I was really keen to hear Margaret Hodge speak, not only because she is a female MP, still a rarity in the UK, but also because she is one of few really high profile women in politics. She’s outspoken and her honesty and forthrightness has in the past attracted some bad press so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet her in person and judge for myself.
I have to say I was expecting her to be rather formidable. As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee she has a reputation for roasting the targets of her investigations. As political author and columnist Polly Toynbee put it, she “turned the dull-sounding public accounts committee into the most rigorous scrutineer” of wrongdoers … “making bankers, tax-avoiding CEOs, failing ministers and permanent secretaries quail under her sharp tongue.” Margaret herself said that when she was in Paris at an OECD meeting they lauded her as a “Tax Rock Star” for her work in putting tax avoidance onto the Government’s agenda. She is quoting as saying to a senior executive of Google “ I think you do evil!” over their pitifully low tax payments in the UK.
At our January gathering of The Leaders Club in Westminster’s Portcullis House, she delighted us with her honesty and authenticity, sharing stories about her early life as an Austrian Jewish refugee in Cairo. That traumatic start in life has obviously helped shape the woman of today. She observed herself as being a “stroppy” child and told us of her reluctant journey through business and motherhood into politics. No, in person she was not in the least formidable … well not in the English sense but in the French I would definitely call her “formidable!”.
A haphazard career
It was interesting to hear of the journey she took which led her in to politics. I used to think that people went into politics OR business. Margaret points out that this is not a good thing. She said politics today is “too professional” and not only does it need people with some business experience as well, it needs to involve more “ordinary people” who reflect more the views of voters. Margaret’s journey started out at Unilever where she worked after graduation but soon left because, in the late 1960s, women were allowed to do the research but not allowed to write the reports.
Politics was not on her radar but when she left work when she had her children, she needed to do something outside the home. She joined her local council. From her involvement in community politics in Islington, she saw the issues of the day that needed tackling and joined in the marches and activism of that time. Gentrification and the loss of affordable housing have been passions of hers to stand behind. She has weaved in and out of politics and business ever since, and although she never intended to become an MP and work in the “odd bubble that is westminster”; somehow she was persuaded to stand for Barking in 1994.
She spoke of a different kind of politics
When the leader of the BNP (British National Party) targeted her parliamentary seat in Barking, she was forced to rethink the way she related to voters. Her London suburb had shifted from being mainly white to having very high levels of immigrants and that had put enormous pressure on housing needs. She set out to really listen to her voters. She avoids ribbon-cutting at opening events, instead, she creates opportunities to sit down with her voters over cups of tea and listen to their concerns. She is well aware of the broken trust politicians have so she has made it her priority to re-build trust by making sure she can deliver on the requests made of her that she is certain she can actually do something about. No empty promises from Margaret.
A champion for women
With so few female politicians at Westminster, she has always been in the minority and issues that affect women have never been held as important when the majority of MPs have been men. She spoke of her early work on diversity which has always brought the media pack down on her. Conversations that she championed 30 years ago that attracted ridicule are now being held as relevant today…. finally. One of the greatest changes that she has been involved in was the right to have flexible working. There were no maternity rights when she had her children so she said female MPs across the parties aligned and worked together to change this. She shared her dismay that years later, women are still structurally disadvantaged and real progress remains an illusion. She sees that women of child-bearing age are not being promoted and her own daughters were both made redundant during their pregnancies.
When Margaret was Minister for Culture she was alarmed at how few women were on cultural and arts organisations boards. Only 26% of the names being put forward for consideration were of women. She said they made an effort to find women to propose, and within a year they almost doubled the numbers to 46% for female candidates. Sadly, after she took a year out for compassionate leave, the energy for this dissipated and the numbers slipped back to 26% but it shows what is possible when intention is placed behind an initiative for change. This experience has led her to back positive action to advance women since leaving it to the system is not working.
What advice has she for women today?
- Of course confidence is always an issue so it is hugely important that women support each other by offering encouragement and reinforcing that women “can do it” when they have moments of doubt and think they are not up to the job. Women’s self belief must be bolstered.
- Don’t think of your working life as a short sprint .. it’s a long haul especially if you take time out to care for children or later in life for ageing parents. Expect to come back and continue the ascent, especially if we are all now being expected and encouraged to work until we are 80 … Margaret herself is aged 70 and has put her hat in the ring for Mayor of London.
- Use women’s networks … they are critical. we have to be there for each other especially in work cultures where men know their way round the system
- Ask for more. As event host Richard Smelt pointed out, when men take on a new job they are 60% likely to ask for more money whereas only 30% of women will think to do this.
Paying Tax is a question of fairness
It has been reported in the press how she has skewered top execs of the global tech companies who are operating in the UK and have kept their tax liabilities to a minimum. Is that smart business? It’s not fair says Margaret. If you are a business that needs employees then those employees need to live somewhere with an infrastructure that are supported by public services, including healthcare. Who pays for this so that YOUR employees are educated, healthy and can get transportation to your place of work?She felt it was particularly odious that a big consulting accounts firm had been paid by the Government Treasury to write to technical framework for taxation regarding invention and patents, only to then “sell” their advice about this to their clients.
Margaret’s work on the Public Accounts Committee has intervened to ensure that the Government makes their legislation more robust to protect from this potential loss.Margaret talked about us needing a new moral social contract .. that people would want to give according to their means and contribute to the common pot. However difficult it is to set up cooperative working and business models like the John Lewis Partnership, we need to look at these options.