Jess Phillips Interview: Tony Benn, White Male Privilege and Return of the Jedi

Jess Phillips Talks Tony Benn, White Male Privilege And Return of the Jedi
Jess Phillips

The 2015 General Election saw 176 MPs elected to the Commons for the very first time. In a series of exclusive interviews, The Huffington Post UK is speaking to 15 MPs from the 2015 intake of the Conservatives, Labour and SNP. First up is the force of nature that is Jess Phillips...

Few of the 2015 intake have made as great an impression in Westminster as Labour's Jess Phillips.

Loud, passionate, and opinionated, the Birmingham Yardley MP has not been intimidated by the splendour and grandeur of the Houses of Parliament.

Take her recent speech in the House of Commons on equal pay, when she insisted on referring to the Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing as ‘Ms’, not ‘Madam’, (part of her self-described “angry feminist” outlook) before praising Caitlin Moran’s book “How to be a Woman”.

Speaking in her strong Brummy accent, she said: “In it, she compels people to stand on their chairs and shout, ‘I am a feminist’. If the motion is carried today, perhaps the Speaker would allow us the indulgence of standing on these Green Benches altogether to shout those very words.”

“Maybe if she had wiped the blood off a woman who was left for dead she wouldn't laugh,” Jess wrote.

If she keeps making waves with the same intensity and ferocity over the next five years as she has done over the past five weeks, she could easily become a lightning rod for feminists across the country.

Here is Jess Phillips's 15 from '15:

1) Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Birmingham and raised in Birmingham.

2) What did you want to be when you were a child?

To be honest, I think the sad truth is I wanted to be Prime Minister.

3) When did you first become interested in politics?

All my life I’ve been interested in politics. I went on the miners march when I was six months old. My parents are really political. I’ve been interested in politics all my life, but I stopped being interested in it for quite a long time because I was pushing out babies, and also under the Blair years things stopped being quite so exciting, it was just ticking along. I got really interested after the Tories won and I thought I better fight.

Heroes of the Left - Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn

4) Do you have any political heroes?

I was raised in a family very much wedded to Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner. Tony Benn was a friend of my grandfather, who was a political cartoonist for the Socialist Worker and things like that. He did people’s leaflets before the days of everyone having photos on them. He used to do a lot of stuff for Tony Benn. He came to my granddads funeral, they were friends in a ‘we’ll write to each other’ way.

My political hero is my mother, who died four years ago. She had four kids, I was the last of her children, and she fought campaigns. One was in 1984 against ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries] and sued them for £8million to redistribute money to patients who had been given a [heart] drug called Eraldin, which made them have no tear ducts and having sandpaper eyes. It happened to my Nan. My mum started a campaign and fought that in the 80s.

We had a cupboard in our house called the Eraldin cupboard. I thought when I was growing up everyone had an Eraldine cupboard, like an airing cupboard, but I realised when I was about 17 that’s where she had kept all the papers for the court case. They paid out to all the women. My mum didn’t take any of the money she gave it out to the people that deserved it. My Nan got a couple of thousand pounds, a fortune to people back then. It was largely old ladies who were suffering from angina and the drug was for angina in women. Lots of old ladies left their jewellery to my mum so I’ve got lots of ‘Eraldine jewellery’, as she used to call it. She was quiet and nothing like me but she fought the good fight.

5) When did you first stand for election?

I stood for the council in 2012. I’ve never lost an election yet.

6) What did you do for a living before becoming an MP?

I ran a domestic and sexual violence charity.

7) What do you do to relax?

I like to go camping with my kids. I’ve got an amazing group of friends. Just like any 30-year-old woman I like to go out dancing, eating food, drinking with my mates, like any normal person. But I like to spend a lot of time watching Game of Thrones and things with my husband.

Betrayal, treachery, back-stabbing, all in the pursuit of power - a good way to relax from politics

8) If you could run any Government department, which would it be?

Home Office. That’s the one that has the greatest effect on victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking and it’s something I know about the most - although you do end up with things like Abu Qatada on your hands. Whether it’s right or wrong, the country demanded it [his deportation], so he had to go. When you watch and see how much money is being lost from certain things like frontline policing, like specialist domestic violence officers, you do sometimes think ‘gosh what a waste’ just for the Daily Mail. But the country demands it and it’s not for me to say Theresa May shouldn’t have done it. If I found myself in her position I probably would have done the same thing.

