Margaret Hodge is a Labour politician and MP for Barking & Dagenham. She currently chairs the Public Accounts Committee, which oversees government income and expenditure and which has been involved in examining the taxation practices of multinational companies like Starbucks and Google. She talks to TCS about connecting with voters, making parliament more diverse and being described as 'the tax rock-star'.
As chair of the Public Accounts Committee, what realistically do you think that select committee can achieve?
Well, much more than I thought! I often tell people I think I am more effective in achieving change in this role, which has no executive power, than I was as a minister in the Blair-Brown years. Why? We have the power to shine a light and we’ve shown that with issues like tax. You can really stimulate debate, really get issues into the public domain and then that powerfully impacts on what government and the private sector does.
What are you proudest of from your time as chair?
Tax. I think we’ve changed the whole way people approach tax. We’ve got the government – completely with forked tongue, to be honest – to say they’re clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion. Although, at the same time they’re introducing changes which make it easier for people to avoid tax, because they are obsessed with using tax as a way of attracting businesses here. But we’ve changed the debate; everyone tells me that the boardroom discussions around tax are completely different now so in boardrooms they’re so much more conscious of the potential damage of manipulating their accounts.
[Following the recommendations of the committee] Cameron went off to G8 and said you’ve got to change the rules on international tax. Now, the OECD has been working on this since 1981…because if you think about it logically the inappropriate nature of international tax laws has been obvious for a long while. So [at an OECD conference] a woman who works on international tax asked if she could have a photo with me. I said, fine, but I don’t know why you want it and she told me: ‘Margaret, you do not understand, you’re the tax rock-star!’ And that’s just from us stimulating the debate: they think they’re going to get some international agreement.
Do you see paying tax as a moral, rather than a purely legal issue?
I think we make a contract with society of mutual obligations and a part of that is that you put in according to your means to the common purse for the common good and I do think there’s a moral imperative to do that. These big businesses benefit from that: they benefit from the educated workforce, the healthy workforce, they benefit from the infrastructure, and they should put back in. That’s a very contentious issue, but I do think there’s a moral imperative.
Since you starting investigating their tax practices, have you ever accidentally bough a coffee at Starbucks?
No, never. Anywhere but Starbucks. They clearly lost a whole load of market share, and now they’re trying to PR their way back in. But they’ve filed losses again in the UK this year, although they say this is their best market.
Why do you think there is such a disconnect between politicians and the electorate in the UK at the moment?
The current ruling political class see politics too much as a professional career. If you look at all three current leaders they’ve all gone from school to Oxbridge to advisors to MPs to leaders. You just feel it – and if I feel it, what do you feel as the ordinary voter – that they just have never really connected with the ordinary people.
With the European elections coming up, how worried are you as a Labour MP about UKIP’s taking working class, traditionally Labour voters?
You know I fought the BNP? Griffin stood against me in 2010…and I completely had to change my politics. Everything I do now is about…gathering people around me and asking: what’s bugging you? What’s top of your agenda? A lot of people’s politics starts from the local, and then they’ll talk about the big issues: for me it was immigration, then housing’s the next big issue, and I could never do anything about immigration, never do anything about housing, but I didn’t promise I could. That’s another reason we’re not connecting: making false promises. A vote for UKIP is so obviously a protest vote, they’re fed up with us lot.
[We need to] change politics, and the answer is not just to call [UKIP] racists, because immigration is a real issue for a lot of people. It’s not that people are apathetic: they’re angry, so on immigration which is the big issue, just dismissing it as racism is completely wrong. That doesn’t mean that you cave in to what are undoubtedly, among some people, deeply racist attitudes, there’s a middle ground. One thing is to understand and listen, don’t condemn people as being racist, and the other is don’t promise what you can’t deliver. And all the big parties have promised that they’ll cut immigration and they’ve all failed, because migration’s a feature of globalisation.
As a woman in politics, what do you think can or should be done to increase the numbers of female MPs?
All women shortlists have made a huge impact. Again, it was highly contentious, but you’ve got to take positive action. I spend a lot of time mentoring the young women who are trying to get into politics. [We need] women sticking together, women networking, trying to change the culture.
Do you think that having more women in parliament has a positive impact on the political culture?
Yes, I think the women ministers in the Blair brown years really did have an impact. The childcare policy would never have happened [without] women. Flexible working hours was a real campaign by a bunch of us: Blair didn’t want it, Brown didn’t want it, it was just us being consistent as women. I have absolutely no doubt that we did change policies as well as politics.
Do you think the same sorts of strategies apply for getting a wider range of people into politics in general – more people from ethnic minorities, for example?
Yes – we’re awful at the moment on ethnicity, awful. It’s the same strategy: networking, mentoring. And you can take anything: people with disabilities, working class people and so on.