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Jess Phillips is desperate to be ‘normal’ The Labour MP knows she needs a brand to succeed in politics

What Jess Phillips hiding? Credit: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/Getty

What Jess Phillips hiding? Credit: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/Getty


July 30, 2021   4 mins

Can we solve political alienation? This is a question everyone asks these days but no one, seemingly, can answer it. In Batley and Spen I met a woman who has never been in a polling booth and met the suggestion that she could enter one with wide-eyed surprise.

In Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics [But were too lazy or numb to ask?] Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, asks again, though she can’t answer either: who can?

Instead, she offers partial solutions, one of which is: treat MPs better. Give them better working conditions: the Palace of Westminster, she points out, is unfit for purpose because it is falling apart, in exquisite metaphor. Give them more support, or you will not have young mothers in parliament, or anyone who is not affluent, or insane. (She calculates the cost of her entering parliament at £40,000, in lost earnings for herself and her husband, “a painfully calm pragmatist” as she campaigned, and he gave up night shifts for childcare.) Give them more time — social media and 24-hour news offer none — or you end up with narcissists who are addicted to anxiety, and risk. This book was written at speed, and so it reads, obliviously, like a parody of her predicament. No time.

I admire Phillips. She is close to my ideal feminist — she reads out the names of women murdered by their partners (their murderers) in parliament each year and her principal concern is women’s safety. But that is not good enough. Phillips’s fame itself — she is the most visible of Labour’s parliamentary class of 2015 — makes her vulnerable. She is accused of appropriating working-class manners because her parents, working-class born, had good jobs and sent her to a selective school, though she retained her regional accent. It’s as though she’s expected, with these privileges, to appear as a woman in a Waitrose advert holding pinot grigio and laughing at charcuterie. It’s a ludicrous notion which wouldn’t be asked of a man. I’m not surprised she admires Harriet Harman, the mother of the House, whose class (upper-middle, if you care) has been treated as suspect for a lifetime. What is she hiding? A piano?

I like Phillips’s politics, she’s centre-left, but, in the popular yearning for authenticity – the desire to know them intimately that is mere childishness — there must be more. There must be a friendly narrative: a brand. She knows it too: it is all within this book. A brand is less work for the voter, and it soothes the journalist who will tell your story. It saves time. I like the Phillips brand. Many do. When Luciana Berger gave her testimony of anti-Jewish racism in Labour, I was in the House and I saw Phillips sit beside Berger, so she did not feel alone. In Corbyn’s Labour — the “anti-racist” front bench was completely oblivious to Berger, they did not even look at her — it was brave. It was moving, too, watching Phillips draw the poison meant for Berger to herself. Phillips is obviously a compulsive rescuer and I wonder who, in her private life, she couldn’t save. Her brother was a heroin addict but — and I know this sounds odd — it doesn’t sound close enough.

But a brand can’t write to my taste because a brand cannot be ambivalent. It is not allowed. I am fine with this as a consumer of her politics, and that is really all I — or any of us — should ask from her. We know what happens when artists become politicians, and Phillips isn’t an artist. They try to blow up Paris. And, of course, when a politician can write memoir really well — when a politician allows himself ambivalence, allows the monsters to walk freely on the page — it is only to convince you to never let him near power, because he is a compulsive risk taker. (Alan Clark.) It is that old question, pertinent to the Prime Minister particularly: do you want to be governed or entertained?

I suspect that, in her heart, Phillips could do both. But here she tries for middle-aged female normality (though she is only 39). It is conversation, not prose, littered with slang, anecdotes about standing over photocopiers in her bra and pants, and tangents about Super Mario. Will someone stand on her head? There are passages explaining parliamentary procedure, presumably written to convince that anyone can do it, if they know the language and the way.

Is she really like that? “It is important to show that I live a normal life,” she says. But she doesn’t. She lives in two cities, she is an avid consumer and maker of news, her constituency office was attacked, her friend Jo Cox was murdered, and she is a workaholic. (Her son calls her Jess because, he says, when he calls “Mum” she cannot hear him.) She is a bridge-builder who will work with the other side because it works and who is charming to the media because that works too. She stoops to charm.

She writes her chapters — on the triviality of the media, the formality of the UN, campaigning (she thinks it is like Glastonbury, but it is more like Edinburgh) and life in parliament (ludicrous and ripe for reform) — in a folksy style: presenting your everywoman. If she is on a quest, like Frodo Baggins by way of Bridget Jones, she even has a grail: an ideal voter, whom she calls Brenda, a mother in her fifties who works in ASDA in Birmingham: “One day I will [ital] find her”. The italics are typical. The quest is real.

I wonder if Phillips, with her energy and her passion, denies her singularity. She is cleverer and angrier than she is pleased to admit — there I was, in my pants, campaigning — and that she seeks to hide it is depressing, because it feels like a denial of herself. No everywoman can be herself. That experience — of hiding or inflating elements of who you are — is familiar to all women of her generation who seek power. She’s not pretending to be working-class; it’s hardly a secret that she’s an MP. She’s pretending, rather, to be unthreatening.

