Jess Phillips: “It’s shit being an opposition MP”

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“Labour Party gets a bit miserable, doesn’t it”, Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley says, only half-jokingly. She tells me this so offhandedly she may as well be talking about the weather.

Instead, though, Phillips is explaining why Boris Johnson is our current Prime Minister. After she suggests that Johnson’s recklessness played a part – it “looks like leadership to some people” – Phillips makes her point characteristically bluntly: Boris Johnson is “cheerful”; Labour isn’t. 

Jess Phillips is, of course, in a good position to be able to evaluate the Labour Party. Since first winning her seat in 2015, the Birmingham Yardley MP has chaired the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, launched a leadership bid and she now serves as Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding.

Before her Parliamentary career began, though, Phillips worked for Women’s Aid. In this role, she managed refuges for victims of domestic abuse. So how would Phillips improve the country’s safeguarding system?

“Oh God”, Phillips sighs, unsure of where to begin. “I can suggest millions of small policies that would change but there needs to be a fundamental shift in the prioritisation of violence against women and girls”.

“Even if I could tinker with better support services, [and impose] a statutory duty on every local authority to have to provide violence against women and girls community bases and support services”, what really matters is that the government hasn’t prioritised tackling violence against women and girls. “They don’t care about it”.             

“Women are just never a priority”

Phillips then brings up a recent report which concluded that violence against women and girls should be a prioritisation for police forces on the same level as terrorism. “And it just simply isn’t”, she continues, impassioned, “because terrorism is much more politically expedient … Women are just never a priority”.

I ask whether the death of Sarah Everard has shifted the spotlight, and maybe changed how violence against women and girls is treated. “No. No, they say it has … but violence against women and girls isn’t even considered to be a serious crime. It’s not categorised by the government as a serious crime”.

“Even since Sarah Everard died, even since we passed the Domestic Abuse Act, there is no unified strategy for dealing with domestic abuse perpetrators … the death of Sarah Everard changed huge amounts in the public consciousness, but it’s changed absolutely nothing that the government has done”.

“Talk to the public like they’re adults”

“Very few people actually give a toss which electoral system we use”, writes Jess Phillips in Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP, “they just want their bins collected on time”. Lack of trust in politicians, Phillips explains, is a key reason why so many voters are disengaged. So what steps can MPs take to change this? How should politicians try and rebuild trust?

“It’s things like being honest. Don’t say everything is levelling up, or world-beating.” Phillips sighs, exasperated. “You don’t need to puff up your chest and show your guns. Say, ‘we’re going to try this and it might not work’ … talk to the public like they’re adults.”

“Don’t just say … ‘I’m sorry there’s never food in the supermarkets, I’m sorry that the gas prices are soaring, I’m sorry that you can’t have a blood test anymore because they’re no blood vials, but it’s world-beating!’ Say this is the honest answer to why this is happening: we’ve hit some bumps in the road and we weren’t expecting them.”

“Just stop with the bullshit. There’s so much bullshit that gets said … It works, unfortunately … but in the long run they totally erode the debate.”

“Just stop with the bullshit”

Phillips paints a bleak picture of politics today, in which voters are completely disillusioned with the country’s political system. Then, she turns to how the Prime Minister fits into this.

“Boris Johnson has successfully baked in that he’s a liar. Us calling him a liar doesn’t hurt him. Everyone knows he’s a liar, and they still vote for him. Boris Johnson’s gift is that he takes risks and he is reckless, and … for every ten he takes, five pay off.” Phillips pauses. “He’s not the one who’s hurt by the ones that don’t pay off. He’s not the one waiting for a blood test.”

Boris Johnson’s promise to level up the country is one that Phillips considers especially hollow: “Levelling up, my arse. I’ll tell you what they’ve levelled up: rape … They’ve levelled up child abuse, and anti-social behaviour”.

Neither does Phillips believe that the government have taken back control since Brexit. “I don’t vote on anything now that I didn’t vote on when we were members of the European Union. I don’t know why I was turning up if they were making all of our laws in Brussels.”

Despite her (many) criticisms of British politics, Phillips is careful to point out that the overwhelming majority of MPs are passionate about the issues that they are debating and have gone into politics with honourable motives. So what about Boris Johnson? Is the Prime Minister part of this group of MPs who genuinely care?

Phillips answers immediately: “Absolutely not”.

“I’ve served under two Prime Ministers who didn’t [care], and one who did”.

wanted to make the world a better place, without question … I didn’t agree with a lot of what she did, but she wanted to leave it better than she found it.”

“David Cameron achieved every ambition that he ever had for our country the day he walked into 10 Downing Street, and Boris Johnson, he achieved it when David Cameron failed”.

Phillips suggests that Boris Johnson’s leadership reflects this; beyond, the short slogans, she says, his actual political priorities are unclear.

“If you could walk up to anyone in the street and ask a member of the public ‘What does he care about?’, I don’t think they’d be able to give you an answer. Because I don’t know. I don’t know what he thinks about anything. I genuinely don’t know what he thinks about women’s rights … I know he wants to win, and that’s all”.

Is that why Boris Johnson got involved in politics? To win?

Phillips agrees with this suggestion wholeheartedly. “Winning, risk, game, soldiers, Eton, a rivalry, yes that’s why he got into it.”

At the end of our call, I ask whether Jess Phillips aspires to be Prime Minister. After all, Phillips has previously said that when she was growing up, she wanted the job. Is this still her aim?

“It would be crass of me to say no. I didn’t come into politics to be well-liked and write books and be … a good backbench opposition MP. I came here to have power. I wanted power. And I wanted power to do things I want to do with the things that I care about”.

“I came here to have power”

“Do I think I will ever be the Prime Minister? Absolutely not”, Phillips laughs. “But I would like to hold government office at some point to actually be able to have the agency to do something. It’s shit being an opposition MP”.

When Jess Phillips launched her leadership bid, the first poll of Labour members placed her third, behind only the main front-runners: Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey. As a past, serious contender for the Labour leadership, why is Phillips so sure that she will never be Prime Minister?

“A: the Labour Party never elects a woman. B: I just don’t think I’d want to stand to be the leader of the Labour Party ever again. I don’t think I’m cut out for what it takes to become the leader of the Labour Party … I don’t think I’m ready for that and I don’t think it will ever be ready for me”.

Image: UK Parliament

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