Jess Phillips MP: 'Our system has relied to date on decency. That has been fractured'
'The greatest lie that ever got told was that women have power through their sexuality'
On the Thursday, Jess Phillips went viral for a speech she made in the House of Commons on Boris Johnson’s “unforgivable” partygate conduct. By the Monday, she had Covid.
The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley had still been up since 6am working when she spoke to Holyrood and while she tries to draw a line in the sand between her political and personal lives, she says it’s hard. “You don’t get to dictate the timetable, when you can and can’t make it,” she says. “It’s all-consuming.”
The speech that caught the internet’s eye was basically a five minute love letter to parliament; a defence of its purpose and power and an excoriation of the Prime Minister who leads it. It was given during the three-hour debate on the motion brought by Labour to refer the PM to the Committee of Privileges to determine whether or not he misled the house in comments he had made referring to Partygate.
With fines issued to the PM, his wife and the chancellor, as well as a host of other, unidentified government figures, the full Sue Gray report yet to come, and the Metropolitan Police criminal probe ongoing, it’s the scandal that keeps on giving — to the Labour Party, at least. Since it hit, polling has improved for Keir Starmer and his team. ‘Beergate’, in which Starmer denies allegations that he broke Covid rules when he drank beer with colleagues at a campaign event in 2021, breaks after we speak, but it runs for days on the front of the Daily Mail and The Sun. Before those headlines emerge, Phillips is already cautious about how much of a benefit the public anger over Partygate can be to Labour.
“With Partygate, I would say that the advantage for the Labour Party is leaning on someone else being shit and we can’t rely on that,” Phillips says. “The thing we have to do is be much more positive. That’s about us being forthright, being certain, being compassionate. It relies on the good things about us and painting a picture of a positive future. We are two-thirds of the way there; the final third is painting a picture of a future the country can believe in. That’s the direction it’s going in from the utter doldrums.”
While Phillips says her family always comes first, she writes that her professional loyalties lie with her constituency, country and party in that order. She was no fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s time in charge of Labour and put herself forward for nomination in the leadership contest that followed the party’s devastating losses in the snap general election of December 2019, but withdrew after unions and affiliates backed other candidates. The party needed a leader who could “unite all parts of the movement” and “take that message out to the country”, she said at the time.
Two years on, Phillips says that message is a work in progress. “It’s not as easy for us as in the case of Scotland and the SNP or England and the Tories,” she goes on. “The Tories in England rely on ‘look at those baddies over there, we’re the goodies’, whether that’s immigrants or the European Union or people on welfare. It’s dirty and effective. I’m not saying the SNP do that, but there is a banner issue that their future is based on, and they don’t need to say exactly what that future will look like, but it’s a Scottish one. You can paint in primary colours. For us, for the whole of the UK, we have to do that without nationalism of any sort; it has to do it with actual, detailed work. It’s complicated.”
Phillips is, she says, an “optimist”. Politics for her is equal parts graft and “laughing until you’re doubled over”. She lays out both sides in her latest book, The Life of an MP: Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics, a best-seller that will bring her to Glasgow on 14 May for the Aye Write! literature festival.
In the book, she lays out her route to parliament, her frustrations with its convoluted systems and the colleagues on both sides of the house. She writes about her gratitude to her staffers and about ‘Brenda from Asda’, the fictional constituent she uses as a touchstone. Phillips regularly asks herself what Brenda, her everywoman, would think about the latest headlines.
She wants all of us to know more about the political systems that govern our lives. The response to Partygate is yet more evidence that we don’t know enough, she says. “People keep saying to me, ‘just have a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’. Well, I could but he would win it and that would help him and increase his power. I don’t want to be like, ‘don’t be stupid’, because of course that seems like a totally reasonable thing to suggest, but it’s simply not how it works. People end up disappointed with everybody when they find that out.”
Phillips, who has been an MP since 2015, wasn’t supposed to be in the chamber for the so-called Partygate debate. It was the day before her mother-in-law’s funeral and she’d agreed with the whips that she wouldn’t attend so that she could support her family, members of whom were travelling in from around the world. In the end, she went in because she feared the Tories would take the issue to a vote. She couldn’t stay away and look her constituents in the face, she says, and returned home at 10pm after a long, tense day in which Tory MPs including former Brexit minister Steve Baker publicly wrestled with their relationships with the Prime Minister and the roles they played in putting him into Downing Street. “The Prime Minister’s apology lasted only as long as it took to get out of the headmaster’s study,” he said, quoting Bible verses and setting out his conflict over the commandment to forgive. “That is not good enough for me, and it is not good enough for my voters.”
“Steve Baker is someone I work with a lot,” says Phillips, who champions cross-party working and paid close attention to comments made that day from the opposing benches. “He is very good on Kashmir, and we both have large Kashmiri populations in our constituencies. I wasn’t surprised that he was decent and good.”
The one person who was notably absent in the end was Johnson himself, who had set out on a trip to India. “That speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Not just about the character of the man, it speaks more about how some people get to control things,” she says.
