Wednesday 4 August 2021

The Appeal of Jess Phillips

How did you spend your Wednesday evening? I spent mine listening to Jess Phillips talking about her new book, Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP. Why subject myself to this? Long-time readers know I'm not a fan by any means. I think she's vainglorious and self-promoting, and all too willingly made her name during the Corbyn era by crapping on a mass movement whose victory would have helped the people she affects to support. This got her attention alright, including undying antipathy from a section of current and former Labour members. But what I want to get at is her appeal. It's too much to say she's a popular MP - the average punter hasn't the foggiest who she is, despite benefiting from what in MTV's glory days we would have called heavy play rotation. But she is popular with the press and broadcast journalists, and she is boosted by them a lot. Before taking up residence on Keir Starmer's front bench, when have the media been so indulgent toward a Labour backbencher who didn't enter Westminster with Oxbridge connections nor were carrying particularly novel politics?

At the start of the session host Rosie Boycott hailed Phillips as the "most outspoken politician in Westminster today." But how has she acquired this reputation when she very obviously isn't? The dictionary defines outspoken as "frank in stating one's opinions, especially if they are shocking or controversial." The appalling Lee Anderson fits this criteria, even if it's racist cobblers he's peddling. On Labour's left, Richard Burgon, Jon Trickett, and Zarah Sultana fit the outspoken bill by raising issues the front bench prefer to run away from. But Jess Phillips? How does she make the grade, at least as far as Blairist/centrist/establishment feminist hackery is concerned?

First things first, in the relaxed atmosphere of a friendly interview, if you happened to be an apolitical punter or someone vaguely interested in politics without allegiance, she came across very well. As a general discussion of what MPs do and don't do, it was hardly revelatory but she was able to lift the veil a bit. An introductory tease if you like. Starting off, she began with the 'what is politics' questions, which she said was everything we do and say. Recalling her time on people's doorsteps, meeting people who see it as a "badge of honour" for not putting in an application for social security with the clear implication that those forced onto the likes of Universal Credit are undeserving. She challenges this by saying you've been claiming from the moment you were born. Every service used, every publicly-provided facility was paid for by your neighbourhood. There is a false dichotomy between taxpayers and claimers because everyone puts in and takes out. If we start to see things in this collaborative manner, we can start demystifying politics. It's not legislation and committees, it's about the decisions made that effect everyone.

Asked how old Phillips was when she came to that realisation, she replied her parents were deeply political people so she was very young. Instead of nursery she went to a "women's liberation play group" - a cooperative set up by local feminists. Most of the family's food came from a community-organised co-op as well. She had as socialist an upbringing as it was possible to have, and this bred in her a realisation of interdependence and why other people mattered. And because it was the 1980s, everything was Thatcher's fault. While her parents were out at work, she would watch Prime Minister's Questions with her Nan and talk about politics at dinner. She painted a picture of a happy childhood of CND face painting, the miners' strike (she was three/four years old at the time), "general strikes", but the ire of her parents was aimed at what was happening in parliament.

Her parents didn't push her into getting involved. The first political activity she decided to get involved with was an election campaign in 1992 for a family friend, but neither of her parents were interested in formalised roles. Shortly after rejoining the party in 2010 (she left the party as a student during the Iraq War), she mulled the idea of standing for the local elections. Her Mum said "It wouldn't be hard to shine on Birmingham City Council." But why rejoin Labour? Here there is a bit of a tension in her account. She said she joined in time for the leadership election, but also it was because she'd been asked by the party. Her street had seen a spate of arson attacks with cars getting set alight, and this provoked fear and finger pointing among residents. Phillips decided to do something about it by organising community events, including street parties, to bring people back together and overcome the paranoia. Because Ed Miliband's Labour was looking for people embedded in their community, she was asked to join. So which is it? Was she getting her rejoining mixed with her council selection meeting, which she also said was her first party meeting in 20 years (which meant her last was as an eight or nine-year old). Make of it what you will.

