She has noticed what she calls the “de-womanising” of language. The Tories’ domestic violence bill avoided mention of women, by far the most likely victims, [J4MB emphasis: an outright lie. They’re the minority, as we know from many sources including the Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project (2013).] largely, she says, due to Conservative men’s rights campaigner Philip Davies. But in her international development work she’s observed the term “gender-based violence”, which blurs the stark reality: “It’s male violence against women.”
The full article:
While most of us gained weight during lockdown, Jess Phillips lost three stone. “I’m still on a strict 1,000 calories a day in the week, but at the weekend I do drink and eat bread.” While many faltered in their fine intentions to write a book during Covid, Phillips, often banging out 6,000 words per afternoon (“I find it quite therapeutic, especially if I’m cross about something”), managed two. One is a short treatise on motherhood; the other, Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics, reflects on her six years as a Labour MP.
There are few more engaging, warm and funny politicians but Phillips’ vape-smoking, trainer-wearing, happy-in-her-own-skin exterior belies serious drive. Her book, while chatty and anecdotal, also offers a route for Labour, through its dense forest of identity politics, back towards ordinary voters. She is an enthusiast, an across-the-aisle pragmatist happy to find common cause with Tories – the antithesis of the petty, chiding, cancel culture Left. “I don’t care if someone calls me ‘love’,” she shrugs. “I mean, people are being raped.”
We meet in her home in Moseley, a Birmingham suburb it’s mandatory to call “leafy”. Her back lawn, so verdant I assume it’s AstroTurf, is the work of Phillips’ husband, Tom, “who gets obsessed with doing one thing really well, like cooking fried chicken, then moves on to something else”. Lockdown kittens, Frankie and Holly, stalk the kitchen: the male one, she says, breaks into her bedroom and bites her at night. Upstairs, her elder son, 16, slumbers having finished school for good, after many Covid-disrupted months.
Although this double-fronted house, rather than the sparsely furnished London flat where we last met, is her true home, she misses her old Westminster life terribly. “I hate you have to make an appointment for a Zoom call with someone you’d bump into in the corridor. We don’t work as a team anywhere near as well. The support of your colleagues, bouncing ideas off them, is gone. And finding cross-party allegiances is near-impossible, because I don’t know all the Tories’ phone numbers, obviously, whereas I could just happen upon them in the tea room like, ‘I’ve got this issue. Will you back it up?’ I hate zooming into the chamber. I did it to ask an urgent question but I couldn’t see the home secretary. I’m a person who needs people.”
She pauses to refill her vape with strawberry liquid. Writing the book at a 100-mile remove made her reflect on what she wished she’d known when becoming an MP. She’d no idea the job was formless: “You could literally buy a villa in France, go to it and do nothing.” She thought she’d model herself on Harriet Harman until the Labour veteran told Phillips she could only be herself. She was naive about political loyalty and “people’s unwillingness to be brave. They say one thing in the tea room, like, ‘God, isn’t he an arsehole,’ and something completely different on the TV news.”
That Phillips, 39, generally speaks her mind and has never allied herself with a particular Labour tribe accounts for her high public profile but also her relatively low ranking within Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour. Her domestic violence and safeguarding portfolio fits her feminism and earlier career in women’s refuges. But it isn’t a full shadow cabinet job. Doesn’t she deserve a bigger post?
“The truth is I’m probably best wherever I am,” she says. “Because I still get on the telly all the time, and if there are wedge issues the government is struggling on, it’s things like crime and rape. They’re doing a terrible job. So in some ways, I think that maybe it’s better having people who can speak passionately and fluently about the things they know about.”
She says her greatest achievement is “making women as important as bins”. Councils only had only two statutory duties: adult and children’s social services, and refuse collection. The Domestic Abuse Act adds a third: providing women’s refuges. She recalls watching her first budget speech in 2015, when George Osborne “didn’t mention sexual violence once, despite it being the biggest crime type in the UK”. Now no government would dare. That is in part down to Phillips, who every year reads the femicide list of women – usually around 150 – killed by men. But she is generous about support from Tory women such as Caroline Noakes, Tracey Crouch, former MP Anne Milton (“a great loss to Westminster”) and Theresa May. Although none of them voted for migrant women to have recourse to refuge, “so sometimes I feel they care up to the point there is a political cost”.
We speak days before the vicious Batley and Spen by-election, amid Momentum activists demanding Starmer resign as leader if Labour loses. (It retains the seat by a squeaky 323 votes.) Phillips believes the hard left stoked George Galloway’s campaign with its crude appeals to Muslim voters, and was gleeful about the prospect of Labour losing. “But they would make the same charge about me, wouldn’t they, under the Corbyn years.” She compares activist-journalist Owen Jones and Novara Media writers to noisy, overexcited children who have had too much sugar – “Who cares what they think, frankly.”
