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4 May 2017

Most Labour MPs dance around Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity – not Jess Phillips

Smart, funny and mouthy, Jess Phillips is one of the most impressive MPs from Labour’s 2015 intake. Now she's fighting to stay there. 

By Helen Lewis

Jess Phillips is annoyed about the election. In her constituency office in the Birmingham suburb of Acocks Green, her staff have just told her that she can’t announce new funds for a local community centre because parliament has been dissolved.

“This is an example of the strong, stable leadership you’ve heard about,” she snorts, reeling off a list of casework she can no longer tackle as an MP. One of her 400 open cases is that of a child taken overseas. “Just because Theresa May wants an election, your child doesn’t stop being kidnapped.”

Her constituents seem hardly more enthused about the prospect of a vote on 8 June. “I don’t know nothing,” the guy behind the counter of a phone shop on Acocks Green high street tells me. Michael, who runs a flower stall, tells me he last voted 19 years ago. “I’m not interested, pet.”

I went to Birmingham Yardley because Jess Phillips is one of the most impressive MPs from Labour’s 2015 intake. (If she were a man, her Have I Got News for You appearance alone would have led to her being touted as a future leader.) Smart, funny, mouthy – and with a Brummie accent strong enough to clean silver – the 35-year-old found adjusting to stuffy, male-dominated Westminster difficult after working in the women’s sector. An outspoken feminist, she has been a target of rape and death threats; her office and home are fitted with security doors.

Birmingham Yardley is a Labour-Liberal marginal and Phillips has a majority of only 6,595. But residents here voted for Brexit by 60 per cent, which gives Phillips a fighting chance. It helps that her opponent is the former local Lib Dem MP, John Hemming, whose biggest claim to fame is that his wife kidnapped his mistress’s cat. (Beauty was later found. His wife got a nine-month suspended sentence.) Hemming’s campaign is highly personal, revolving around the suggestion that Phillips is more interested in a media career than her constituency.

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When I mention his name, she remarks drily that animal issues are one of the biggest sources of petitions to her office. The others include Palestine, the NHS, social care and Brexit. “That’s mostly 38 Degrees stuff, though,” chips in Councillor John O’Shea – meaning bulk emails on reliably controversial subjects. The casework reflects a different set of priorities: housing, immigration, domestic violence. “About a third of my casework is people who are inappropriately housed,” Phillips says.

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She believes she will beat Hemming because “he doesn’t know where the Remain vote is in this constituency”, while Brexit-leaners switch from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. “In 2022, this seat will be a fight between me and the Tories,” she says. “Well, if I’m still here.”

Out in the street, many people in Yardley are reluctant to talk about Brexit, and, by extension, immigration. A woman in a full-face veil is dropping by the office as I arrive, and there’s a Polish deli in Acocks Green, but the shoppers are largely white and British. Phillips says she took her son Harry out campaigning last weekend and instructed him that “if anyone says anything racist, let Mommy deal with it”. Sure enough, a voter asked if she could say something without her son overhearing. “And Harry, right on cue, said: ‘Is it racist?’”

Theresa May’s blue-collar conservatism appeals more to Yardley residents than David Cameron and George Osborne’s patrician complacency. “There are 22,000 children on tax credits in this constituency,” Phillips says. “And three properties which will benefit from the inheritance-tax raise. And they have to be dead.”

At the Oxfam shop, a volunteer called Jean tells me that she would definitely vote “for Theresa May” – she says the name, rather than the party – even though the Prime Minister “tells a few porkies now and then”. As Jean bustles off, her colleague Sheila turns to me and whispers that she voted Remain. “I’m a socialist and I wouldn’t vote for the Tories if they were the last party on Earth,” she adds. “I’m a bit” – she shrugs – “about Jeremy Corbyn, but I don’t want the Tories to have a landslide.”

On the doorstep on a former council estate, we hear the same refrain. One woman complains about children throwing stones at her windows – “I mow the lawn, I keep it nice, so I notice” – then says she will vote Tory. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t like Corbyn.” She used to vote Lib Dem. Phillips laughs and tells her: “Don’t vote for them; they’re horrible.” After hearing that another woman missed the 2015 election because she couldn’t find a babysitter, the MP promises a postal vote form: “I’ve got a thing about women voting. People died for us.” A third tells us that she will definitely choose Labour: “I like a woman who speaks her mind, and so does my husband.”

Like every Labour candidate, Jess Phillips has to dance around the issue of her leader’s unpopularity. Well, others might dance around it. Phillips wassails over it in hobnailed boots. When a police officer says he can’t vote for her because “unless Labour get annihilated, he won’t walk”, she looks him straight in the eye and says: “Oh, I will have something to say about that, don’t you worry.” The man, six-foot-plus with muscled, tattooed arms, quails slightly. (He ends the conversation with a phrase I never thought I would hear: “Bring back Miliband.”)

In full campaign mode, Phillips is a whirlwind. She talks to Portuguese ­residents about her love of pastéis de nata, and Muslims about her favourite iftar treats. A shouty drunk man accuses the doorstep campaigners of being “Jesus freaks” and she shouts back: “Nothing like a man with a can in a bag in the middle of the day.” She ends almost every conversation with the Brummie version of goodbye: “Ta-ra-a-bit.” It would be a loss to British politics if – after only two years as an MP – Jess Phillips had to say that to the Commons. 

This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution