There’s nobody else at Westminster quite like Jess Phillips. She is fearless and funny, riotous and rebellious, maverick and mischievous in a place of tribes and traditions where everyone is carefully strategising and plotting and trying to get ahead.
Amid a sea of navy blue suits on the House of Commons benches, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley stands out in her Converse trainers and jeans (black ones so they can’t be spotted by the authorities, because denim is officially banned). With her big gold hoop earrings, bright red lipstick and deep, gravelly voice, she is utterly distinctive and instantly memorable. Her language is shockingly unparliamentary and she has four tattoos, including one on her belly that is a Chinese symbol for courage. Growing up, she read Just Seventeen rather than Hansard under the bed covers at night. Now she prefers Love Island to Newsnight and she is more likely to quote Kurt Cobain than John Stuart Mill. “I live by the Katy Perry lyric, ‘If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything,’” she tells me.
Having worked for Women’s Aid, the domestic violence charity, before going into politics, Phillips’s ambition is to be an MP who seems like a “normal” person, and she does. Her happiest moments are not poring over white papers or think tank reports but singing along to David Bowie and Queen in the car with her kids, who are 13 and 10. “I don’t care for the rules,” she says. “I really want people to feel like politics is about them. The thing you hear on the doorstep is, ‘You’re all the same.’ I want people to think that I’m not the same. The greatest thing anyone in my constituency ever says to me is, ‘You’re one of us.’ ”
People used to suggest that Boris Johnson had a Heineken appeal, reaching parts of the country other politicians couldn’t reach. Phillips prefers prosecco but she too has an ability to draw people to politics. Her recent Commons speech on immigration – in which she joked, “I thought I’d met posh people before I came here, but actually I’d just met people who eat olives” – went viral, attracting more than two million hits on YouTube in a couple of days. Having had her first child when she was 22, relied on benefits for years and grown up with a brother who was a heroin addict, she has not had the gilded life of many MPs.
Although she describes herself as a life-long socialist, she won’t be pigeon-holed politically which makes her a hate figure for the hard left. The Corbynistas boast that they could never be friends with a Conservative, but Phillips says, “I know Jacob Rees-Mogg better than Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t want to just talk to the people who agree with me. That would be really boring.” Of the partisan T-shirts that are sold at Labour conferences, she insists, “I can’t say I’ve never kissed a Tory, because I didn’t voter ID all the people I’ve kissed in my life.”
In an age of factionalism, she doesn’t want to be in a gang. “I’m always being asked to put myself into parameters designed by somebody else – the Blairite/Corbynite thing – but I’m not going to f***ing define myself by some f***ing dude from the Labour Party. Sod that. I’m Jess.”
We meet in her tiny office in Portcullis House on yet another day of high drama at Westminster. Theresa May has just delivered her latest Brexit statement and Labour has announced plans to support a second referendum, following an exodus of moderate MPs. Phillips’s shelves are lined with pictures of suffragettes and cards saying things like “Deeds not words”, “Never give up” and “Sick of being angry”. When she was elected to the Commons four years ago she says she had to go home and sew in the evening to keep sane. “My distinct impression was my job was now drinking coffee in meetings. I needed to produce something.”
I realised that the prime minister doesn’t know what an onion bhaji is
Even now she often feels as if she is caught in a bizarre parallel universe. The other day she found herself standing next to Theresa May in the members’ dining room. Somebody mentioned onion bhajis; the Tory leader looked baffled. “I realised that the prime minister doesn’t know what an onion bhaji is,” she says. “I thought, ‘How could I ever negotiate with a person who doesn’t know what an onion bhaji is?’ ” She is laughing, a deep, full-throated giggle. “As somebody who went to a grammar school myself, Theresa May strikes me as being the kid who got into a grammar school and worked to keep up with the other kids in the class. To be studious is noble in a way. It’s never something I’m going to be – I’m fly-by-night and slapdash – but there needs to be some happy medium if you’re going to be a leader.”
Jeremy Corbyn seems equally out of touch to the 37-year-old Brummie mum. “There is an old-fashionedness about both of them. They are of a bygone era. It’s a bit like The Good Life – she’s Margo and he’s Tom. Their politics are so Seventies: it’s hate migrants, love miners. They’re both in this terrible situation where they’re very traditional, very stubborn, bloody difficult people and they can’t assimilate with groups of people who aren’t like them – or admit when they’ve made mistakes.”
Each leader in her view lacks empathy in different ways. When Theresa May was home secretary, Phillips watched her meet domestic violence victims at a refuge: “There just wasn’t any ability to show kindness.” Although Corbyn is superficially more at ease hugging the vulnerable, she says, “I worry about kindness that is forced and on the terms of the person being kind, not on the terms of the people who need you to be kind to them.”
Phillips is an acute observer with a sense of the absurd. She describes how when her elder son, Harry, visited her for the first time in the Commons, one of the more traditional Tories leant over and asked him whether he was “Jess’s little boy”. “He said, ‘I am, but it’s very rude of you to assume my gender.’ ” Ayesha Hazarika, the former special adviser to Harriet Harman who is also a stand-up comedian, thinks Phillips could be one, too. “She’s got funny bones,” she says. “If you go for a night out with her you’re in hysterics all evening. But there is always a point to the comedy.”
