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19 May 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 1:57pm

I get criticised for being gobby – but shouting loud saved a little girl from displacement

 “Don’t know” could win by a landslide if it stood a candidate, as I discovered on doorsteps in Birmingham. 

By Jess Phillips

The whirlwind of an election campaign is a strange mix of frenetic chaos and soothing mundanity. The beginning of my week began as the previous day did and the following day will be the same. Like a baby on a mealtime routine, we do a morning door-knocking session, lunchtime door-knocking session and teatime door-knocking session. We assemble, knock, chat, record, repeat.

The variation on each day comes from the people we meet. My constituency has both inner-city grit and suburban sprawl, so no two days are the same on the doorstep. This week I’ve been given gardening tips from a resident who offered me armfuls of fresh rosemary (though this was kind, it made me look a little like a travelling apothecary as I continued along the street). I also received a huge cactus from a constituent and five days later I am still picking the tiny barbed hairs out of my right arm. It must be a Lib Dem succulent.

I’ve comforted desperate people in tears on the doorstep who are at the end of their tether living in overcrowded situations. I’ve measured potholes, called the police out to ticket cars blocking the pavements, I’ve videoed and photographed people fly-tipping to get evidence to throw the book at them. My life on the doorstep is a bit like being a social worker-cum-vigilante. If it all goes belly up on 8 June I may write a comic series.

Speaking up

Politics is of less interest to people than their immediate needs. I can’t say that any of the messaging that national parties are plugging has been used on the doorstep. “Don’t know” could win by a landslide if it stood a candidate.

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In the down period between street sessions I return to the office, see my constituents who need help, and catch up on my work. Just because I’m not officially an MP at the moment doesn’t mean my job stops. This week I teamed up with a frequent partner in crime, Mr Foley – the head teacher of one of my local primary schools – after a little girl who is an asylum-seeker in my constituency was moved at a day’s notice to Bradford. She was removed from a school where she has settled and is thriving, and has been a pupil for two years. We sprang into action but initially the Home Office basically said “tough luck”. There’s a reason Theresa May’s buzzwords aren’t kind and human. We didn’t back down; we used our voices – both Mr Foley and I got ourselves in the papers and on the airwaves. It worked. The day after the family were taken to Bradford, they were told that soon they would be able to return to Birmingham and the girl would be back at school within a few weeks.

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Words as weapons

I get a lot of criticism for being gobby. The fact that I have a profile and a following is the central plank of my Lib Dem opponent’s campaign for the general election. Apparently I should keep quiet and stay off the telly, according to the Lib Dems. Yet my opponent is a man who nominated himself for a tabloid “Love Rat of the Year” gong, presumably because it was good for his constituents and because he wasn’t desperate for attention from the media or anything like that. Having a profile as an MP is a good thing. It means that my voice has reach. My words become weapons deployed for my constituents. Mr Foley and I saved that little girl because we were able to get the story covered. Damn the mainstream media for highlighting bad practice and helping to change things.

On the front line

I’m a fan of the free press and understand the importance of having decent public-service broadcasters, but when they visit you on the campaign trail it can be a bit of a challenge. In Birmingham Yardley this week, we had cameras from the Guardian, and the Peter Pan of politics himself, Owen Jones. There was also Emily Maitlis and the Newsnight crew, and a number of photographers and magazines come along to get views from the front line. I don’t know how any journalist ever gets a civilian’s opinion – I watched the most gregarious constituents who’d happily chatted with me turn to shy wallflowers once the cameras were on.

Manifesto déjà vu

The office is absolutely jam-packed with people at the moment. The delightful buzz and excitement of an election campaign are hard to beat. Every week, hundreds of people walk through, and this has taken its toll on the facilities. This week our toilet, which was dodgy when five of us used it, has, like the Labour Party, sprung a leak. I kid you not: dodgy plumbing has come up on the doorstep more times than manifestos.

The leak of the Labour manifesto I think has been good, as it allowed the conversations (online and among the political class) to be about ideals rather than personalities. Of the three people who mentioned it on the doorstep (bear in mind we speak to thousands of people a week), it has a 100 per cent success rate. I realise that this poll will probably now be used in some fake news purveying blog to prove that Labour will win by a landslide. I like most of the manifesto, though it seems none too dissimilar to the one I stood on in 2015.

Philistines flabbergasted

The geopolitical event of the week was ­Eurovision. A load of Labour activists came back to my house to join in the camp delights. Some tolerated only the first two songs and instead decided that playing obscure brick-sorting games with my eight-year-old son was a preferable way to spend the evening. The absolute philistines.

I love Eurovision; I always have. I thought the Portuguese entry was rubbish and wholly unmemorable save for the stupid man bun of the star. That he won the jury votes was tolerable but when he bagged the public vote I was left once again flabbergasted by public opinion. Democracy – it’s a funny old game.

Jess Phillips is the Labour candidate for Birmingham Yardley

This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies