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7 July 2021

Jess Phillips’s Diary: What Batley and Spen means for Labour, Euros fever and how Gavin Williamson failed my kids

I wouldn’t put Gavin Williamson in charge of a pot plant – the fact that our Prime Minister left him in charge of my sons literally made me weep over practice exam papers.

By Jess Phillips

Nothing says “huge ego” like a larger-than-life-size photo poster of a politician posing as if he’s about to throw a punch in a boxing match. We get it, Mr Galloway: you’re a blokey bloke and the main feature of your politics is you. This was the image that greeted me and some intrepid Birmingham activists as we drove in to Batley to help knock on doors in the 1 July by-election. My favourite image of George Galloway during the campaign was of him in his boy-band phase, perched on a high stool as if about to leap to his feet and sing “You Raise Me Up”. He, of course, does the opposite and brings pretty much everyone down.

Election day was a slog of blazing heat, steep hills and voters tired out by some of the aggression that had been brought to their hometown. However, the slog was made much easier by the inspirational candidacy of Kim Leadbeater and the amazingly well-managed and cheery organisation of the campaign. I passed familiar faces from all over the country coming in and out of the campaign centre and was reminded of the Labour Party campaigning of my childhood. A determination and spirited enthusiasm had broken out and it felt good to be on the streets fighting for something and someone that we believed in.

 

Labour’s confidence boost

Since 1 July, I have read more column inches on what the Batley and Spen by-election means for the Labour Party than I have about Andy Murray’s metal hip. I think the political classes obsess too much about by-election results: voters don’t behave in the same way in them as they do in general elections for the sole reason that they are not electing a government.

I will however indulge myself with a brief analysis and say that the margin in an already marginal seat should give the party pause while also allowing us to feel hopeful that – against the backdrop of a vicious campaign that was, wrongly, nothing to do with the dreadful government of the past decade and which became some kind of ridiculous proxy war for the so-called left – Labour still won. Not only that, it won with good organisation, an inspirational candidate and a lot of bloody hard graft.

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The sense of relief I felt when I awoke on the morning of 2 July – my skin branded with the tan lines of a day in the hot sun in Batley – and learned that Kim had been elected was greater than I’d expected. Some of that was the hope that Kim, the sister of my dear, departed friend Jo Cox, brings with her, but some of it was relief for the Labour Party, which needed a boost. I hope it is reassured by that boost – the party lacks confidence too often. I’d like us to find a happy medium between constant morbid self-reflection and the arrogance of a larger-than-life sparring photo of a charlatan. There has got to be a sensible central ground.

[see also: Keir Starmer’s second chance: can the Labour leader find the direction he has lacked?]

 

Fair-weather fan

I am shamelessly a glory-supporting football fan. I do not support a specific local football team, I do not pretend to care about it when asked, although I definitely know the difference between Aston Villa and West Ham. I am, however, an absolute addict of England football fever. This week I will say phrases such as, “the lads showed real control in their game” and “you can rely on Jack Grealish to create opportunities”. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have never been a purist in politics or in life so I don’t ask for people to qualify in order to join in, which is lucky because if I was pressed to explain the offside rule while in the pub, draped in a St George’s flag, I would come up blank. Come on England!

 

The pain of pandemic exams

There was a time when, if my phone display indicated that my son was calling me at 10am on a school day, I would have panicked that something terrible was happening. This week I knew that he was calling to tell me he had once again been isolated from school, just like hundreds of kids in my constituency and thousands across the country. I get that we are living through a pandemic, and I understand that precautions have to be taken, but something must be done to make up for the time lost. The phone call from the school about provision of extra tuition or activities is one I and the majority of parents have yet to receive.

Both of my children have been failed in the pandemic. As I sat trying to prepare with my eldest for GCSE assessments that had been rescheduled three times due to bouts of isolation, it became very clear what a deficit he had in his learning. His school has done everything it could within its gift, but it was also left in the dark, never knowing what was happening from one week to the next. I wouldn’t put Gavin Williamson in charge of a pot plant – the fact that our Prime Minister left him in charge of my sons literally made me weep over practice exam papers on the Weimar Republic. I hope Williamson is ready for parents like me come exam results day because if he thinks I am tough politically, he’s never seen me defending my family.

 

Fear of freedom

This week marked a decade since I lost my mother to sarcoma, a cancer which, as was the case with her, is often missed, leaving too many people without the early diagnosis they need to survive. As the Prime Minister took to his podium this week to cry freedom and hope that we can all put the lockdown behind us, I can’t help but think of all of those cancer patients and other vulnerable people who will be very frightened of a society with no restrictions, and all of those who have had their treatments delayed and cancelled.

We might be able to throw off our masks, but the virus remains a threat and for hundreds of thousands of people the effects of the pandemic are still very real. 

“Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP” by Jess Phillips is published on 22 July by Gallery UK

[see also: Will chaos in English schools really end with the Covid-19 bubble system?]

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust