Margaret Hodge has taken a high-profile position over immigration. So high-profile and dangerous that I am inclined to fall back on one of my favorite metaphors – chess as a source of leadership insights. Margaret is in a tricky position, so she weighs up the possibilities, and makes a dangerous move in an attempt to break free. In chess terms, it’s a forced move. Or no-brainer.
In chess, faced with a forced move, a player will sometimes stare at the board, wasting valuable time, looking for another playable move. This is mostly futile. It’s better to make the move and take the consequences, or resign and take the consequences of that.
There might be another move
Even in chess, there may be an overlooked possibility. Training books have examples of positions in which a player has resigned, failing to see an unexpected move. The forced moves believed to lead to certain defeat were not forced after all.
So let’s look at the salient features of the position Margaret Hodge finds herself in. The problems appear to be to do with social housing, the British term for state-provided housing, traditionally controlled by local councils, hence ‘council estates’. But council estates impact on national politics.
A tale of two Margarets
Margaret Thatcher believed that selling off as much council housing stock as possible would be a good step in her social revolution. Her opponents point to that decision as a disaster in its longer-term consequences. According to the BBC
More than 1.5m homes have been sold off since the Conservative government introduced “right to buy” legislation in the 1980s.
The Treasury-sponsored Barker report said in 2004 that Britain needs to build 140,000 new homes a year – of which 23,000 should be social housing units – if housing supply is to meet demand. The Lib Dems say there are 1.6m families on waiting lists for social housing – compared to 1m in 1997.
There are more than 8,000 families on the waiting list in Margaret Hodge’s Barking constituency alone. There is concern Labour voters are turning to the BNP, which blames the shortages on immigration. Labour’s left blames the shortage on Tory “right to buy” policies and the government’s reluctance to build more council houses
It is hardly surprising if Margaret Hodge has drawn attention to the issue. As a Minister of State she has chosen to make broaden the debate.
Ken has his say
Ken Livingstone is well-aware of London’s housing problems. His high-profile actions as Mayor have not enabled him to influence local council housing decisions. His frustration is evident in his observations:
Margaret Hodge is wrong. Far from it being the case that immigrants are jumping the housing queue, the opposite is true, with immigrants naturally finding it very much harder to find their way round a system with which they are not familiar … Instead of making remarks which will be seen as scapegoating immigrants, senior politicians like Margaret Hodge should be working to solve the real housing shortage affecting all communities. [Her] suggestion that housing allocation should be based not on need but factors like length of residence would be catastrophic for community relations. In reality it would quite rightly be illegal to take immigration status into account in allocating housing.
The other move
Even in chess, there are good times to resign. A strong player has some social obligation to ‘go over the game’ afterwards showing where his defeated opponent went wrong. This encourages an early resignation. It’s part of the learning and maturing process for juniors, who tend to prolong the agony rather than capitulate.
So, I’m suggesting that resignation is anything but a no-brainer for Margaret Hodge. If she is right, she is under increasing threat of losing her parliamentary seat. Her own stated estimate is that 80% of white families in her constituency were tempted by the British National Party. At the recent local elections the BNP won 11 of the 13 seats it contested in Barking and Dagenham, making it the second party.
The unexpected move in the wider game would have been resignation from her ministerial duties, so that she could fight more directly for the interests of her constituents. Such actions have more credibility if the leader clearly is prepared to suffer personal damage for the wider cause.
Realistically such a move would have made more sense before she stood for the current election for deputy leadership of the Party. This is unlikely to happen. I offer it as a thought experiment of possibilities for leadership rather than as a prediction.