Getting selected for LibDem-held Yardley two-and-a-half years before the 2015 election (I recall her seated at the table for the anointed ones at a West Midlands Labour First dinner not long after her selection), she criticised the costs of running and the command the party had on financial and time commitments as a candidate. This caused her family some hardship as her husband had to come off nights and they lost £10k worth of income, and at that time with no certainty the seat would tip Labour's way. Luckily for her, it did. But she does talk about this in the book because she wants to scotch the idea some have that candidates are paid to campaign, when often it leaves them hugely out of pocket.

Asked about her first day in Westminster, she reiterated the reality of being an MP - that they are effectively small business people and have to do our own HR and sorting out their office without assistance from parliamentary authorities. There was also a bit of orientation from Labour. She recalls Dennis Skinner telling her cohort about the basics of procedure on the Commons floor and how to make a splash, but apart from that new MPs are left to their own devices. It's a role they can define themselves, so Phillips made hers a community-oriented job.

She did relish telling the assembled about the different categories of MPs. One are the chamber beasts who live there all the time, and they're seen by the cameras being across everything. These are about a quarter of MPs and are part of the furniture. Another quarter represent marginals so are embedded in their seats. She thought having a marginal seat makes for better MPs as they are more responsive to constituents and the constituency's nuances. This difference can be seen where MPs choose to locate their staff. Safe seat occupants tend to have more staff in Westminster, and vice versa for marginals. The other sort of MP is the campaigning MP, which is where Phillips located herself. And about 20% don't do as much as they should, and often end up in the cabinet.

A crucial skill MPs have to quickly learn is expectations management. Photo opps with politicians standing in front of new buildings raises expectations, for instance. It gives an impression that delivery is easy: "you asked for it, we delivered it" as she put it. What Phillips tries to do is make local achievements more collective and collaborative, emphasising the "we did this together" over a service relationship. She also tells constituents that she can't guarantee to sort their problems out. But politicians generally can't resist promising and then not ponying up the goods, and this is what makes people hate politicians and politics.

Asked about relationships with Tory politicians and how much Phillips works with others, now she's not a backbencher it's harder to get Tories to do things. What people didn't realise is how different parties work together all the time in committee. She thought 90% of Tory MPs went there to do good, but take a different routes. Sometimes, nominally opposing MPs are on the same route and you can find all MPs rolling their eyes when it comes to Child Support Agency casework, for example. She found it easy to make common cause when the issue is not deeply ideological, and there are opportunities for more of this kind of working now there is a cohort of Tory MPs representing seats with persistent problems their party previously ignored. Somewhat inadvertently, Phillips painted a cosy picture of parliamentary life. In Portcullis house she said we're all sat around tables with journalists and we're all just talking, but that is never seen by the public.

I couldn't see how many were in attendance, but put it like this. Only three questions appeared in the public question and answer box. One asked if the talk was being recorded, and the other two were from me. One was (I thought) soft ball, and the other would require a bit of reflection and self-awareness. I asked why she thought the Tories hadn't dipped below 40% since Johnson was elected party leader, and why she thought she was able to attract a high profile so quickly? In the end, the host ignored the second question and butchered my first. The question about support for the Tories as a political force was reformatted as one about Johnson's popularity - something entirely different. Phillips said people have low expectations in him, so he aims low and no one is ever disappointed. She also added that he's nothing like his public persona. She found him a shy and somewhat scared man who, on the occasions they've met, could not look her in the eye. He is certainly ill-prepared, but his popularity lies in his deliberate pushing of positivity - and people respond to that.

Why Rosie Boycott chose to skew the question is a strange one. Because she didn't have faith in her interviewee being able to provide a political answer to a persistent political problem (just like the question of the Labour base, there's scant intellectual interest by Labourist and Fabian thinkers/wonks about how the Tories have kept it together)? Or by steering it onto "Boris", she'd have an easier time of it with the question reframed around personality politics? Again, make up your own minds.

