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21 January 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:34am

Jess Phillips’s exit is a lesson in the limits of “straight-talking” politics

The Labour backbencher crumbled upon contact with the realities of a leadership contest. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Jess Phillips has pulled out of the Labour leadership race, issuing a statement today saying that she is not the right person to “unite all parts of our movement” at this time. 

Anyone who followed events over the weekend will have anticipated this outcome. Phillips struggled badly at the first hustings for party members on Saturday, to the extent that she wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in which she openly admitted: “the hustings was awful. I was awful”, adding for good measure: “The likelihood that anyone but Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey is going to win is, well, pretty low.” 

After that, the writing was pretty much on the wall. “I said at the beginning of this process that I would tell the truth,” Phillips wrote in that Guardian article. “I said that I was the bold choice and only bold could beat Boris Johnson, and I meant it. And then I did something I didn’t think I would do, and I stopped being bold. I didn’t lie, but I certainly stopped being real. I really believe that authentic, big-hearted, funny, kind and different politics is the only way to beat Johnson.” 

Phillips’ bid for the leadership, as well as being an attempt by Labour’s Corbynsceptic wing to regain control of the party, was an education in whether this “authentic, big-hearted, funny, kind and different politics” actually works. The tacit message of Phillips’ campaign was that she was the Labour Party’s answer to Boris Johnson: through the sheer force of her straight-talking, warm personality, she would be the best person to hold the Prime Minister to account and achieve cut-through with the public. The campaign leant heavily on her honesty, her willingness to have difficult conversations with voters, her perceived media-friendliness and her “common-sense” approach, which would reputedly lead traditional Tories to fall in love with her. 

The Labour leadership contet was a stress-test of this approach, and ultimately it crumbled upon contact. Much of Phillips’ pitch reflected what members of the public mght think when they’re watching politicians on TV: why aren’t they more honest, warmer, nicer? Why don’t they just give a common sense answer, reason with people, or say they haven’t made their mind up? It’s rather like watching Wimbledon and feeling frustrated when Andy Murray misses a shot. It’s so obvious what he needs to do to be better. But it’s much harder to achieve this when you’re the one on the court. 

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With respect to Phillips for enduring what must be a fairly thankless process, this leadership contest has seen her face the reality of frontline politics, and displayed the limits of a simple “honest, common sense” approach. As Phillips herself reflected in the Guardian: “I was awful because I was trying to hit a million different lines and messages in 40 seconds. Some were my lines, some were other people’s, and it fell flat.” Ultimately, someone auditioning to be a potential prime minister needs to be able to absorb their brief and deliver key messages in a hostile format, while retaining their innate likeability. 

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Phillips has a very particular and well-honed skillset as a prominent Corbynsceptic backbencher: she has a track record of expressing her criticisms of Corbyn’s leadership in a clear, relatable way, and has won the adoration of parts of the media. That skillset, however, doesn’t constitute the full gamut of political communication, nor the full skillset for leading a political party. 

Suddenly, Phillips found herself with advisers, focus group-tested messaging, and sets of lines to target at particular groups of voters. Ultimately, she found that it wasn’t enough to just be nice, commonsensical, straight-talking and honest. It must have swiftly dawned on her that all of the other candidates were trying to hit those buttons too  all politicians do. They’re just also pedaling furiously under the surface to stay on top of the detail of the whole scope of domestic and foreign affairs, and to deliver lines in the manner pre-agreed with their advisers. 

It’s, ultimately, a lesson in the demands we make of our politicians. Those supportive of Phillips’ bid in the parliamentary party lament that it seems mainly to be lawyers who are able to fit the bill. They still believe that Phillips had the raw talent to cut through and connect with voters, a skill they emphasise will be vital in the coming years of opposition. Starmer, they worry, might lack that skill should he indeed win the contest. 

Others may privately be examining the folly of a campaign so dependent on personality rather than a detailed policy pitch. It has been said before of the right/moderate wing of the Labour Party that it has struggled to develop new ideas throughout the Corbyn era. Phillips’ exit may well prompt a renewed focus on the policy proposals needed to counter those of Corbyn and his allies. In the meantime, the hopes of the Labour right have been dashed for another leadership election.