9) What is your favourite film?

There are real answers and fake answers. My favourite film is probably Star Wars. I do love Starship Troopers, it is a great film but it’s not a film I watch over and over again. Whereas Star Wars I’ve watched over and over again all my life, and it’s a film I can tolerate watching with my children. I know it’s cool to think Empire Strikes Back is the best one but I’m a big fan of Return of the Jedi - it’s intellectual snobbery. Also the film, Romancing The Stone. It’s got everything. A saxophone soundtrack, swashbuckling, a love story. How can a woman really exist without being married to Michael Douglas? I’m an empty shell!

Ewoks - proof that no matter how small you are, you can destroy an evil empire

10) Who is your favourite band/artist?

That’s an impossible question to answer. I’m going to say A Tribe Called Quest. I’m a big fan of 90s RnB and Hip-Hop, I’m going to see Public Enemy soon.

Chuck D (L) and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy

11) What is the best thing about the House of Commons?

People listen to you when you speak, well, not in the Government, but you get your point heard. When you’re banging your table wanting to get your voice heard when you’re a normal person it’s really annoying, but here people listen to you. When I made my maiden speech it was about housing benefits for under 21s and loads and loads of people contacted me to give me information and asked, ‘How about doing this campaign?’, ‘Would you like to meet with us?’ and stuff. I had that all with the domestic violence people so it’s sort of branching out. People listen, and when I spoke the other day on equal pay thousands of people have been in touch to thank me for what I said. Literally thousands.

12)What is the worst thing about the House of Commons?

Silly traditions. You’re not allowed to clap. All that stupid 'Right Honourable Gentleman'. I just think it seems to me like it’s designed to exclude. It’s designed to make you feel like when you get it wrong, you’re some sort of stupid newbie. I don’t know what constituency people are in - ‘Well done to Brentworth and Isleworth’ - I don’t know where half the constituencies are, let alone who represents them. The worst thing about this place is how quickly you become institutionalised like Pavlov’s dog when a bell rings. I feel even after a couple of weeks you lose touch with what happens outside the Palace. It’s like being on holiday. You know when you come back from holiday and there’s a new shop on your high street, no matter even if you just went away for day, it’s like that, like I don’t know what’s going on.

13) What is the one thing you would change about UK politics if you could?

I would make it more representative of the people who exist outside here. It needs more women, more disabled people, and not in a tokenistic fashion, it actually needs them to understand loads of the things that we in here don’t have to understand. Real, genuine deep understanding of how the decisions that we make actually affect people’s lives. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with positive discrimination. As I intervened in the debate the other day when the Tories were all anti-positive discrimination - were they aware that positive discrimination has existed since time immemorial for white men?

14) What one reason would you give someone to visit your constituency?

The people. The people are amazing in my constituency. Like all Brummies they are laid back, friendly, welcoming. Much friendlier than being in London. People don’t barge past you to get on the bus, they wait for you to get off. Also the airport. A good reason to visit Birmingham Yardley is it’s the way to get to the airport so you can leave Birmingham!

15) What are the best and worst aspects of your personality?

The best is that I’m brave and passionate so I will take a risk in this place where other people won’t. The worst, I suppose, is the same. I’m too overconfident and here that’s a bit naïve. Of course it’s a façade. You need to have a façade in this place or you’ll become unstuck. I feel nervous and scared all the time. I compensate. I am flippant and aggressive and when things hurt people I can’t sit back and not behave badly. I will have that beaten out of me I should have thought. I don’t want to become like an automaton, I don’t want to become the line, and I suppose the beauty of being in opposition is I don’t have to deliver the line very much.

The Tory women especially that I see opposite me, Nicky Morgan, Maria Miller, who are inhabiting a space where I am asking them to do something about the things I care about and they just peddle out the line, peddle out the line, peddle out the line. What do you actually think? I really would like to know what you actually think. Sometimes that comes across as being a bit, like, aggressive! I don’t want to become just a twin set and pearls.


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