imitating the tactics that Hodge had used to such spectacular failure.

A postscript. Having been saved by the unions and a broad left coalition, Hodge’s gratitude was swiftly registered when, in the outrage at Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership victory, she joined those demanding that the party cut “the umbilical cord” with the unions. Such nose-cutting, face-spiting isn’t even opportunism. It’s a form of derangement. It is a politics deeply pathologised by the disappointments of the Eighties. And that self-destructive, historically traumatised politics, particularly among former left-wingers, is a big part of the anti-Corbyn dynamic in labour.

But if Hodge is your “anti-racist” hero of the hour, then you are either shockingly, culpably ignorant, or you don’t really care about racism. Ignorance can be overcome, but sociopathic opportunism with regard to one of the most dangerous problems in global politics today is far less forgivable.

Comments (3)

  • Mary Davies says:

    Brilliant, insightful article, setting the historical record straight.

  • Margaret Hodge has written “We should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants.” Does Hodge think her remarks apply to Israel ?h

  • John says:

    And let’s not get into what she got up to when Leader of Islington Council!
    She should have been out of the Labour Party decades ago.

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