Why I’m supporting Jess Phillips for Labour leader

Featured image and video: JessPhillips.net/YouTube

In May 2015, I was on the ground in London covering the general election as an independent journalist. Following that year’s terrible results for Labour, I wrote a blog on this website describing why, in my view, the party lost because Ed Miliband didn’t run far enough to the left. Later that summer, in a column for the Gay UK Magazine (no longer available, but archived here), I endorsed Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader.

As someone who believes that nationalising the rails, public utilities, and offering free broadband are all in the public interests, Corbyn seemed like the obvious choice. And, as I wrote in my autopsy of the 2015 election, the public seemed to agree—despite the fact they had just rejected milquetoast Miliband.

A lot has happened since then. From Brexit to Grenfell Tower to the continued cuts to public services, five years ago feels more like fifty years ago. In the cold light of the dawn of a new decade, it’s easy to see how foolish I was to think a move to the left would lead to electoral victory. Corbynism was a poisoned chalice from which I gladly drank and, as a result, Boris Johnson occupies 10 Downing Street.

This is, in part, my mea culpa. It is with the guilt and shame of having been so catastrophically wrong that I approach the current Labour leadership election with my blinders finally removed. The British public isn’t as left wing as me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t desperate for change. Boris Johnson didn’t win the last general election so much as Jeremy Corbyn lost it—for reasons that include but go beyond his manifesto.

People didn’t trust Corbyn’s Labour party. From his mealy-mouthed answers on Brexit to his scandalous inability or unwillingness to tackle antisemitism within the party, they simply didn’t think Corbyn represented their views or interests. Rightly or wrongly, voters felt he talked not to them, but down to them, and that much of his frontbench did the same. Simply put, voters didn’t like Corbyn and they didn’t like Corbynism.

After two straight general election defeats, it’s clear that it’s time for a change of direction. Labour needs a leader who can regain the trust of the British people, who is charismatic enough to both carry the red banner for socialism and go toe-to-toe with Boris Johnson, and who has a vision for a brighter future and a plan to make it a reality.

That woman is Jess Phillips.

Ever since she famously told the writer Owen Jones that she would “knife Corbyn in the front” rather than conspiring behind his back should she ever feel the need to break ranks with him, Jess Phillips has impressed me. Her frank and unapologetic approach to politics is refreshing. There’s no calculation with Jess, no pretence, no show. She tells you what’s on her mind, what she thinks you need to hear, and she does it with a gusto and earthy charm matched by none.

“We have to go back to the basics,” she told Andrew Marr on Sunday. “My son doesn’t go to school five days a week. And while that is the case—and lots of people in the country, they can give you their own example; they can’t get social care for their parents—and while that is the case, offering people free broadband was just not believable.” It’s the kind of candid admission that we so rarely see, but that voters so desperately craves from MPs.

That Phillips can be so blunt while remaining so charming sets her apart from most politicians and pundits today. She’s incredibly likable in an era where likability matters more than it ever has before. When Jess Philips enters a room, whether a pub or the Commons chamber or a tv studio, she owns it. She is a larger-than-life personality from a salt-of-the-earth community. She has the populist magnetism of Nigel Farage without all the racism and poor bashing.

Phillips has her critics, invoking an ire few politicians are ever unlucky enough to receive. Jacobin recently lamented her “remarkable faith in the power of public relations and internal company processes to resolve industrial disputes,” but this is an example of what makes Phillips so appealing. She doesn’t live in the world as we would like it, but rather as it is, which means that, unlike those on the hard left, she sees not only what is wrong but, crucially, how we can use the tools at our disposal to fix it.

She’s shown an ability to do this time and time again, having an uncanny knack for capturing the public attention and directing it at issues which desperately need fixing. Whether it’s doing homework with her son on the steps of Number 10 to protest Tory education cuts, blasting xenophobia and standing up for migrants in her own constituency and across the country, or brilliantly and heartbreakingly reading the names of women murdered by men to highlight the epidemic of domestic violence, Phillips knows how to get your attention.

If you think that’s it, though, once she has your attention, she knows how to get things done. Her tenacious campaigning for domestic violence refuges in part forced the Tories to commit to putting them on a statutory footing. Phillips campaigned for more domestic violence refuges for over a decade, showing a gritty determination that is absolutely needed not just for the next election, but for the next Labour government. Things are not going to change overnight, and this pragmatic yet progressive attitude is exactly what the British people are looking for.

With sharp political instincts and a Barbara Castle-like understanding of the working class (especially its feelings towards the EU), Phillips has managed to increase her majority by nearly fifteen percent since 2015. That’s the most of any Labour MP in a constituency which voted to leave the EU.* As though that isn’t impressive enough, her constituency of Birmingham Yardley saw only a small decline in her majority from the 2017 election to the 2019 election.

That she managed all this while actively campaigning for Remain is a testament to just how good she is. “My constituents don’t mind that we might disagree – they appreciate above all else a straightforward approach,” she wrote last month for the Guardian. Phillips credits “our ability to disagree well, with good humour and a shared vernacular” with her popularity.

I would agree. With a common touch and good-natured attitude towards people of all political persuasions, Jess is the right woman for this crucial moment in the history of the Labour Party and the history of the United Kingdom. She is the woman to lead Labour out of the wilderness and back onto the path to electoral victory.

*This blog was updated on 15 January 2020 to correctly identify Jess Phillips’ constituency as having voted to leave the European Union. It previosly stated her constituency had voted to remain.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer. With a decade of experience covering US and UK politics, culture, and media, his work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Tennessee. 

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