Tag Archives: uk politics

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. 

So you’ve elected a national joke. Now what?

boris johnson election

Boris Johnson is the new leader of the Conservatives. Photo: LBC/PA

Well, it was as expected. Boris Johnson handily defeated Jeremy Hunt to be the next leader of the Conservatives and, by the time you’re reading this—he still has to ask Her Majesty—will be Prime Minister. A lot of people to the left of Enoch Powell are understandably forlorn right now. Luckily for you, dear British readers, your American cousins have some experience with electing a national joke as our leader. After two-and-a-half years of Donald Trump, allow me to impart some hard-won wisdom:

  • Go get drunk. The day following Trump’s election, I was in Sheffield. I began drinking at 9:00 AM and didn’t stop until the pub closed. The landlord and his girlfriend actually let me in a little early because they knew how I upset I was. Drinking numbs the many emotions you’re likely to feel—despair, anger, fear, annoyance, a dark sort of amusement at the shitstorm that’s to come—and allows you to, at least for a day, forget that you feel completely fucked
  • Keep some perspective. I didn’t do this after Trump’s election, and I regret it. It made my response to his election less effective and equated more to a temper tantrum than anything else. Don’t make that mistake. Keep calm. Trump is repugnant and Johnson is bad, but neither are Hitler. For now, they can both be defeated through democratic means. Despite how it may feel, this isn’t Years and Years. We’re still about four or five years away from that. Things may seem hopeless, but for now our institutions on both sides of the Atlantic remain intact and are functioning at some level, anyway
  • Avoid the “well I didn’t vote for him”/”not MY prime minister” nonsense. It’s tempting to distance yourself from Boris Johnson, especially since only Tory Party members got to vote for him. Talk about how that’s unfair, if you think it is, but don’t throw your toys out of the pram. It won’t win anyone on the right over and, while it will make you feel better, it doesn’t accomplish much, and this isn’t about you as an individual. It’s about the country as a whole. Keep your eye on the prize
  • Keep a journal. It’s hard to remember every outrage and every terrifying action. Keeping a journal where you mention “today Johnson compared Muslim women to letterboxes” or “he used a racial slur today” is helpful to look back on when you need to remember specific details about why your leader is so awful
  • Watch for entryism. You’ve seen it in Labour with the hard left, and it happened with the Republicans over a few years too, where an emboldened far right joined and changed the trajectory of the party. Keep a careful eye to make sure the Tories don’t tick so far right they end up as UKIP mark two
  • Organise. The Democrats were only able to take the House of Representatives back in 2018 because we pounded the pavement and made the case against Trumpism. Grassroots organising has been vital to helping curtail the worst of Donald Trump, whether it’s against ICE—I see regular social media updates from friends in Chicago about where ICE agents are spotted to help immigrant families avoid them—or against his latest dalliance with neo-Nazis. We don’t always win (Kavanaugh), but we always fight
  • Watch how other Tories respond. Tribalism is arguably worse in UK politics than it is in US politics (or, at least it was four years ago). Will Conservative backbenchers fall in line with every destructive policy Johnson introduces, or will the stand on principle when they really do oppose him? Our Republicans have largely rolled over for Trump, so watch to see how Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, etc behave over the course of Johnson’s premiership
  • Build coalitions. Keep your eyes on the prize – defeating Boris Johnson. The internecine warfare in Labour needs to end and the party needs to coalesce. Given the real concerns with anti-Semitism, that seems unlikely (and look, hard to blame those against anti-Semitism for not backing down). So look elsewhere. Build electoral coalitions with the Greens and, yes, with the Liberal Democrats if you must. When you’re dealing with a Bannon-backed populist, as Johnson is, nothing matters as much as defeating him. Getting Johnson out of Number 10 and electing a centrist or left-of-centre government is most crucial right now, not ideological purity
  • Chin up. Despite what you might thing, the world keeps spinning. The sun rises in the morning. Ben Mitchell still picks fights on EastEnders. Life goes on, and your day-to-day life won’t change very much. If that sounds like I’m minimising what you’re feeling or the latest groundswell of populism in the Western world, I’m not. But it’s important to keep your wits about you and have some perspective

Don’t be too downtrodden after today. Go ahead and lick your wounds, but tomorrow the fight continues. 31 October is just over three months away, so there’s plenty of work to do in not a long amount of time. Get drunk, and then get to work.

Theresa May resigned. There must be a general election

After the 2015 election, I appeared on a political web show as an American journalist covering the British elections. When discussion turned to who would succeed David Cameron, I stated that “after a nuclear holocaust there would be cockroaches and Theresa May.” I wasn’t trying to compare the then-Home Secretary to a cockroach, but rather comment on her staying power. She is the longest serving Home Secretary in more than a century. She seemed an unstoppable force.

Then she became Prime Minister. Number 10—or perhaps more accurately, Brexit—proved the boot which finally crushed her political career. Theresa May has been an abysmal Prime Minister, losing the Tory majority in an ill-planned (for the Conservatives, anyway) 2017 general election and being utterly unable to unite a country deeply divided on Brexit. Indeed, her premiership will be remembered more for tinned soundbites (“Brexit means Brexit,” “strong and stable”) than any actual accomplishments.

Now, a bevvy of unsavoury characters (Boris Johnson, Andera Leadsom, etc) are poised to fight out a tumultuous Conservative leadership contest. The winner will ultimately lead the country out of the European Union. But they shouldn’t, at least, not simply by ascending to Number 10. They must have a mandate from the people, and that means the new Prime Minister must call a general election.

To be certain, technically, they don’t have to call an election. John Major didn’t go to the country until nearly two years after he succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Gordon Brown took nearly three years after he took over from Tony Blair. The next election doesn’t have to be held until 2022.