Didn’t Labour itself fall into the gutter with a leaflet showing Boris Johnson shaking hands with the Indian PM, Narendra Modi, playing on communal tensions? Phillips claims not to have seen it. “Politics has got ugly in lots of ways, and the Labour Party will make terrible mistakes in that environment just like everybody else. You know, there are Facebook memes saying that I want rapists to come out of prison early, put around by the Tories.” She dreams of a philanthropist setting up a Twitter bot farm disseminating hopefulness rather than hate.
Should Corbyn regain the Labour whip, removed after he claimed a report into antisemitism under his leadership was politically motivated? “No,” she says emphatically. “I was about to say, ‘Until he shows real contrition,’ but how does one prove it’s real? I don’t think that he can.”
Yet both the Labour Party and Starmer’s personal poll ratings are dire. Does Phillips think he is doing a good job? “Look, he needs to do better, without question. He needs to build a team that can go to the country.” The trouble, she says, is the public can’t name any of them. So has he chosen the wrong people? “No, I think this is a terrible time, where you’ve no opportunity to act like a team and get around a table.”
But since the 2019 Tory landslide, it has been hard to see how Labour, with just one MP in Scotland and the Red Wall collapsed, could gain the numbers to govern. “My mum thought that, and then in 1997 they won. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong – but the Tories came back from Tony Blair, who had a massive majority. I can totally see how it would come back. And it can come back quite quickly.”
She cites the LibDem victory in the Chesham and Amersham by-election as an example of people showing they don’t want their votes taken for granted. She’s in politics to govern, she says, not “just make marginal gains for the people of Birmingham Yardley. I could do that working at Women’s Aid. It must always be about trying to change the country and making things better.”
When normal, post-pandemic politics resumes, she says, the government’s “levelling up” agenda will be proven hollow and meaningless. “We can’t afford hardly any of the services that we used to have. And the Labour Party has to convince people that things used to get better, because people’s expectations are now so low, they don’t expect things to get better any more.” When many Birmingham schools decided to close at 1pm on Fridays because they couldn’t afford to stay open, her constituents were so inured to cuts, many didn’t even complain.
The worst accusation against Labour is that it seems no longer to like its working-class base. Phillips balks at this and says this complaint doesn’t come up on doorsteps. But it is a perception, I say, that Boris Johnson is upbeat, enthusiastic, while Labour is negative, judgmental, miserablist. “We’ve definitely got to be much more optimistic. We’ve got to have a laugh! We’ve got to be big and bold and bright and funny and charming. But it’s a really hard thing to do, a) in a global pandemic, and b) when you’re in opposition. If you start being too optimistic about things, people will be like, ‘You’re not scrutinising the government.’ ”
Phillips, however, exudes genuine delight in her constituents. “They’re just fascinating, and really, really, really funny. Even in terrible adversity. When things are awful in Westminster, when you’re under loads of pressure, just a day here will bring you back down to earth. But also there’s nothing better than somebody needing help and you being able to offer it.” In her political mind’s eye, she has an imaginary woman she calls Brenda – middle-aged, working at Asda, with grown-up kids (“We don’t agree on everything. Brenda hates garlic”) – and Phillips asks, of Labour policy, whether it includes Brenda.
Moreover, in 2018, when a man called Michael tried to kick down her constituency office door, accusing Phillips of turning a blind eye to Asian grooming gangs, she arranged to meet him. They talked, not agreeing, but realising they were the same age, raised in the same area. Phillips showed him speeches she’d given to contradict the lies he’d read online. “Michael is a human being,” she writes. “He is not an internet avatar and I’m not a video game baddy he must stamp on.”
On paper, Jess Phillips seems destined to be a Labour MP. Her parents were left-wing public sector workers: her dad was a teacher, her mother rose to chair an NHS trust. As the youngest of four kids, the only girl, she held her own in a raucous household. (The book is dedicated to her brother Luke, a former heroin addict who has just graduated with a politics degree.) A grammar school girl, she went to Leeds University and after having her two sons early – she got pregnant very soon after she started dating Tom, then a lift engineer, now a virtual reality technician – became a Birmingham city councillor. She agreed to join the MP selection list shortly after her mother died, in part to distract from her grief.
A star of the 2015 intake, she made an immediate impression, at ease with social media, frank about everything from her abortion to her taste in music. She rapidly became a rare recognisable Labour face. Yet she has always stayed apart from Westminster factions. On the plus side, in the style of Mo Mowlam, she connects. On the downside, she is accused of being a shallow egotist, with no wider political vision than what’s best for Jess.
