Barking By-Election: Socialist abandons red flag for the modern approach: Former Islington leader with radical past is model Labour candidate

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The Independent Online
MARGARET HODGE led Islington council when it flew the red flag from the town hall and its policies attracted banner headlines. Today she is the very model of a modern Labour candidate.

Barring an almost unimaginable electoral mishap, Ms Hodge will become the Labour MP for Barking on 9 June. The constituency is offically part of east London but its heart and soul belong firmly to Essex.

The differences between this drab, working-class town and the elegant terraces of Islington, in north London, could hardly be greater. The contrast between its wealthy Labour candidate and her supporters is no less.

But Barking has traditionally elected high-profile Labour MPs from outside the constituency. Ms Hodge inherits a majority of 6,268 from Jo Richardson, a left-winger who was a member of the party's national executive and the Shadow Cabinet. Ms Richardson, who died recently, took the seat over from Tom Driberg, a flamboyant homosexual.

Ms Hodge, 49, resigned as leader of Islington council two years ago, and has more recently worked as a public sector consultant with Price Waterhouse. She once said she had no intention of going into national politics.

She said: 'Yes I did, didn't I? In a way you do get addicted to politics. There comes a time in local government when you have to move on.' Another factor in her change of mind was that her four children are now older.

If her radical Islington image was ever true, and some of it was the product of newspaper hype, there is not much sign of it now. She describes herself as 'a moderniser based on traditional values' and should blend effortlessly into the post-Kinnock and Smith Labour Party.

In Barking, one of three adjoining Labour-held constituencies where parliamentary by-elections will take place on 9 June, Ms Hodge is concentrating on unemployment, local hospital closures and the Channel tunnel rail link. The latter will run overground through the middle of the constituency, inflicting noise and housing blight on hundreds of homes. Labour wants the route changed to a tunnel link and criticises the Government for failing to agree a proper compensation scheme. Even Theresa May, the Conservative candidate, has expressed fears about noise and safety.

Ms May, 37, head of European affairs for a banking and building societies organisation, comes from the same forceful middle-class mould as Ms Hodge and is a former councillor in Merton, south-west London. The Tory tactic is to criticise the Labour-run local council, particularly over the standard of schools, talk tough on crime and remind the electorate that it was the Conservatives who allowed thousands of them to buy their council houses.

Ms May insists that Barking Conservative voters are a loyal breed who will stick with her this time. But she could end up in third place behind the Liberal Democrat Garry White, who at 21 is one of the youngest people to stand for Parliament. He gave up his post as a student union official to fight the election and is now unemployed.

The Liberal Democrats got more than 20 per cent of the vote in Barking in the recent local elections and won a seat on the council. This grass-roots activity combined with Tory discontent should win Mr White respectable support.

Candidates in Barking: Gerard Batten (UK Independence Party), Heather Butensky (Natural Law Party), Margaret Hodge (Labour), Theresa May (Conservative), Gary Needs (National Front), Garry White (Liberal Democrat).

1992 result: J. Richardson (Lab) 18,224, JG Kennedy (Con) 11,956, SW Churchman (Lib Dem) 5,133. Labour majority 6,268.

(Photograph omitted)

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