Phillips is deeply serious about the causes she supports. Every year, on International Women’s Day, she stands up in the House of Commons and reads out the names of the women who have been murdered in the past 12 months by their husband or partner. At several points in our interview she is close to tears. She worries that so much that she cares about is unravelling, in the Labour Party and in the country. “I feel exhausted by everything,” she says. “I think I’m just at the end of the road for all of it, to be honest.” A friend who is a health visitor has quit because she can’t afford to carry on. “I see every day that the fabric of society is tearing and we’ve sat by while nothing has been conserved. I feel we’re on the brink. Another person was murdered yesterday on the edge of my constituency, the third one in a week, and I’m just done with it all.”
At Westminster things have been “tough” after eight Labour MPs quit and set up the Independent Group. As she watched her friend Luciana Berger describe the antisemitism she had experienced, Phillips says she wept. “I sent her a message – it just said, ‘I love you’ – and she wrote one back, probably while she was still on the stage, saying, ‘I love you, too.’ ” The tears well up. “Emotionally I felt a little bit like I’d left the Labour Party and could very much see myself leaving,” she says. “I can see what they are saying and I agree with it. I’m meant to be in the same political party as Chris Williamson [the left-wing Labour MP for Derby North who has now been suspended]. I don’t particularly like being in the same country as him. I would ally with them [the Independent Group] a million times more than I would ally with some of the people on my own side.”
For Berger, who faced deselection threats in her Liverpool Wavertree constituency, representing the Labour Party “must have felt like being in an abusive relationship”, the former domestic violence campaigner says. “The gaslighting is the same, the undermining and belittling of her that has gone on, blaming the victim and isolating her. I feel pleased that she’s got out and she’s free.”
I know Jacob Rees-Mogg better than Jeremy Corbyn
Phillips receives horrific abuse herself – much of it from the hard left. Having resigned from the Labour front bench and called for Corbyn to stand down, she is seen as a traitor by the leader’s supporters. On the morning we meet she had been sent “a whole file of people talking about stabbing me”. When a plot to kill another Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, was foiled, she had a message from a party member suggesting “the one we want them to murder is Jess Phillips”. Once she received 600 rape threats on Twitter in a night, although she says, in a matter-of-fact way, “The rape threats are much more from the right.” It must be particularly chilling for an MP who entered parliament at the same time as Jo Cox and became friends with her before her murder.
After Cox died, Phillips’s eldest son asked her, “Is it worth it, Mummy?” She replied, “The trouble is, it is.” But on the advice of the police, she has increased her security. There are nine locks on her front door, a panic room in her constituency office and “weird buttons next to my bed that go straight to the police”. She’s never had to use them, but she admits she does get scared. “I try to keep my back against the wall in the Tube station. I sit in the bay window in my living room, and sometimes I can feel myself shrinking down so somebody can’t shoot me. Unlike Emily Thornberry, I wouldn’t rather die than leave the Labour Party.”
Although she grew up in a Labour household and went to the Women’s Liberation Playgroup as a child – there was a poster at Greenham Common with her hand prints spelling out “Ban the bomb” – Phillips is not tribal. Her parents gave her a party membership card on her 14th birthday and she insists that she’s not going to resign just yet. “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.”
As the main breadwinner, money is also a factor. “I feel deeply responsible and that makes it much harder. I’ve got a 28-year mortgage still to pay off.” She insists, though, that the party “has to dramatically improve itself, get a handle on antisemitism and stop wanting a war against its own MPs. It has to stop trying to find better ways to get rid of us because, you know what? We’ll just leave.” She will join Tom Watson’s social democratic group and would “almost certainly” quit if the deputy leader does. Labour should be “a reasonable, sensible but passionate fighting force that understands its heart but also its head” and instead “it feels controlling, bullying, chaotic”.
There is, Phillips suggests, a curious lack of self-awareness on the hard left, caused by a sense of moral superiority. “They think their shit doesn’t stink. They think they’re better than everybody else.” Although she can’t say whether Corbyn himself is antisemitic she says, “What he can’t see is his own part in emboldening this problem. We all have biases and we have to fight against them and I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn could say that sentence. He assumes he’s perfection.” It’s part of a wider short-sightedness, in her view. “The purity is totally on their terms, so if Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t give jobs to women that’s not because Jeremy Corbyn is a man who has had privilege his entire life, it’s because he’s made a good choice. There’s one set of rules for them and another set of rules for everybody else and that’s just elitist and hypocritical.”
Phillips once told Diane Abbott to “f*** off” in an argument about the number of women in the shadow cabinet. “The left is misogynist,” she says. “Marxism has always had a problem with women because class is everything.” It is, she argues “a total luxury” to put ideology first. “These people have enough privilege to be interested in being able to sleep at night with their decisions, whereas what I’m interested in is whether other people have a bed to sleep in … To me, politics is a means to an end. For them, it seems like a rally. It’s Che Guevara T-shirts made by sweatshops in China.”
