Jess Phillips has only been in parliament since 2015 and she’s already a legend. This is the woman who defines herself as a radical feminist, who wrote an exceptionally plain speaking and erudite resignation letter to Jeremy Corbyn when she stood down from his team in 2016, who once told fellow Labour MP Diane Abbott to ‘f**k off’, and who wears Converse in the House of Commons.
It’s no surprise, then, when I show up to her flat in south London that she is – as they say – just like she is on the telly. She’s kicked off her boots and is in the middle of doing a bit of online banking, narrating the process, while a cushion saying ‘A Woman’s Place Is In The White House’ sits on a nearby armchair. Shall I make the tea? ‘You can’t make the tea!’, she says without moving.
But this is part of what makes her so popular – she’s the Caitlin Moran of Parliament. Passionate without being precious, clever without being superior, funny without being (too) unkind. Whether she’s always strictly professional is up for debate. (Sample quote from our interview when we’re talking about men’s rights activist MP Philip Davies: ‘Maybe it’s OK to have him representing people who are stupid.’) This is why people like her – there’s nobody in politics today prepared to be quite so honest.
After standing down as Parliamentary Private Secretary in your Shadow Education Team, the MP for Birmingham Yardley has gained a strong fan base. Her book, Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking The Truth, is full of the kind of wit and forthright wisdom her fans have come to expect.
Incredibly, she knocked it out in seven weeks, and deals with a spectrum of topics: trolls, helping drug addicts, parenthood, being a working mum. ‘Largely the people who read it are going to be like “goodies”’, she says, ‘and people who want to read that kind of thing, but what I hope it does is say to women is that I’m not that special. We could all do it and we could all be doing something to make things a bit better at the moment. There is a real need to have peoples’ voices out there at the moment.’
Having read the book, being Jess Phillips sounds quite hard. Aside from the relentless campaigning and door-to-door-ing of being an MP in a marginal seat, there’s the shocking abuse she gets. The messages she gets tend to contain the words ‘rape’ ‘c**t’ ‘b*tch’ and so on, rearranged in different formations.
Last summer, following the murder of fellow MP and friend, Jo Cox, Jess Philips revealed that she was installing a panic room in her constituency office as a result of threats she had received. I don’t think I could do her job if that was the norm. ‘You get used to it,’ she says, puffing on her vape. ‘I get so much of it that it becomes irrelevant noise. It doesn’t really affect me anymore.’ Sometimes the emails she gets are quite funny, she says. ‘I got one very poorly written haiku saying how great Nigel Farage was and what a twat I was for not liking Nigel Farage – some of those moments are really brilliant.’
I’m not totally convinced it’s so easy to ignore the abuse. There’s nothing that sticks in her brain? ‘There’s stuff that sticks in my brain... There is stuff that’s stuck in my brain. However, in 2015 I used to get messages every day. You get to peak block eventually. There’s only a couple of hundred people doing it all and once you’ve blocked them you don’t hear so much.’ But won’t that be off-putting to young women considering a career in politics? ‘I think the more women who do it, the less of a thing it’ll be. People should be given strategies to deal with it, but what I don’t want to do is put people off doing it, and people are put off doing it.’
The book feels incredibly timely – ‘a fluke!’ Phillips says proudly – and the inaction of the last few years in some ways mirrors Phillips’ early life, when she was working at the charity Women’s Aid, before her life as a politician began. ‘I was politically complacent during the Blair years. Things were good and people thought things would be good forever. Even when I think about being a young mum in those years, if I was in the same situation now as I was in 2005, I wouldn’t have access to half the stuff I had then. Progress has been hampered. I believe the Labour party will get better,’ she lowers her voice, ‘in a long time.’
Phillips’ frustration with Corbyn is already well documented, and when the subject moves onto the Labour leader she’s unafraid to criticize her boss. When asked about the lack of action and the jokes that all he does is make jam and ‘sign apples’ from his allotment (which he told a documentary crew he was planning to do last year), she barks with laughter. ‘That documentary was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched it like 19 times. If I’m feeling a bit low, I just watch it. It actually presented [Corbyn’s team] as I’ve experienced them’, she says. To put words in her mouth: shambolic and slow.
‘There are lots of Labour voters who say “I feel I’ve got nowhere to go, I’m homeless”. And feel they can’t vote Labour’, she says. ‘What we have is the complete opposite of what a Labour opposition should be. It should be of solidarity.’
She claims to have no leadership ambitions at the moment, but is champing at the bit to be Home Secretary, partly because it contains the domestic violence brief, an issue she feels very strongly about. ‘All I ever wanted to do in politics was make people feel this was about them,’ Phillips says.
She’s about to go out and have dinner with her husband, so I cringingly ask her for a selfie before I leave, and post it on Twitter. A man retweets it with the comment: ‘Please, can I have a sugar cube or apple’. Beyond her defiant attitude, and genuine passion, it’s how she puts up with the level of criticism she gets while continuing to push forward that makes Jess Phillips truly special.
Jess Phillips’ book Everywoman is out today.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.