Jess Phillips Interview: 'As Labour Leader, I Will Never Live In A Bunker. I Relish Rebellion'

Campaigning MP talks about the need for a female leader, Labour's future, anti-Semitism, Europe – and Meghan Markle.
Labour leadership candidate and Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips
Labour leadership candidate and Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jess Phillips has proudly christened herself the “gobby cow” candidate fighting the race to be Labour leader.

Her campaign tagline might seem a bit in-your-face, but the campaigning Birmingham MP – who, when asked about her rivals for the top job, pointedly encourages them to “be interesting” – knows her audience and is winking at them.

Whether it’s how she has battled Brexit, for new domestic violence laws, school cuts or Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived failures on anti-Semitism, the party’s moderates are buoyed by Phillips precisely because she refuses to be silent and compliant.

The former business manager for Women’s Aid has a big personality and it has seen her amass a 355,000 Twitter following that puts her competitors’ social media game to shame.

Yet despite some 14,000 new members signing up since the election, the Labour Party is still dominated by Jeremy Corbyn loyalists. Phillips has yet to secure union backing, although she is confident of reaching the next round with members’ backing, and faces an uphill struggle against left-wing frontrunners Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer.

The 38-year-old would admit flying the flag for the party’s out-of-vogue moderates – but, like so many others in Labour, she’s weary of labels.

“The strategy is genuinely to disavow the members of some of the things that they think about me,” Phillips told HuffPost UK after speaking at a rally in Bermondsey’s Ministry of Sound.

“Some of the rhetoric that you read about me is that I’m some sort of devil, the ultimate right-winger.

“People think the membership will hate me but that’s never been my experience.

“The strategy is to get out and impress people. That should be everyone’s strategy: be interesting.”

Her fear is that after Labour’s worst drubbing since 1935, the party’s biggest threat is not merely fresh defeats but complete oblivion.

“I am able to speak to the country and can stop the Labour Party from slipping into irrelevance, because right now that is a real, real risk,” she said.

“The parliamentary pantomime is over. Nobody will be watching.

“We will only have a few seconds each day to reach people.

“From the back benches, I have managed to change the law. I have managed to frighten the Conservatives and I’ve managed to get the country to listen to me.”

While the Tories have had two female leaders, the party which claims to champion equality has failed to elect a woman to the top job in its entire 120-year history.

“Of course a female Labour leader would be symbolic,” she said, adding it “would end the embarrassment”.

“The parliamentary pantomime is over. Nobody will be watching. We will only have a few seconds each day to reach people.”

Should Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary and current favourite, have declined to stand?

“I’m not going to say that Keir Starmer should sit this one out but the idea that we have one man and four women – well, you would have to ask him how he thinks that looks,” she said.

Her case is that a “Miliband 2.0” leader would be just as disastrous as “continuity Corbyn”. She supports some radical policies, such as rail nationalisation, but feels the party needs to take a mainstream approach to the economy if it stands any chance of regaining its credibility.

“We have to make an economic case that can reach people, that is about people’s lives and is about the fact that if we want good dignified decent public services that they have to be paid for,” she said.

Phillips was one of four siblings, her father was a teacher and her mother was deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation.

“My upbringing was alright. I don’t feel the need to pretend I lived in a grit pit in the middle of the road,” she said, in a thinly veiled swipe at fellow candidates who frequently underline the working class elements of their background.

“Sometimes we didn’t have enough, we sometimes did. I don’t want to paint some sort of picture as if it was terribly challenging. And I think it’s so patronising the way that has been done.”

While her family were all involved in Labour – “I went to women’s liberation playgroup; we were part of every pressure group going” – Phillips didn’t enter politics straightaway. She first had two children, experienced life on benefits and cared for her dying mother.

Meghan Markle has ‘absolutely suffered racism’

Commenting on the burning issue of the day, the Labour leadership contender said the Duchess of Sussex, who with her husband Prince Harry decided to step down as a senior Royal, has been the victim of racism in the press.

“She has absolutely suffered racism,” says Phillips. “It’s very difficult for people to understand a thing that isn’t overt racism.

“Because it’s not just ‘is she a black woman’, she’s not British. She’s ‘a foreigner’, she’s ‘a foreigner she thinks she can come here and tell us’. So there’s a level of xenophobia in it as well as racism.