It has purpose though: she wrote this book, with its tangents on what people write on ballot papers (“cock” mostly, sometimes illustrated) to show the way. She wants people who, “have never had to face the consequences of a risk gone bad” to make it, as she did, to that unhabitable house, to which she wakes each morning with a “gasp of anxiety”. (That does sounds real.)

It is parody, though, because it’s parody that sells and that is awful and telling: because a normal-seeming woman in parliament is a story worth telling. (That goes beyond parody. It is more like satire.) Here is an extraordinary woman straining to seem normal in a place that is abnormal because that is what’s expected if she would do what she loves: politics. The book’s flaws are those of the system. That’s your metaphor.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

“She even has a grail: an ideal voter, whom she calls Brenda, a mother in her fifties who works in ASDA in Birmingham: “One day I will find her”. “

This sums up Labour perfectly – searching for a mythical working class voter who supports their policies rather than tailoring their policies to suit working class voters. There are plenty of Brendas around Birmingham, they just have different views from Jess on transvestism, immigration, the length of prison sentences and the EU.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Spot on!

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

…and indeed, if Great Britain is essentially a decent place worthy of defending…as opposed to a vile racist hell-hole that should be abolished immediately and it’s people consigned to re-education camps until they understand how horrible they are…

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Never mind ,she supported Luciana Berger . (Positioning herself to get the newspaper columnists vote )

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I got as far as “you will not get young mothers in Parliament”. I don’t want young mothers in parliament. Objectively the country does not need young mothers in Parliament. We need mature, energetic, committed, people of both sexes. Young mothers have a full-time job already.
Trying to combine running the UK with caring for babies and small children is cruel to yourself, to them, to your partner, and unrealistic and irresponsible as a citizen.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Thank you for your sane words, Clare. You restore my faith in womankind.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Why just mothers? The most enjoyable stretch of my life were the first few years of fatherhood, taking with my small daughter to parks etc, even something like taking her to the doctor when ill or caring for her when she had chickenpox count as #best time ever#
And I managed to do all this, despite being the breadwinner, because I was pragmatic enough not to take up some random job that offered x% more but would leave me no spare time. I pity those dads who, from necessity or choice, miss those precious years stuck in an office.
Nobody, just nobody, cares if a woman focuses on her career. But it is disturbing that it is practically “progressive” dogma that a mother of a young child must, absolutely has to be more interested in her career than on spending time with and caring for her baby.  

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

It makes sense when you realize that progressive dogma is largely taught in schools and on social media. The more time parents spend working, the more influence ideologues can exert over your children.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

You make a valid point Claire. Though you’d get slated in most places these days for saying it. Interestingly the current (temporary) First Minister of Northern Ireland was asked in an interview last week if he’d consider standing as an MP. His response “I’m 39, I have 3 young children, right now I can’t see myself being in London 3-4 days a week”. No doubt he’ll be called a ‘wet’. I’d never agree with his politics but I thought that was a remarkable statement.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

Talks solely about female victims of domestic violence, but not the 1/3rd of victims who are male, laughs at male suicides and at the concept of men’s right.
Ideal feminist indeed, and one can only imagine the reaction if a hypothetical man did the same things but in reverse. Only hypothetical, because very difficult to imagine any actual man being as crass and chauvinistic as the ideal feminist.
Incidentally, even her female-centred concerns are very specific. The abused at Rotherham and Rochdale don’t figure very highly in her speeches I would imagine.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Indeed – I remember fuming when BBC Newsnight had an abysmal interview with her, when she was attacking a male PM who had the temerity to suggest that as there is a Woman’s Day in Parliament, there should be a Man’s Day too.
The completely uncritical interviewer was – you guessed it – Emily Maitlis.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago

“She even has a grail: an ideal voter, whom she calls Brenda, a mother in her fifties who works in ASDA in Birmingham: ‘One day I will find her'”. Sadly for Jess Brenda votes Conservative.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Awful, narcissistic drivel. I assume Gold does this for free?

Richard Stanier
Richard Stanier
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

It’s a complete mystery why Phillips – one of the most petulant, stupid and self-promoting MPs – receives such fawning treatment in the media on a regular basis.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

It’s called Sisterhood 
 which proscribes any criticism of other females.
Also, it’s worth considering that many of any of these media-facing feminists – political or journalistic – would not have lucrative careers without defaming 50% of the population – and uncritically supporting their own.
(its what some feminist writers do on this site)
Can you imagine successfully selling a new book to “the sisters” that even occasionally pointed out that most men are as reasonable and decent as their female counterparts ?

. and vice versa.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Eric Sheldon
Eric Sheldon
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Sisterhood proscribes any public criticism of other females. I’ll bet there’s plenty of psychological warfare behind the scenes.

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago

Have you read anything by Tanya Gold before? I don’t think I’ve ever read a single piece of her’s that was worth my time.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bob Bobbington
Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

Her restaurant reviews were amusing, until she transitioned into being Cornish she now seems to be channeling the inhabitants of Royston Vasey (the fictional village, not the male comic, which would have been more interesting I suppose).

