On a difficult election night for many activists, Jess Phillips’ resounding victory in Birmingham Yardley was a rare good news moment for the Labour members who braved staying up to watch the results come in. Taking the seat from Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming on a mammoth swing of 11.6%, Philips has since been quick to make a name for herself and to become a darling of the Labour membership.
Very much her own woman, she’s already made waves by recreating film scenes at the Sky News summer party or by matter of factly pointing out the expense of London hotels. She is also well-known to speak her mind, something Anticipations Editor, Ellie Groves, discovered when they sat down for lunch.
You’ve been in Westminster a few weeks now, how have you found it?
It’s a funny place to work. When you go from being someone who has campaigned and been on the streets all the time, this is a crazy bubble. It’s also difficult to find your way around. On my first day here I couldn’t find the women’s toilets. People say I’m really passionate but it is usually the nervous energy of someone who needs a wee. Also I worked at Women’s Aid so I only worked with women, and this place has got a lot of young men called, Will, Ben and Tom who all look the same. This place is not reality and the second anyone says otherwise they should leave.
What was it like standing at the podium when you found out you are an MP?
Well it was massively overwhelming when you have fought a campaign for as long as hard as we had. It feels magnificent, not just for me but when you see the sea of faces who have worked so hard and given up so much of their time. It’s only sad that I had to stand there on my own, I wish that the whole crowd could stand behind me. It feels like a massive privilege still.
What do you think the Labour Party should be doing if we are the party of aspiration?
There is a difference between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. The Tory Party looks after the richest, but they don’t go on about it. They focus their efforts on the middle, and sometimes on the bottom. But the Labour Party’s main schlep, if you will, is helping some of the poorest. And we should do that in the same way the Tories help the richest, without going on about it. It should just be, ‘well obviously we are going to help the homeless and help women in refuge, that’s our thing’. And then we should talk about the people in the middle a bit more.
As for the undefinable aspiration. Aspiration has become totally meaningless. In my speech when I was elected I said ‘we are all better off when we are all better off’ and I didn’t mean we are all better off when the the poorest are better off, I mean all of us. Society works much better when everybody can get on, when everyone can get a pay rise in their job. Although, it’s not even about money, it’s about value. You can do a job and not get a pay rise for a bit but get a more responsibility and you feel a million dollars. It has to be about making sure that we don’t just talk about wealth creators and the most poor, but we recognise the vast majority in the middle have some hope beyond existence. That is what aspiration is to me. And we all have it. I want to do better, I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t have aspiration for me and for my children. I have aspiration for everybody’s children. But the truth of the matter is I wanted a better job like everybody does. Yet, we do have to remain the party who sticks up for the poorest, just as a default. And the default position of the Tories is that they will look after the wealthiest, and that’s OK. That’s their schlep and that’s our schlep. But I think there is a danger that we went on too much about things people already knew we were good at. People knew we were going to look after the NHS, we already had their trust so we didn’t need to go on about it.
Do you think that people want aspirational policies from Labour?
I don’t know if they do now because we are telling them that they do. It’s difficult so it gets lost in a loop. We are telling them they want aspiration and people are saying are we really aspirational? But it is a basic fundamental want, everybody just wants to be a better off. It’s not about being rich, it’s about being a bit more OK, having a bit more holiday, having a job that’s a bit more flexible, having a life that is a bit more on your terms not on your paymaster’s terms. It can be money but it is also happiness. I don’t think people talk about happiness and people’s lives enough. Everybody talks about the bottom line, but I used to work for an organisation with around 80 staff and if I had gone to my workforce with a choice and said you can have a 1% pay rise or you can have three days extra holiday, I can almost guarantee you 90% would have taken the holiday. Because peoples lives is what actually matters. Very few people are solely motivated by money.
You have to have something to offer people. And if what you are offering is on the margins then you are going to lose a lot of people. You need to have these conversations without making people seem selfish. I grew up in the city, in a very diverse place with lots of social groups mixing together. It is very difficult for me to try and be the voice of ‘middle England’ and I wouldn’t hazard to try. But I think probably they just want to afford a slightly bigger house that has a drive - and you know what, that’s OK. When I was younger I used to be a snooty about wanting to live in a really middle class urban area but now I just want to be able to park my car outside my house. I never thought I would say those words, but I think those sorts of small aspirations people want shouldn’t be undermined by the Labour Party. We should recognise it and try to appeal to it. Some of the things we said around childcare, which the Tories to be fair to them have bettered, were talking to those people. I don’t honestly think the party’s policies were all that bad, I think it was that we weren’t trusted on the economy.
What do you want out of being an MP?
Domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking are the areas where I am a genuine expert on. Not just on the facts and figures, I was on the front line, I know what commissioning services looks like, I know when it is done right and done badly. I know when policies backfire badly on people, when people hadn’t realised that was going to happen, because I have seen it over and over again. So I think I will offer a level of detail that can be missing around those subject areas. Also, along with other Birmingham MPs, we have a lot to offer not just the government but the Labour Party on how to better engage with people and how to better make politics work for people. If I could do one thing whilst I was here it would be to get people’s trust back in politics.
It’s all too easy to say you’re all the same but for people who have nothing and have no voice of their own it’s actually the only thing they have got. It’s alright for people who can speak up for themselves but for lots of people I will be the only opportunity they have for a voice. I just want people to not to hate politicians, I mean some of them are assholes, they can hate them, but we’re not all the same. I’m not better, I’m not worse, but I’m not the same.
How are you going to get people’s trust back? Do you have a game plan?
Some of it will be about my constituency. Which obviously is narrow but is all we can do. But also I am going to try and be very transparent. It’s about showing people what these things take. Take for example if I want to set up a new community centre in Yardley, I want people to realise it doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen overnight when they shut down. It’s a huge long process. I want to show that real side of public policy, mainly by involving them. So people don’t think ‘well you don’t care about us’. I want to show the work that goes in. As that’s the only way that people are not going to think we are highly paid people who just drink coffee all day long