“I imagine it was an incredibly difficult decision but I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors and I wish them well.”

Although she has never held a front bench role, Phillips resents the argument that she lacks experience.

“I bet you Boris Johnson or Chris Grayling never had to answer this question,” she said.

“I ran a multi-million pound service [Women’s Aid] that had contracts with four or five large government departments.”

Some would argue telling BBC’s Andrew Marr that she was open to the UK rejoining the EU in the future was a telling misstep of her lack of political experience.

“It’s not like I had some sort of ‘’,” she said. “What I said was that any PM who didn’t look at all the alliances that might be best for the country is not good leadership.”

File photos of (left to right) Labour MPs Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry. Mr Lewis has abandoned his leadership bid for the party after falling short of the 22 nominations necessary from his fellow MPs.
File photos of (left to right) Labour MPs Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry. Mr Lewis has abandoned his leadership bid for the party after falling short of the 22 nominations necessary from his fellow MPs.
PA Wire/PA Images

Phillips is not uncritical of the Remain movement, saying that calls the People’s Vote excluded Leavers. She is quick to distance herself from pro-Remain figures such as Emily Thornberry, who have faced claims of sneering at Brexiteers and being too London-centric.

“I stood in front of a million people on the People’s Vote March and I said: ’Never ever anyone say that people where I live are stupid and don’t want exactly the same things that everybody in the crowd [does],” she said.

The Blairite tag, meanwhile, is not something she recoils from. Asked which Labour leader she most admires, she claims Tony Blair “won the most elections”, though as head of a minority government that mantle is Harold Wilson’s, but settles on Clement Attlee.

“If you who grew up with the labour movement, like I did, you never ever get over the strides that the Attlee government made,” she said.

Phillips insists she would build a shadow cabinet filled with talent from all wings of the party, however.

“I think my leadership will be strong and certain and clear, while at the same time being open to dissent,” she says.

“I will never live in a bunker. I will always, if people have something to say and even if I don’t agree with them, give people a fair hearing.

“I relish rebellion and dissent and I think you have to listen to it. I’m not going to be the draconian ‘you don’t agree with me and you’re out’.”

Phillips would also immediately expel anti-Semites if elected.

“The truth is that I don’t think that we can get over any hurdle until we reform our credibility and the place that we had as a party of equality and diversity,” she said.

“I don’t think we meet the test of being able to talk to the country until we get our own house in order first. It has to be the first priority.”

The crunch moment may come when the Equality and Human Rights Commission delivers its judgement on whether Labour is institutionally anti-Semitic.

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Could Phillips throw Corbyn out of the party he currently leads?

“It’s [the EHRC judgement] going to be a real reckoning for the Labour Party and there will be a huge amount of fallout,” she said. “But, look, I’m not in the business of scalping people.”

Instead, Phillips would make it her mission to win back Jewish people such as Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman, who deserted the party over the issue.

“Luciana Berger is the test I set myself,” she says.

The 38-year-old says Labour would be open to figures who left, such as Chuka Umunna and Gavin Shuker, and even Tories.

“It’s an age-old principle, isn’t it, that people cross the floor,” she said. “It isn’t just the liberals, either. People cross the floor Conservative to Labour, and Labour to Conservative.

“I think that we shouldn’t be exclusive. We should welcome people.

“It wouldn’t be my aim to try and pull those [Umunna and others] people back right now. You’ve got to think about the future. But would you refuse them? No.”

Labour MP and leadership candidate Jess Phillips
Labour MP and leadership candidate Jess Phillips
PA Wire/PA Images

Phillips would not have refused to serve Corbyn and hint at her ambitions besides the leadership.

“Had it been a job where I thought that I could genuinely use my voice to make a difference, like if Jeremy Corbyn had asked me to lead on domestic abuse or home affairs with regards to city-based gang violence, then, of course, I would have accepted,” she said.

Getting Labour back to its winning ways may look an impossible task but Phillips thinks that Boris Johnson is beatable.

“Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson’s biggest weakness,” she says. “I think that the country knows that Boris Johnson is a liar and it is baked into the equation.

“I think when he is up against genuine real life experience and an actual opposition that looks different to him, he will look very uncomfortable.”


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