There has been a considerable furore over the appointment of
Margaret Hodge as minister for children. Behind much of the press
coverage it is possible to detect old scores being settled. The
Evening Standard, under its current editor, has followed its
assault on Ken Livingstone’s character and his policies –
particularly congestion charging – with a vicious series of attacks
on Hodge. It is like the 1980s all over again when “loony left”
councils were rarely off the front page of the Standard, and its
sister paper the Daily Mail. Undoubtedly something went seriously
wrong in Islington social services during the time that Hodge was
leader. She has herself admitted making mistakes, apologised for
them and indicated that she has learned from the experience.
However, whatever one’s views about what went on during that period
the debate about Margaret Hodge’s suitability for her current post
raises some interesting issues.
Firstly, the attack on her has been couched in terms of character.
Is she a “fit person” to hold this role in government? This kind of
ad feminam argument is new to British politics, but it is
commonplace in the US. In part, the open scrutiny of presidential
appointments to positions right up to the Supreme Court has
encouraged this kind of discourse in the US.
The Hodge affair may be the first sign that a similar discussion
about public appointments is wanted here. The Standard’s hard-edged
populism is not to everyone’s liking but in the absence of an
effective opposition it may be the only real scrutiny in
Secondly, there is the whole question of what it means to have made
mistakes in one’s professional life. We all know we have done
things in the past that have turned out to have been wrong. Most of
us have escaped either serious consequences or public excoriation
for our errors, and have been able to learn from them. A career
consisting completely of unfaultable actions is implausible. So do
we want experience with all that entails, or is the innocence of
the inexperienced preferable?
Finally, what is it we want from our government’s ministers?
Well-meaning politicians in positions of power are not enough. If
it was there would be few public policy problems remaining
unresolved. Passion and purpose are critical components of
effective leaders and in this Hodge has a distinguished record. No
senior politician has worked so effectively to put the agenda of
children and families at the centre of politics. So, is she fit to
be minister for children? I think so. But she should, and she will,
be judged by what she does in the future not where she erred in the
John McTernan is a political analyst