“There’s a fundamental problem in our politics; there’s an imbalanced privilege and advantage built into our political system. That’s fine when somebody good has it, but personnel matters. In every job I have ever had, success would go on the basis of the personalities in the room. All of the things we have relied on, honour and trust, they fall down when the person who has that advantage chooses to take it.
“Normally after a big trade tour there would be a statement about what it means for our economy and immigration, and the Prime Minister gets to puff out his chest,” she goes on, “but there wasn’t one because he won’t turn up for it and he gets to decide that. There’s a real problem in our system that has relied to date on decency. That has been fractured.”
As one of our most outspoken and forthright MPs, Phillips is, in her own words, someone who manages to “commit news all the time”. After answering a question at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2017, she was quoted in the press as saying left-wing men “are literally the worst”; when she talked about better sex education for girls on a podcast, the headlines blared about kids “as young as 11” being taught about orgasms.
Unlike many MPs, she does without the filter between herself and reporters. She doesn’t employ a communications officer and deals with interview bids herself. She knows, she says, that some stories “need a personality to make them newsworthy”, and she knows why the news works the way it does, but she wishes it would reflect more of the “boring” bits of politics, the bits when MPs are working together across the aisles and when they get the victories that mean a constituent gets a much-needed council flat. Many of the stories we read about replacement Royal yachts and public holidays in memory of Margaret Thatcher, she writes, “misdirect public attention away from the important work that MPs are doing”.
“So much of my job is nothing to do with Westminster and that gets missed by the media,” she tells Holyrood. “Constituency surgeries are the beating heart of it. Politics means that the people in my constituency feel better. That story never gets told. Politics isn’t just there to clean up messes, it’s there as a positive force for good.
“The positive, happy, fun, laughing until you can’t make a fist, part of politics never gets written about,” she goes on. “People wouldn’t keep going if you didn’t have that bit of it. It’s like the stuff of movies — it’s like the end scene in Avengers Assemble. I feel excited about it. That happens when you get to ring someone and say ‘the council have just called and they’re going to get you a flat by Friday’. And when you get to change the law, that buzz never goes away.”
Much other coverage featuring Phillips details the continued abuse and numerous threats received by MPs, particularly women and especially prominent women. In November, a man was sentenced for sending her death threats from jail, and last month Phillips was horrified to learn that she was among the 250 MPs who were researched by Ali Harber Ali before he murdered the Conservative politician David Amess. Security arrangements for MPs have been reviewed again by police.
Among all this, it is perhaps no wonder that people “obsess about the abuse” Phillips receives. “The thing that gets missed is that it’s part of the same horrible behaviour that ends up with women in domestic abuse situations,” says Phillips, who worked for a local Women’s Aid before entering politics. “The idea of power and control and how that’s used by men is exactly the same. It presents the same to me in Westminster as it does in people’s homes.”
For several years, Phillips has brought the devastating toll of male violence into parliament by reading the annual Femicide Census compiled by Karen Ingala Smith. The reading of lists is not normally permitted in parliament, which makes the recitation of the names of these women lost to male violence all the more prominent.
Phillips is concerned about continued expressions of sexism and misogyny towards women in the public eye and she’s furious about the Mail on Sunday story that claimed her party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, crosses her legs in parliament to distract the Prime Minister in the chamber — even if she suspects ‘Brenda from Asda’, whose judgement she considers frequently, might dismiss it as “a load of old nonsense”. “It’s dangerous because it seems so silly,” Phillips says.
“The greatest lie that ever got told was that women have power through their sexuality and use that to manipulate powerful men and get what they want. If that was true, maybe we’d have used it to get equal pay. It’s not true and it’s used by people who abuse women to excuse themselves. It’s used in court by rapists to get away with raping us.
“This story has been told since time immemorial. It worries me that people like Brenda might believe it.”
But Phillips does want ‘Brenda’ to believe in parliament and in politics as much as she does. In the privileges debate, she spoke of how she “fell in love with this place and with what it can achieve” and railed against the “very rare one per cent” of MPs who are not there to “change the world for the better”. That, she said, included the PM. “Everything he has sought to do has been about him,” she told the house, adding, “it has never been about anyone in this building or without this building”.
“I could have had a baby in the time it has taken for the apology to come” from Johnson on Partygate, she said, “and it would have been less painful”.
“In those nine months, what we have seen is someone taking actions not in a desperate attempt to preserve the thing that we all came here to do, but in a desperate attempt to preserve his own position. That, to me, is unforgivable,” she adds.
As someone so deeply ‘in love’ with the place and with politics, how can Phillips reconcile that with the disappointment she feels in Johnson and with parliamentarians who fail to “act with courage”? That was something that took her aback when she entered Westminster, she says, and while the number of people she can count on to do so has increased, the improvement has been modest. “It used to be two hands,” she says. “Now it’s probably two hands and two feet.
“It does disappoint me all the time, but I’m naturally just an optimist,” Phillips goes on. “I’m a person who laughs and jokes all the time. I never make a speech without trying to be light-hearted somewhere. If I can manage to be cheerful, I genuinely feel the Labour Party needs to take on some of that and be much more positive and build that positive vision of the future.”