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3 January 2020

Jess Philips is running as the straight-talking candidate. It’s smart, but high risk

The Birmingham Yardley MP is pitching herself as Labour's answer to Boris Johnson. Will it work?

By Stephen Bush

Part of David Cameron’s successful pitch to the Conservative rank-and-file was his subliminal message to a beaten and demoralised party – £20m in debt, reeling from three elections that had produced the worst, second-worst, and fourth-worst defeats in its history, all to Tony Blair – was: I’m your Blair.

Jess Philips is trying to do something similar. She’s saying to a Labour party that has lost four elections on the bounce: I’m your Boris Johnson. That’s the through line of all of her appearances in this contest thus far – from her media round on the night of the general election to her slick formal launch video tonight, which has unveiled her campaign slogan: “speak truth, win power”.

Yes, she’s attacking Johnson for his “bluster and lies”: but Cameron attacked Blair (albeit not as frequently as he did Gordon Brown, the man he knew he would have to defeat in 2010). But the overall pitch – that she “tells it how it is” – is that essentially, she is a straight-talker who will turn around a party that has, in her words, “been afraid to speak the truth”. That she has that prized political commodity: authenticity.

Will it work? I don’t know. Rory Stewart ran for the Conservative leadership essentially on an “I’m your Corbyn” routine: unorthodox, outside the party mainstream and run on a shoestring. Now he isn’t even a Conservative MP anymore. But if you asked me to devise the best way to persuade Labour party members – and bluntly my view is that it is highly unlikely that the party’s ruling national executive and general secretary will allow this contest to be shaped by registered supporters, so it is going to involve winning over people who are Labour members – to vote Jess Phillips, then this is the way I’d go.

But it’s high risk. Just which “truth” is she talking about? While this is a bar I don’t expect every candidate will clear, being honest about Labour’s failure to tackle antisemitism in its ranks is the easiest thing to be truthful about. There isn’t a caucus of voters outside of the Labour party that is going to be offended or shocked to hear a Labour leader say that. Candidates who do not want to do this are the ones who have decided either that Labour’s present handling of antisemitism is just fine, or don’t want to alienate Labour members who believe it to be fine.  

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But of the declared candidates, Philips, Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer have all cleared this (low) bar, and more will follow. If you are running on honesty you can’t just be one of the honest ones – you have to find ways to be more honest than the rest of the pack.

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That exposes you to other, trickier questions. Take immigration, an issue that is hugely important both to British voters and Labour members. There’s a policy trade-off between the level of control over migration that voters prioritised in 2016, and again in the 2019 election, and the level of ambition you can have on public spending. Neither Boris Johnson, nor Labour’s “we have to acknowledge the real concerns of people in towns” tendency have faced up to that reality yet. Will Philips?

And what about income tax? This was an election in which many people did not think that Labour was being honest about the level of taxation needed to keep its promises on spending and the public finances. Will Philips back higher or lower taxes? 

There’s a good demonstration from recent Labour history with the problem with making being ‘honest’ part of your pitch: as with Corbyn’s pledge to deliver “straight-talking, honest politics” or Tony Blair’s commitment to be “purer than pure”, there’s a risk that what you are in fact doing is setting a bar for yourself that is so high that you cannot vault over it – and are handing your opponents a stick to beat you with. Philips may come to regret that.