Sometimes I feel myself shrinking down so somebody can’t shoot me
Although she despises the Tory Old Etonian attitude of “the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate”, she is equally critical of the patronising “saviour complex” on the left. “They think there’s a nobility in poverty. They feel guilty about their privilege and they think the way to overcome that is to obsess about how cool it is to be poor when the poor people want to progress.” It is not a coincidence, in her view, that many of the left-wing advisers around Corbyn went to private schools and Momentum is strongest in middle-class parts of Brighton, Bristol, Canterbury and London. “It’s ‘Up the workers,’ but they’re not exactly dockers ... They don’t understand what real people’s lives are like. They have dinner parties and hang out with other people who don’t have to worry about which school their children go to, because if they can’t get into a good school they’ll pay for it. They’ve never had to scrabble down the side of the sofa to find money to put petrol in the car because you can’t get to work.”
Phillips has frequently had to do that. Before she was an MP she often relied on welfare to supplement her income. “I didn’t go hungry, but our food budget was £25 a week. We ate a lot of chickpea curry. I worried about it all the time.” She got pregnant when she was 22, 7 weeks into her relationship with Tom, a lift engineer who is now her husband and whom she clearly adores. At the time, she was working in a bar and living in a house so horrible she wouldn’t let the midwife visit there. They used to walk around the posher bits of Birmingham. “I used to think, ‘One day maybe I will live in a house like this.’ Now I do,” she says. “Every day when we walk back after the school run, we cannot believe we’re lucky enough to live there.”
Raised in a large working-class family – her grandmother was a dinner lady, her father was a “bearded lefty” teacher and her mother a healthcare manager – the young Jess had to shout to be heard over three older brothers. A precocious child, she took herself off to sit the 11-plus against her parents’ wishes and got into the local grammar school. “I just really liked tests,” she says. “I like competition.”
When she was 15, she found out that her brother Luke, who is 20 months older than her, had started taking heroin. By the time she was 21, the drug abuse was affecting the whole family. “There was the stealing. He was in and out of hospital on life support, having psychotic episodes and homeless for a long time.”
Now he is getting his life together and she is proud that he has been clean for two years, but Phillips is honest about the pressure it put on her. “It was a massive burden and he’s a massive idiot. He was sick, but he doesn’t deserve to be let off for the things he did.” Her parents would have to pay off drug dealers in the middle of the night. “People would threaten to kill him to me quite regularly,” she says. “He would promise me to drug dealers. We were out and he’d say, ‘He likes you. Could you get me out of trouble?’ These are not nice people – they would say, ‘Send your sister to sort it out.’ I didn’t ever do it. One of my friends was sold for a bag of weed from one boy to another. We just laughed about it as if it wasn’t really dangerous, but of course it was horrendous.”
Phillips went to work at Women’s Aid partly to help others get out of similarly exploitative situations. She started as a PA to the chief executive, but her boss spotted her potential and before long she was addressing the UN. A strong feminist, she worries about a backlash to the #MeToo movement. “When it started it was so fast-paced that it was about scalping – ‘Yeah, we’ve taken another one down’ – and I’m not going to lie, that felt good. But it never managed to move on to structural change to improve the lives of ordinary women.” She kept saying to everyone, “What about Brenda from Asda?” But she insists it’s “absolutely bloody nonsense” that men can’t understand the difference between right and wrong in their relationships with women. “This isn’t about sex or violence – it’s about power. The idea that men don’t know how to behave themselves is belittling to men. People say I’m a man-hater, but anybody who makes that argument must hate men. I’ve got much more faith in them.”
Phillips has never suffered from sexual harassment at “Pestminster”. “I’m not vulnerable enough,” she says. “There is no one who has power over me because I reject the hierarchy.” But she sees other forms of sexism at work in politics. “All male politicians do ‘woman as prop’ the whole time. They always have to have a woman sat next to them and I hate that kiss thing that they do at party conferences, making the wife come on stage.”
The yah-boo atmosphere of the Commons doesn’t bother her because she can shout louder than most of her male colleagues but, she says, “I get a lot of shushing from the men – it’s, ‘Calm down, love. Pipe down.’ ” Others have a “She’s a bit of a broad” attitude that is just as irritating. “There’s an inverted snobbery, where I get treated like a rare bird of paradise by some Tory men. They’re very kind and supportive, but it’s like the first time they’ve encountered somebody like me who will say what I think, who is a larger than life character. There’s an element of being at the zoo.”
Phillips may be normal but she is also extraordinary, which is what gives her an appeal. “She’s fearless, authentic and deeply comfortable in her skin,” says one friend. “The left attack her because they realise she’s a threat. She can’t be bought off, so she could be a powerful force. I would tip her to go far.” Although she’s not good at economics or technocratic detail, she has an ability to connect. “The reason I’ve been successful is my ability to tell a story,” she says. It is arguably the most important skill in politics.
As a child she went to political rallies all the time and watched Margaret Thatcher take prime minister’s questions every week on TV while her grandmother did the ironing. “I was always really bossy,” she says. “At school we got asked to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said I wanted to be the prime minister. And why not? I think I’d be a good prime minister.”