LABOUR LEADERSHIP: Jess Phillips - outspoken outsider looks to shake up the race

Posted On: 
13th January 2020

As a vocal critic of her party's leadership since becoming an MP in 2015, Jess Phillips will have to work to mend the rift with her own grassroots before she attempts to mend divisions across the country.

Jess Phillips is hoping to shake up her party with a dose of radical honesty
Credit: 
PA

Outspoken and honest, the Birmingham Yardley MP has been unafraid to launch stinging attacks on Tory ministers from the backbenches, while using her sizeable media profile to criticise those within her own party who she believes are pushing Labour in the wrong direction.

And it is this brand of radical honesty which she hopes can change her party’s fortunes after yet another torrid election performance, pitching her campaign with the slogan: "Speak Truth. Win Power."

Born and raised in Birmingham, Phillips received a comprehensive political education from her family, describing growing up with her father as "like growing up with Jeremy Corbyn". Obsessed with politics from a young age, her childhood ambition was to be the Prime Minister.

Despite being frequently described as a "Blairite", Phillips actually resigned from the party over the Iraq War before rejoining after the 2010 General Election.

But unlike some of her fellow candidates, the Birmingham Yardley MP is happy to highlight the successes of New Labour, writing in the Mirror: "For people like me, in places like Birmingham where I come from, our lives were made better through tax credits and Sure Start centres."

Before entering Parliament in 2015, Phillips worked for domestic abuse charity, Women's Aid, a role which she credits with giving her the strength to stand up against a torrent of social media abuse aimed at her from all sides of the political divide.

"This is nothing," she told the Guardian in 2016. "I used to have to see off angry perpetrators off at the door".

'It's just a f***ing rose'

Despite a constant stream of death threats, rape threats and mysognistic abuse, the 38-year-old MP has refused to shy away from speaking out about issues such as domestic and sexual abuse, homelessness and education cuts. It is this same bolshie spirit which has propelled Phillips into being a household name despite having never held a frontbench role.

But her sharp tongue has also landed her in hot water with many of the members whose votes she will now need if she wants to be elected as the first female leader of the party.

Viewed by many on the left of the party as a traitor for criticising Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership, she faces an uphill battle to win back support from swathes of members left furious by her 2015 comments in which she said she would be willing to knife the Labour leader "in the front, not the back" if he failed to reverse the party's electoral misfortunes.

Despite beginning her membership at age 14, Phillips also dismisses the idea of having a tribal attachment to Labour. Since 2016 she has been pushed to the brink of quittingon several occasions, either due to the party's leadership or its handling of sexual abuse allegations or anti-semitism.

“I think I'd be a good Prime Minister," she said last year. "I feel like I can't leave the Labour Party without rolling the dice one more time. 

“I owe it that. But it doesn't own me. It's nothing more than a logo if it doesn't stand for something that I actually care about - it's just a f***ing rose."

Her pitch for leader mainly centers around her plan to shift the party away from its current course, which, while popular with the membership, has proven to be disastrous at the ballot box.

"We run the risk of being completely irrelevant for the next four years," she told fellow MPs at a hustings event. "All over the country people have busy lives, with lots of noise from one way or another. We have got to get them to hear us in the little time they give us."

'You're basically a hero or belong in the bin'

It's an argument that will undoubtedly win over a significant tranche of MPs, but it will be a much harder sell to a membership that sits largely to the left of Phillips.

Recognising the risk to her campaign, Phillips says the membership has become a "tiny bit exclusive" after years of attrition saw many so-called centrist supporters leaving the party.

Pointing to her frequent run-ins with the left, she added: "If you aren't all one way you're basically a hero or belong in the bin.”

But despite coming from a different political wing from the current leadership, Phillips views the potential election of a woman leader as a surefire way of radically changing the party.

Speaking at a New Statesman event last month, she said the party’s foundations in the labour movement meant the election of any of the four women standing to replace Jeremy Corbyn would result in a huge shake-up.

“It’s that women in the labour movement are by the very virtue of being in the labour movement, radical,” she said. “They seek radical structural change and they threaten the power balance as it currently stands and if a woman were to lead the Labour party and lead the country from the Labour party, there would be absolutely I am certain, massive structural change in our country, that would benefit women.”

With little time for new members to join the party and secure voting rights, it's hard to see how Jess Phillips - who has scooped up strong backing from 23 MPs and MEPs to make it into the next round of the race - will find the numbers among the wider membership to have a credible chance at taking over the leadership.

Either way, her bid lays down a marker for the future, and is a clear sign that Phillips is determined to have her say on the future of the party.


FACTFILE:

  • Age: 38
  • Constituency and majority: Birmingham Yardley, re-elected in 2019 with reduced majority of 10,659
  • Before politics: Women’s Aid
  • Frontbench jobs held: None
  • Fun Fact: Her cousin-in-law is former professional footballer Kevin Phillips
  • Odds: 16/1