In 2019, after Corbyn stood down, she tried “on a whim” to parlay her appeal into a leadership bid. “It wasn’t like I’d been planning it for five years and had infrastructure and teams of people… It was a nightmare.” Her sole intention, she claims, was to use her campaign to encourage more people to join the party so they could vote. Once that deadline passed, she dropped out.
“I feel like a total arse saying this, but I wanted the conversation within the Labour Party to be more focused on people who weren’t necessarily always part of it. I have an appeal to the public that is beyond party politics.” Isn’t Labour’s perennial problem that the leader that the members want is repellent to voters. “It is, yes.”
Starmer, with his “machine operation”, was always going to win, she says. Yet four of the six candidates were female and this was supposed to be the time, after 119 years, that the Labour Party had its first female leader. Every other party, even the DUP and (briefly) Ukip, have been led by women. What is Labour’s problem? “It’s just appalling. I have no defence of it.” Could it be that while Tories will choose women if they can hold power, the left demands ideological purity, and women must pass an additional feminist test?
“The Labour Party’s problem writ large is the idea that somebody has to be perfect. They have to look good standing outside 10 Downing Street, but also be down with the people, while also being right about everything… Boris Johnson doesn’t give a shit about any of that. You don’t have to be perfect.” Phillips points out that more than half the parliamentary party is female. “But I genuinely think the only way a woman will win is if men don’t stand – an all-woman shortlist.”
Now feminism itself is riven by the bitterest of battles: how to solve the clash of rights between women and trans people. We last spoke during the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. Since then, the debate has grown more arcane. During the 2019 election, candidates were asked a simple yet toxic question, which flummoxed the LibDem leader at the time, Jo Swinson, perhaps costing the MP her marginal seat: what is a woman?
How would Phillips answer that? She draws thoughtfully on her vape. “I think that biological sex exists, and we are discriminated against on the basis of our biological sex, without question,” she says. “I’ve had an abortion, had to go home from work because I had my period, borne my children and lost loads of my salary. My womb is more political than any other part of my body. But I think if somebody identifies as a woman, I should refer to them as a woman. That’s what I think.”
But now some activists blur the distinction between sex and gender, claiming a trans woman is female. “Well, of course she’s not.” She recalls an intimate chat with a trans woman at a Labour social club in Wakefield. “I said, ‘I suppose there’s the upside of not having periods.’ And she said to me, “The thing is, I’d really, really love to have a period.’ That woman was a woman to me, but neither of us was under any illusion that we had the same biology.”
What surprised her when sitting on the women and equalities committee, which discussed Gender Recognition Act reforms, was the requirement of two years living “in role” as the opposite sex before changing a birth certificate. “How do you live in role as a man? Have I got to use a spanner? No one could answer that. I’ve got short hair. I’m wearing trousers. Like, it’s not an act, is it? You can’t act like a woman, because we’re all different.”
She has noticed what she calls the “de-womanising” of language. The Tories’ domestic violence bill avoided mention of women, by far the most likely victims, largely, she says, due to Conservative men’s rights campaigner Philip Davies. But in her international development work she’s observed the term “gender-based violence”, which blurs the stark reality: “It’s male violence against women.” Trans people, she adds, “don’t want breastfeeding called ‘chestfeeding’. They don’t want you to eliminate the word ‘women’ and use ‘people with cervixes’. They’re fine with ‘women and people with cervixes’.”
She is aghast that the modern left seeks to legitimise, even idealise, prostitution, which through her long experience in the refuge movement she sees as sexual abuse. She uses the term “prostituted women” rather than the woke euphemism “sex workers”. Moreover, she’s long been concerned about long-standing women’s refuges losing funds in favour of generic services that purport to include everyone. “If you had £1 million for domestic violence services, you’d give £800,000 to a women’s refuge based on need and numbers. Having specialist services for LGBT or male victims of domestic abuse is totally brilliant and legitimate. They’re not the same. They need different services.”
Yet Starmer has pledged a Labour government would grant gender recognition certificates (GRCs) via self-identification. This would have serious consequences given any trans woman prisoner with a GRC, even a rapist, is placed by default in a women’s jail. “I don’t think anyone who has perpetrated any violent crime against women, children or really anyone, I suppose, should be put in a prison estate that is largely low security,” says Phillips.
At this moment, the doorbell rings: it’s the local news asking for a Phillips comment on cladding policy. When she returns, she looks thoughtful and says she wants a world where trans people have excellent healthcare and “the biological things that have been used to hold back women” are addressed. And I think life would be so much easier for Jess Phillips if she recited the expected mantras, made her activism about hashtags not infrastructure, abandoned nuance for certainty and refused to understand others’ views, even those of vicious internet trolls. That she will not is both her political weakness and her greatest strength.
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