Labour leadership contest: Margaret Hodge tells 'union barons' to 'shut up' and stop interfering

Ms Hodge said it was wrong for union bosses to try and influence the decision

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The head of Britain’s largest trade union should “shut up” and stop interfering in Labour’s leadership election, one of the party’s most-senior MPs says today.

Margaret Hodge, the outgoing chairman of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), told The Independent she was “fed up” with “union barons” like Len McCluskey trying to influence the result of  the election.

Her remarks come as it was revealed that Mr McCluskey’s union, Unite, is signing up as many as 1,000 members a day to join Labour and get a vote in the leadership contest.

Members of unions affiliated to Labour lost their automatic entitlement to vote in leadership contests under changes introduced by Ed Miliband. Unions must now ask members to affiliate individually, but there is no fee and no limit on numbers. Labour’s regular membership is around 240,000 but there are more than 4 million trade unionists who could qualify – potentially swinging the result.

Ms Hodge said while she was in favour of individual union members having a say it was completely wrong for union bosses to try and influence the decision one way or the other.

“This is about trade union barons rather than union members,” she said. “I am pretty fed up with trade union barons thinking their one vote will decide who the leader is.

“I have much greater confidence in trade-union members to exercise their common sense and values in the interests of the party. I think Len McCluskey should just shut up and let his union members have their say.”

So far Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Mary Creagh have all declared they are standing for Labour leader. However, it is unclear whether Ms Creagh will receive the backing of the 35 MPs she needs to get on the ballot.

 

Ms Hodge, who is from the modernising wing of the party, attacked this requirement and also called for Labour to introduce a mechanism that would make it easier to remove a leader who failed to perform.

“I want more candidates,” she said. “I would stop MPs having the ability to decide who goes on the short list. It is unhelpful to the debate and it is unfair to the members for there to be any manipulation of MPs in any way by anyone to limit the choice and limit the debate.”

Ms Hodge, 70, surprised many in Westminster when she announced last week that she would not seek re-election as chairman of the PAC.

She had been expected to stand again after being widely credited for exposing the tax affairs of multi-nationals such as Starbucks and Amazon.

Under her chairmanship the PAC also highlighted shortcoming with Government programmes such as universal credit and was behind the strengthening of protections for whistle-blowers. 

“The thing I’m most proud about is that we pushed back the borders of what the PAC had traditionally done,” she said. “We had the mantra that we would follow the taxpayer pound. We didn’t just interview the top mandarins. We took evidence from anyone who was responsible for spending the taxpayers’ pound – including private sector.

“That was very important to establish that everyone was accountable to Parliament – including those people who were avoiding paying tax.

“(I think that) really touched a chord with people. If times are hard and people are struggling to make ends meet the idea that big corporation or rich people are avoiding tax is abhorrent and immoral.”

But Ms Hodge said she did not feel she could commit to the job for another five years.

“I think it’s important to quit while you’re ahead in politics and I’ve never done that before,” she joked.

Ms Hodge also hit back at those who criticised her robust questioning in committee and said she hoped her successor would continue to ensure Parliament was seen to be working for the public and not the “Westminster bubble”.

“We were often, and increasingly, accused of grandstanding,” she said. “And I have never apologised for that because we had no executive power. The only power we had was that power to draw attention to an issue.” 

Ms Hodge added that she hoped her successor, who under Parliamentary protocol will be another Labour MP, would continue the work of the committee.

Front-runners are likely to include the former health minister Gisela Stuart and or the shadow welfare reform minister Helen Goodman.

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