“We’ve never had a team meeting where I wasn’t sat in my living room, half-dressed in pyjamas,” says Jess Phillips when I ask how she’s finding her first front-bench role.
The Labour MP and shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding is speaking (fully clothed) to me from her constituency office in Birmingham Yardley. After entering parliament in 2015, the 39-year-old became known as a critic of Jeremy Corbyn, building a reputation for straight-talking and causing trouble for the Labour leadership.
It has been more than a year since she stood down from the leadership race to replace Corbyn, and ten months since Keir Starmer appointed her to his front bench – a role she has conducted almost entirely remotely since. In that time, Labour and its new leader have been on a popularity rollercoaster. Starmer enjoyed unusually high ratings for an opposition leader early in the crisis but they have stagnated since the summer, while the Conservatives have opened a significant poll lead over Labour following the UK’s vaccine success.
Phillips shows no regrets about the abrupt end of her leadership bid. “I hardly every think about it, it’s just been such a weird year hasn’t it?” she says, with a sense of what could almost be considered relief. “There’s millions of things that you would do differently… But ultimately, I wanted lots of people to join the Labour Party. And they did.”
Labour enjoyed an influx of new members during the 2020 contest and Starmer’s achievement, winning in the first round with 56 per cent of the vote, was significant. But as Labour has failed to capitalise on Boris Johnson’s shambolic performance during the pandemic, the lustre has begun to wear off. Backbenchers are growing restless, and this week Tom Kibasi, one of the architects of Starmer’s leadership campaign, accused him of “being hard on Labour and soft on the Tories”.
You might have thought that a politician who ran against Starmer, backed a rival candidate (Phillips supported Lisa Nandy after withdrawing) and was openly hostile to the previous leader would be quick to point out areas where Starmer could improve. In fact, she is remarkably forgiving.
“The pandemic sideswiped everyone. Imagine getting a brand new job in the middle of it where you’re totally public-facing and have to pitch yourself to the country, in an unrecognisable sea that has never been charted before… I think he’s done a remarkable job….
“Everybody backseat drives, whether you’re a politician from an opposing party, an opposing wing of a party, or you’re just a pundit or you’re just a human. My dad has probably got lectures he’d like to give to almost every politician on ‘you don’t want to do it like that’. But I can’t see that there was a better alternative than the one that has been taken.”
As for the public’s continued support for a government that has made so many blunders (on PPE, testing, school exams, Track and Trace, to name just a few), Phillips is sanguine.
“I’ve given up a long time ago being annoyed when public feeling doesn’t match my ire,” she says. “You don’t get to be political through the women’s movement [without learning] not be annoyed when people care more about donkeys than they do about women. I get many more emails about bees than I do about children. I could be frustrated about it, but it’s not on me to be frustrated with the public – it’s on me to convince them.”
Of course, cutting Starmer some slack is a sensible move when he’s your boss. After five years as an outspoken backbencher, Phillips’s promotion to the opposition front bench was met with whispers that she would soon come to resent being a cog in the party machine. That’s a narrative she wastes no time in countering.
“No one has ever told me I couldn’t say something I wanted to say,” she insists. “You just have to check things a bit more than you used to.
“I’ve not come up against your classic young spad telling me what I should think about domestic abuse, that definitely hasn’t happened. I’m just not sure anyone has the balls to try.”
If Phillips is feeling restricted by her role, she puts that down to Covid-19. As well as addressing her team from home in her pyjamas, she has, she says, only been in the same room as Starmer twice since his appointment, and has found long-distance politics more challenging than taking on new responsibilities.
[See also: Jess Phillips writes the NS Diary]
“I don’t feel like anybody’s trying to shut me up or make me be quiet or marginalise me. I’m marginalised by virtue of never being in Westminster, no longer being around the media, just because physically I’m far away.”
Phillips does not hide that the pandemic is getting to her. As well as feeling isolated from the political centre, she describes jumping at media opportunities because “I’m desperate to wear uncomfortable clothes”. But in addition to the personal toll it is taking on her, she is filled with righteous outrage about the government’s lockdown ineptitude, specifically when it comes to protecting women.
“They love words on goatskin… they love to make new laws and new orders,” she says with despair. “What they love to do less is resource it properly.
“We ration services in cases of domestic abuse based on crisis and risk, rather than need. That’s like saying to someone who’s diabetic, ‘All the insulin has been taken for today except this one vial we have left, which you can’t have until you’re in a crisis, until you’re literally about to die, and then we’ll give it to you. Even though we have it, we won’t give it to you because you have to be nearly dead.’ And we do that with victims of domestic abuse all the time.”
Phillips worked at Women’s Aid before she became an MP, helping victims of domestic abuse find refuge accommodation. It’s a skill-set she put to use as part of her new brief at the start of the pandemic, when those at risk of domestic violence found themselves locked down with their abusers – an issue, Phillips believes, the government did not seem to have considered.
“They didn’t have enough people in the room who had the experience to know what they were talking about – and by that I mean just being a woman would have been helpful,” Phillips says with exasperation. She set about filling the gap: liaising with refuges, hotels and other accommodation providers to increase the number of beds available for people fleeing their homes.
“I remember in the first week a very fraught conversation with a man who was in Paris, he was something to do with the Hilton chain, or one of the big hotel chains – it all merges into one… I spoke to the Youth Hostel Association and they offered up endless spaces. One of them sounded lovely – it was a yurt… It was sunny back then, in lockdown one, and I was a bit, like, ‘Can I come with my family?’”
It’s an amusing anecdote, until you remember that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline surged by 80 per cent in June compared to previous years, while the number of domestic homicides more than doubled in the first weeks of the initial lockdown.
The other issue that enrages Phillips is the plight of working parents, particularly mothers. She is able to laugh off her own homeschooling struggles (“The first lockdown they just watched Netflix and Countdown – Countdown was literally the height of our education”), but immediately turns the conversation back to her constituents and the government’s chaotic record on school closures.
“I cannot express how impossible it would be if my children were little for me to actually working,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a bonfire of women’s jobs.”
As with the government’s failures on domestic abuse, Phillips is furious about the gaps left by hastily-made policy, such as the lack of a legal right to be furloughed for childcare reasons.
“How the hell are you going to cope with that?” she asks, referring to the period last autumn when schools were technically open but regularly sent pupils home as outbreaks occurred. “If you work at the local Asda, are you going to call in and say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t come in tomorrow, my kids are isolating from school’? They never considered that that’s what real people’s lives were like. And so many people didn’t isolate… because the working-age population needed to work.”
While Phillips might give the impression of serenity over Labour’s fortunes, when it comes to standing up for women and children, her undisguised indignation shows she has lost none of her political fire. She has changed in lockdown, but she hasn’t mellowed – and though she understands the challenges of governing in a pandemic, she is as ready as ever to hold her Westminster opponents to account if she thinks they are falling short.
“They’re not responsible, they never went round on Christmas Eve looking for the last few things to buy their kids. And every time one of them stands up and thanks me, saying, ‘I’d like to thank all the working parents.’ I think, ‘I don’t want thanks, save your thanks.’ I want solutions.”