Labour leadership: Jess Phillips says she is ‘bold’ choice who can win ‘war against Boris Johnson’
Exclusive: Contender to succeed Jeremy Corbyn tells The Independent she can connect with the voters her party needs to win back
Speaking to The Independent in her Birmingham Yardley constituency office, she made no bones about her belief that it is a boldness that Labour will need if it is to haul itself back from its worst election drubbing since 1935.
Faced with a prime minister in Boris Johnson with a proven knack for winning public affection, she argues that what Labour needs is not a technocrat reeling off numbers or an ideologue appealing to the converted, but someone who can connect with ordinary people as effectively as the Tory leader does.
“We have to fight the war we have, not the war we want,” she said. “And the war we have is with Boris Johnson.”
While it was “weird” that the Latin-spouting old Etonian who was “not like anyone I’d ever met until I went to parliament” had struck such a chord, there was no doubt he had the ability to cut through to voters in a way which Labour must match and outdo.
“We’ve got to find that language of the people,” said Ms Phillips.
“It’s absolutely fine to have an ideology, to have deep-seated values that run through every single policy,” she said. “You’ve just got to be able to communicate that. And I have been able from the backbenches to communicate to people that I give a toss about things and I will talk to them honestly. Like they talk to each other.”
Her much-vaunted ability to engage with voters is demonstrated during our chat as she breaks off to exchange banter with constituents visiting her office, located in a down-at-heel parade of shops in the south Birmingham suburb of Acocks Green. Hailing one elderly gentleman as “a living legend”, she gets the gratifying response: “No, it’s you who’s the legend now, Jess. We want you as the leader.”
“He’s not a plant,” she joked.
But it is clear that she does believe she has a “magical” aptitude for connecting with ordinary people that few politicians possess. “There is something very fundamental about experiencing the life that other people experience and being able to speak in a language that people speak in,” she said. “If there’s one thing I definitely can do, I can engender trust and connection in people within literally a matter of seconds.”
Ms Phillips, 38, has long been a target of attack by parts of the Labour left, with allegations of being a Blairite or a traitor to Corbyn and of overplaying her working-class credentials – although her parents were from relatively humble backgrounds, her mother rose to become deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation. And the fact that she was being followed around by a fly-on-the-wall documentary film crew as we spoke is likely to fuel critics’ claims of self-promotion.
Abuse on social media had reached “horrendous” proportions since she threw her hat into the ring for the leadership, she said.
“It’s bad faith,” said Ms Phillips. “People want to find things to spin their own rhetoric and their own propaganda. I’m going to suffer from it because I speak plainly.
“But we have to be careful that we don’t think that that horrible division on the internet represents Labour Party members. I’ve been to constituency parties all over the country and no one has ever shouted these awful things at me in person.”
She refused to place herself on the spectrum between Blair and Corbyn, saying: “I was raised by a family that made Jeremy Corbyn look like Tony Blair, so I don’t know where the place is for them on this particular spectrum.”
She is quick to cast her political convictions in the frame of her own experience as a mother of two who grew up in the constituency she now represents in parliament. An account of finding her younger son vomiting that morning – the one day of the week she’d been free to do the school run – links swiftly into the problems constituents have securing GP appointments.
And she said her concerns about the environment – an issue she has put near the top of her policy priorities – were best expressed by the fact that poor air quality meant that both her sons spent their early childhood with nebulisers and inhalers to help their breathing.
Labour’s manifesto rhetoric about a so-called green industrial revolution “means nothing to anybody” unless it is explained in terms of people’s lives, she said. “My son’s off school coughing his guts out – we’ve got to talk to people about the environment in these terms.”
Phillips made clear she had no real problem with the content of the manifesto on which Labour fought last month’s election, though she steered clear of promising to repeat it if elected leader.
But she said that popular policies like rail nationalisation and free personal care for older people made little impact compared to the three issues which were repeatedly mentioned on the doorstep: “Leadership, trust, Brexit.”
“I knocked doors in Crewe, I knocked doors in Halifax, I knocked doors in Grimsby and Birmingham and Wolverhampton,” she said. “Nobody ever mentioned any of those policies to me. Not once.” After a decade of austerity, voters had become used to public services being “degraded”, said Ms Phillips.
“We’ve got to remind them that governments can make things better, because they’ve forgotten,” she said. “People are not on the streets rioting – I’m not suggesting that they riot, but people now just accept that they have to give money every year to their local school to help with buying the basics.”
Ms Phillips was reluctant to criticise her rivals for the leadership directly, insisting she would be ready to serve under any of them and pointing out that, far from being enemies, she had slept on Rebecca Long Bailey’s floor for three weeks when they were first elected MPs.
But she said that frontrunner Keir Starmer did not connect with voters in the way she could, and described it as “deeply embarrassing” that Labour was yet to elect its first female leader.
With his public school debating style, Johnson would find it “much, much harder” to face a woman across the dispatch box, she predicted.
Ms Phillips rejected the idea that the disciplines and responsibilities of leadership would cramp her plain-speaking style and rob her of the very authenticity which she said was “absolutely essential” to restoring Labour’s fortunes.
“I would be lying if I said that I wouldn’t become more slick and more packaged, but fundamentally I won’t change because I can’t,” she said. “It would be really, really obvious and we wouldn’t win an election.
“The whole point is that we have to get the country to trust us. I get that I’m a bold choice. I am a bold choice, but we’ve got to beat Boris Johnson.”