Certainly, there are sound arguments against calling an election. The country is already in tumult thanks to Brexit. A general election could add to the chaos, especially if the voters return a hung parliament (that is, no party has a clear majority). We more-or-less know what a Conservative Prime Minister will deliver (most likely, a no-deal Brexit), but simply by virtue of being in opposition, we know less what Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn might negotiate.

But here’s what we know. The next Tory leader will likely be an arch-Brexiteer. The Brexiteers campaigned on returning sovereignty to the British people. How, then, can they possibly justify a Prime Minister with no mandate from the people leading the country out of the European Union?

To be sure, there are plenty of constitutional arguments to make this point null and void. Technically, Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected (well, not by anyone but their constituents, who elect them as an MP). The Conservatives are still the largest party. The Westminster system is functioning as it ought to.

All of this is true, but it betrays a more basic fact. Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, and those who campaigned to leave the EU did so in large part because of the “unelected” EU making decisions on behalf of the UK and that these decisions should be made by the British parliament, elected by the British people. How, then, can the most monumental peacetime decision be, if not made, than certainly executed by someone to whom the British people never had a chance to say aye?

The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have already tweeted their support for a general election. The new Leader of the Conservative Party must follow suit. If Brexit is about democracy—both being restored and being honoured—they would be hypocrites not to.

I’m a Brexiter at heart. Vote Remain.

I hate the European Union. It is a bloated corporatist quango run by technocrats none of us have ever heard of who seem to have an utter contempt for the British people and, well, democracy. EU leaders seem committed to further integration and a United States of Europe, except without the republican values of the United States of America. The Eurozone is floundering, the Schengen border area is broken, and—rightly or wrongly—the British people are fed up with the free flow of European migrants into the UK, unable to control who comes into the country or adopt what many, myself included, feel is a fairer immigration system.

As an American, I don’t have a vote in tomorrow’s referendum. As someone trying to immigrate to the UK from outside the EU, a Brexit would, ostensibly, be in my best interests. As a Eurosceptic, I believe it could also be in Britain’s best interests. But if I did have a vote tomorrow, I would vote for Britain to remain in the European Union.

I would vote Remain not out of some love for the European project, or some starry-eyed internationalism. I would vote Remain because the Leave campaign has not done a successful job of demonstrating just what a Britain outside the EU would look like, how it would cope and succeed.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly think Britain could be not only fine, but prosperous, outside the European Union. But “could” does not mean “will”. The Leave campaign likes to say that anyone voting Remain denigrates Britain, that they don’t believe in or trust the ingenuity and tenacity of the British people. Bollocks. I have no doubts Britain could succeed outside the EU. But no country can succeed without a plan, and nobody in the Leave campaign has been able to articulate one short of “everything the experts tell you is a lie.”

Was President Obama lying, when he warned Britain will go to the back of the queue for trade deals. UKIP’s Diane James, on last night’s BBC Debate, said she didn’t care what Obama thought, but wanted to know what Clinton and Trump think. Clinton also supports the In campaign, while Trump is for Brexit, which speaks volumes about the tone and tenor of this referendum. And what about with the EU itself? Is Angela Merkel lying when she says that Britain “will never get a really good result in negotiations?”

The EU could make an example out of Britain for fear that treating it too kindly post-Brexit could inspire other nations to go their own way. And maybe that would be okay, if only someone in the Leave campaign could articulate exactly how they plan on handling that and preventing total economic catastrophe. But they haven’t. Instead of policy, the Leave campaign has offered platitudes about how great the British people are (and you are, you really are) and how everything will be a-okay because we will it to be (it won’t, it really won’t).  When both the Bank of England and the TUC are warning that Brexit will depress wages and probably lead to recession, we should listen.

Instead Michael Gove compares them to Nazi scientists. This is one of the Leave campaigns favourite motifs, the EU as Hitler’s heir. It’s almost laughably ironic, considering how overtly and covertly racist the Leave campaign has been. The bulk of the Leave campaign has focused on xenophobic rhetoric about European migrants coming to steal British jobs and take British homes and depress British wages. This entire campaign has been made about immigration, and it has been framed in the most disgustingly racist way possible. Like Johnson’s comments about America’s “part-Kenyan” president, or Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. It’s the anti-Muslim retweets of the Leave campaign, the dehumanising language used to describe refugees. I can’t co-sign on any of this.

If another referendum were to present itself, one not premised on far-right racism and jingoistic fervour, perhaps I’d go another way. And maybe, someday, it will. But David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Ruth Davidson, and Sadiq Kahn have all said, which is that Brexit is a one-way ticket. Once the UK leaves, there is no going back to the European Union. At least not without adopting Schengen and the Euro, which most of agree is no in Britain’s national interest. Britain could always vote to leave in another 40 years, but it can’t come back on such cushy terms.

There are a myriad of other issues at play here too, issues I’ve not touched on but have swayed my hypothetical vote. What happens to the border in Northern Ireland? Will the SNP demand—and get—another referendum? How will we protect the hard-won rights the EU and ancillary bodies have guaranteed? These all need to be answered, and the Leave campaign hasn’t.

I’m not prepared to gamble with the livelihoods of the British people or the stability of the country out of some nationalistic desire to reclaim sovereignty. I desperately want Britain to Leave the EU, but the Leave campaign hasn’t presented a viable alternative. You don’t leave home without knowing where you’re going, and Britain shouldn’t leave the EU without knowing what it’s going to do next.

Instead of presenting a cogent, coherent exit strategy, the Leave campaign played to the basest instincts of the electorate and stirred up a jingoistic, xenophobic atmosphere. Because of this, I don’t know what Britain would look like outside the European Union, but I can’t honestly say I think it’s a Britain I would like. So, reluctantly, I ask you to vote Remain.

(Sorry, Alex.)