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“I’m not surprised she admires Harriet Harman, the mother of the House, whose class (upper-middle, if you care) has been treated as suspect for a lifetime.”
Well, I do care. I care a lot when you purport to represent the interests of the lower class, but never quite get round to it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

It’s not only her “class” that’s suspect, it’s her hypocrisy (went to St Paul;s School for Girls but, now that she’s had hers, opposes private education for anyone else; gave us the concept of “women and equalities”) and her judgement in leaping aboard any bandwagon or cause she thinks is trendy and right on, including at one point the Paedophile Information Exchange.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

She also opposes grammar schools even though her son attended one!

Steve Walker
Steve Walker
2 years ago

I swear Tanya Gold’s writing gets worse with each article. It’s as if she has seven different sentences on the go at at any one time and can’t decide in which order to put them.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Walker

It’s an unpleasant read for sure

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

Didn’t get past the second paragraph. There’s only so many times you can utter FFs under your breath without giving up.

Leon Wivlow
Leon Wivlow
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Walker

She really is the worst writer on Unherd.

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago
Reply to  Leon Wivlow

I don’t know how she gets so much work.

David Giles
David Giles
2 years ago

“It’s a ludicrous notion which wouldn’t be asked of a man.”

An idiot assertion, with no supporting evidence, by an idiot journalist.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

She needs to learn that the Labour strategy (she has adopted) of routinely implying that half their potential voters are hateful – and hoping to be elected – is utterly idiotic.
If she fails to realise that relentlessly focussing on women’s issues alienates male voters, then she isn’t bright enough to lead any political organisation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

It’s the same in the US with the Democrat party. When asked why on earth I voted for Trump, I always answer that I’d much rather vote for a man everyone hates, than for a party that hates me.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

I don’t understand a couple of sentences in this review. Why would a ‘woman in a Waitrose advert holding pinot grigio and laughing at charcuterie’ be laughing at charcuterie?
Also what does ‘Will someone stand on her head?’ mean?

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

It’s what happens when you overeducate the middle class.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

‘woman in a Waitrose advert holding pinot grigio and laughing at charcuterie’

Word salad with meat in it.

jill dowling
jill dowling
2 years ago

She’s so “down with the working class” she didn’t even realise that double-barrelled surnames are for everyone these days. Another out of touch Labour halfwit

Davy Humerme
Davy Humerme
2 years ago

A lumpen parvenue and social mountaineer who hides behind a tiresome patina of being “different” from other politicians. Her brand is relentless self promotion

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago
Reply to  Davy Humerme

Well put, sir.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Sound, integrated and unifying policies might be a first step – for the whole party. An electable political platform, in other words, rather than more personal “brand” as suggested by the somewhat effusive author. Parliament may need changing but that is hardly enough to stir the nation and solve its huge challenges ahead. Rather, does Labour believe in any kind of coherent policy, society as a whole – or anything? Or just power through the aggregation of divided and increasingly toxic interest groups (as under Corbyn – who she served).

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago

Tanya Gold mythologising Jess Phillips. I can’t decide which one of them annoys me more.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

I would imagine that you take the level of annoyance that each individual creates, multiply them together and square the result to ascertain how annoying this combination must be.

Franj Lyons
Franj Lyons
2 years ago

My goodness! Check out some of J.P’s interviews, available on YouTube. She appears not to be a believer in research.

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
2 years ago

Phillips was captured on Commons TV rocking backwards and forwards, hugging her sides, covering her mouth to suppress snorts of laughter, rolling her eyes, pulling faces, and banging her head on the table to express her merriment. (YouTube: “Jess Phillips MP: “Excuse Me For Laughing”).
The cause? She had been asked for her permission to approve a debate in parliament about collapsing rates of educational attainment in boys, rising suicide rates in boys and men, and men’s persistently lower life expectancy and widening life expectancy gap. (“When I’ve got parity, yer can ‘av yer debate”).
You don’t need a brand to be successful in politics. You just need to care about your constituents. As a feminist, Philips has an abiding contempt for half of them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Lyon
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

Not as a feminist; many female and indeed male feminists are nice people; Ms Phillips just isn’t

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Harriet Harman, also mentioned approvingly in this piece and apparently admired by Phillips, arranged for the word “father” to be removed from UK family law (except to define their financial responsibilities). She constructs a shrine in her office each year out of a Christmas Tree to Suffragettes – a feminist organisation who’s party piece during WWI was to shame disenfranchised working class young men into conscription and death (or suicide) by attaching white feathers to their jackets.
Perhaps it’s just the feminists who have colonised our law making institution who are not nice people.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

Philips was a prominent member of the political class that tried to execute a coup and annul the 2016 referendum result. She tweets regularly. A narcisist.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

This is terribly badly written, to the point of being unreadable.

Last edited 2 years ago by JR Stoker
Brendan Newport
Brendan Newport
2 years ago

Phillips’ association with crazed conspiracy theorists means that she can never be considered for a Ministerial role.

https://barthsnotes.com/2019/01/28/two-supporters-of-vip-abuse-accuser-esther-baker-settle-libel-claim-brought-by-former-mp-john-hemming/