When all is said and done, are we any close to solving the mystery of Jess Phillips's appeal to a certain strata of media people? Only in the sense that she affects a certain kind of authenticity. Despite her family's left wing pedigree and associations with the radical politics of the 1980s, she is treated by London-based hackery as someone who is based and real because of her accent and refuge work done with Women's Aid. Despite this, she has become popular with the press because she articulates the views and common sense of establishment feminism. For example, helping out a working class woman on the run from an abusive partner? That's fine, that's permissible. But a political programme that would empower them? Absolutely not. Where Phillips has excelled these last few years, via her bad faith attacks on Corbynism and the left, is as defender of their privileged status. And, of course, through appropriate dog whistles and statements shown she's in alignment with their attacks on trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as sex workers. She is both a vessel for their aspirations and a champion of their political outlook. She's one of them, and they will continue to boost her accordingly.

Image Credit


Phil said...

She had as socialist an upbringing as it was possible to have, and this bred in her a realisation of interdependence and why other people mattered. ... a happy childhood of CND face painting, the miners' strike (she was three/four years old at the time) ... organising community events, including street parties, to bring people back together ... criticised the costs of running and the command the party had on financial and time commitments as a candidate ... [the MP's role is] a role they can define themselves, so Phillips made hers a community-oriented job ... What Phillips tries to do is make local achievements more collective and collaborative, emphasising the "we did this together" over a service relationship

And so on. After reading this post I think I'm even further from understanding Phillips - in many ways she sounds really good! (Which does actually help explain her establishment appeal - from their standpoint she's got lefty cred.) What went wrong?

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I know even less about her apart from I don't believe she is a Socialist.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, this article from Tribune has a good go at her appeal: "Her admirers in the media say she has charisma. But what is being talked about as charisma is, in truth, little more than a tedious everywoman shtick, the kind of thing we would have no trouble calling out if it were being perpetrated by a Tory."

Still not sure whether Tory counterpart is Nadine Dorries ('authenticity') or Louise Mensch ('media savvy').

Anonymous said...

"Phillips is the daughter of Stewart Trainor, a teacher, and Jean Trainor (née Mackay), an NHS administrator who rose to become deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation and chair of South Birmingham Mental Health Trust. Phillips worked for a period for her parents at their company, Healthlinks Event Management Services"

Yes they were politically active but not quite what she always recounts...

I expect she is a reasonably good constituency MP.Many MPs are. Though she does seem to spend a lot of time writing books and then trying to sell them.

I agree entirely with your final remarks about her. She will never support the means of changing the people's lives she seems to care about.

Ultimately she is a vain right winger with her eye on the main chance. Could be in politics but if that fails she is building her portfolio as a celeb.

Anonymous said...

I understand she said when just elected as MP for the first time- 'its like winning the lottery' (then was moved away from the press at that point by party workers) anyway she also employed (may still do) her husband at the taxpayers expense. And yes her background is not quite as she says- as above post.

Lets remember also MPs do get a lot of constituency support (many staff paid by the taxpayer) - they don't write their own letters or indeed most often their own speeches. They are given media support also etc ... Anyway she lucked out and is making the most of it- all the best to her but see it for what it is.

Blissex said...

Uh I found in my notes a quote from an "Anonymous" commenter in 2019 about the potential leader election candidates:

RLB (solid socialist. Girl, northerner, and the obvious choice.);

Keir S (Soft left. Let's quietly do a Kinnock snr and segue to Blairism over time.);

Lisa Nandy (Kipper-lite chicken coup plotter and bendy-boned opportunist.); and,

Jess Phillips (Comedy candidate. Funded by the 1%. Just running to make Lisa N look like a socialist.)

Very predictive, especially the “do a Kinnock snr and segue to Blairism over time” and “Comedy candidate”.

Dipper said...

There is a lot to not like about Jess Phillips, but she is an effective voice for women, in particular those who are victims of domestic abuse. So I think she deserves a place in Parliament.