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23 January 2020

Jess Phillips’s candidacy exposes a problem for Labour’s next leader

Labour MPs have become accustomed to being able to freelance politically. The return to normality will be trickier than many suppose. 

By Stephen Bush

In 1987, the Shadow Communications Agency – the organisation founded by Philip Gould of volunteers working in press and communications, whose members helped change the Labour Party’s image – was tasked with focus grouping the shadow Treasury team. These were the key figures whose role was to make the party more credible on the economy. They liked the shadow chancellor John Smith, finding him reassuring and competent: the image of a bank manager. They found the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Gordon Brown, sensible, sound and young but not too young. But when Deborah Mattinson played footage of the shadow economy minister, they laughed. They found him too boyish – Bambi-like, even.

Yes, there was no doubt that if Tony Blair were front and centre, Labour would be laughed out of town. Seven years later, Gould and Mattinson were conducting focus groups in which the voters couldn’t get enough of him.

The point of this story is that being politically effective isn’t like being able to curl your tongue: a quality you either have or you don’t, and it can’t be taught or acquired. It comes from practice and as a result of experience. There are qualities that you can’t learn, but many of the qualities of effective leadership are taught.

It’s not the only thing that went wrong for Labour over the past four years, but one of Jeremy Corbyn’s problems was that he had never spoken from the frontbench until he did so as leader of the opposition. That he had to learn on the job meant that most of his first six months in office were a disaster and the first four months almost exclusively so. The mistakes made in those early days, from the shape of his shadow cabinet to his response on a number of issues, limited his flexibility and room for manoeuvre from the get-go.

That’s the most important lesson from Jess Phillips’s short-lived tilt at the Labour leadership: being an effective politician is difficult. It requires you to have and develop multiple skills. Phillips may well possess a range of effective abilities – one of the skills she clearly does possess is the ability to know what her weaknesses are given that she realised that she was not the right candidate for the present moment. But she visibly did not – and indeed has explicitly said that she did not – possess one of those vital skills: the ability to communicate her values and platform in a 40-second soundbite.

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Despite what is being written by some of her supporters in the press, fundamentally, the biggest problem wasn’t that Phillips “told Labour members what they did not want to hear”, because to be frank she did not. She told Labour members that the United Kingdom should adopt proportional representation, that everyone in the United Kingdom should be taxed more, that we should look again at British drug laws and have a more liberal position on immigration, including a programme of amnesties for long-standing migrants. You can say a lot for these positions but the idea that they represent positions that Labour members do not want to hear is absurd.

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The position where Phillips genuinely and rightly said something that some Labour members do not want to hear is on the matter of anti-Semitism in Labour. But all of the candidates for the leadership have done so. There are questions over the degree of commitment to tackling the problem. But there wasn’t a unique degree of honesty emanating from Phillips on this subject.

In stepping down, Phillips has not deprived Labour members of a unique truth-teller or a guaranteed winner: but a politician very near to the beginning of their parliamentary career who could not meet one of the basic qualifications of effective political leadership.

How did it happen? Her candidacy was the fruit of two theses: the first thesis was, broadly: “Keir Starmer won’t do”. Although Phillips is not in any meaningful sense an authentic candidate of the Labour right – like Starmer and Nandy, she is from the middle of the party – her nominations were exclusively from the Labour right. These were MPs who, for the most part, think Starmer was too late in his support for a second EU referendum, and that serving on Corbyn’s frontbench was an inexcusable collaboration particularly given his positions on security and his failure to tackle anti-Semitism within the party.

So there was a demand on the right of the party for a candidate, and that melded with a second thesis: that Phillips was a generational talent capable of turning the Labour leadership election on its head and winning the 2024 general election. As Ailbhe explains well here, having the skill set to do well as a troublesome backbencher is not the same as being an effective political leader. She did not have to sell a line, present a fraught compromise as anything other than party management, or distil a complex issue into an easy bromide.

I’m not saying that she will never possess these abilities – I think, frankly, that Phillips’s willingness to identify her weaknesses, step back and announce without rancour that her first and second preferences would go to Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer is a positive sign for her in the longterm – but she did not possess them in 2020.

What is more striking is that 22 Labour MPs – some of them who have been in politics for decades – have also forgotten that effective opposition is difficult. Handing that task to someone who has only been in parliament five years and has never been in a frontbench role would have been a good way to end that person’s career, and that of a number of other MPs too.

Why has that happened? Well, it’s partly because of clannishness: people who opposed Corbyn wanted a candidate who had been vocal in their opposition to him. But it’s also about organisational change. One of the interesting hangovers from the Corbyn era is that for the past half-decade, backbench Labour MPs have had very little interaction with the shadow cabinet directly or indirectly. They have not received meaningful lines to take when going on television and as time has worn on they have grown less and less inclined to take them.

Whoever emerges as leader will not find it easy to teach Labour MPs to follow a line again – or to understand the importance of doing so.