On 2 September 1939, as Neville Chamberlain sat down after trying to explain away his latest bout of sucking up to Hitler and the deputy leader of the Labour party, Arthur Greenwood (standing in for his absent boss Clement Attlee), rose to reply, the infuriated Tory MP Leo Amery shouted: ‘Speak for England, Arthur!’ It’s telling that it took the threat of imminent fascism to make a member of Parliament a) speak plainly, and b) offer support to a member across the floor. To this day, such incidents are rare, to say the least. Instead, Parliament is plagued by a ceaseless cacophony of casual cat-calling, rising to a pitch of parasexual excitement when one side smells blood.
Public dislike of politicians has surely been reinforced by what we’ve seen since Parliament began to be televised. When Bagehot said, ‘We must not let daylight in upon the magic’ he was of course talking about monarchy, but allowing the public to peep into where the magic of democracy happens has been far more of a disaster for politicians than it has been for the Windsors, whose way with smoke and mirrors is so arcane that the public will let them get away with any old rubbish. But we elect politicians after listening to their various promises and thus feel more bitterly disappointed by them; all that ceaseless yahooing at PMQs seems to have about as much to do with the everyday hopes and fears of the people who elected them as any given Christmas pantomime. The demonisation of each party by the others makes the House of Commons appear as mature and respect-worthy as a school playground where ignorant armies clash over who gets next go on the see-saw. The idea of the straight-talking politician has become as risible as the chaste journalist or the humble architect.
Which is why I am so pleased to be meeting Jess Phillips, the sparkling new MP for Birmingham Yardley, who had her own Speak For England moment when she showed Diane Abbott the sharp side of her tongue shortly after the election of Keith from Nuts in May as leader of Her Majesty’s opposition in September. Sadly, the words were spoken at a private meeting of the PLP at the Commons rather than in the chamber where we could all enjoy them (she’s only 34; give her time), but they were righteously inspired (by dismay at the lack of proper jobs given by the new Labour leadership to any woman except Abbott, Corbyn’s ex-squeeze) and properly provoked (by Abbott calling Phillips ‘sanctimonious’ — pot, kettle, black-mothers-put-their-children-first — before adding: ‘You’re not the only feminist in the PLP.’)
Enthusiastically adding detail to the exchange, Phillips told the Huffington Post: ‘I roundly told her to fuck off.’ Asked what Ms Abbott did in response, Phillips said gleefully: ‘She fucked off,’ adding: ‘People said to me they had always wanted to say that to her, and I don’t know why they don’t, as the opportunity presents itself every other minute.’ She finished by explaining that she decided to speak out at the PLP meeting on that Monday because she felt ‘alienated from the party’ at the Labour leadership conference on the Saturday, when not a single woman stood up and spoke from the stage.
Abbott, of all the parliamentary prigs who needed taking down a peg-bag or two, certainly had it coming. For years this preposterous creature has blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career (she once wrote me a note telling me how much she liked my novel Ambition — I should have written back and reminded her it wasn’t a self-help manual) while presenting herself as a humble sister who lives only to pursue social justice for all. With her vast pompousness (that oleaginous, am-I-speaking-slowly-enough-for-you-thick-little-plebs-to-under-stand, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger voice, which it seems impossible doesn’t actually leave a viscous deposit in the ear of anyone unlucky enough to hear it), her hypocrisy (sending her son to a private school while criticising colleagues who sent their children to selective grammars), her racism (‘I’m a West Indian mum and West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children… I’m coming from a culture where whatever you can do for your children you do’, ‘White people love playing divide and rule’, ‘Blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girls’ not suitable to be nurses because they have ‘never met a black person before’) and her sense of entitlement (recently revealed as being on the books of agencies which tout ‘celebrity speakers’ for sizeable fees — in Abbott’s case between £1,500 and £5,000 — after earlier this year being part of a PLP campaign to prevent MPs from taking second jobs). Abbott is everything that Phillips isn’t, to which we can add: part of the current Old Nuts’ Network which makes up the rotten core of Corbynism.
I’m early to the restaurant but Jess is earlier. I love punctuality, having discovered over the years that those who always keep one waiting invariably turn out not to be worth waiting for. She is gorgeous, like an overgrown schoolgirl; being with her, one feels, will always have a tantalising tang of bunking off. I’m not surprised when she says later: ‘I was naughty at school — there’s no other word for it. I had three older brothers and my mum whispered in my ear every day, “There’s nothing you can’t do” so I got a bit of a gob on me when I was still a kid.’ She wears bright lipstick but no apparent eye make-up — an unusual look, and one I associate with women of substance such as Queens Elizabeth I and II, Margaret Thatcher and Marilyn Monroe — and big hoop earrings. She’s more like someone you’d see on The X Factor than on the Andrew Marr Show.
Is politics closer to being a religion or a science?
‘A religion — though potentially it should be a science. I didn’t choose to be Labour, myself. My parents gave it to me. My dad’s so left-wing he makes our leader look like a Tory. Though he did tell me I’d never get anywhere with my voice the way it is. But I bloody love it.’
So do I. Listening to her, I’m reminded of how the Israelis always get it right. While a Brummie voice is marked down in Blighty, the Israelis like it so much that a nightclub owner in Tel Aviv put adverts for staff in Birmingham newspapers because his clientele found the dialect so dulcet. Phillips is an excellent public speaker (both passionate and sardonic; an unusual combination) and this is only enhanced by how rarely we hear voices like hers — in more ways than one. I think the Corbynites probably dislike her as much for her dry wit as her independent mind, both of which are obviously abominations to them; in her speech on sanitary product VAT (of which she now smirks: ‘That day… just let’s say it’s a good thing that the House has wipe-clean seats’) she pointed out that ‘Every man sitting in this House is now here because, at some point, his mother had a period.’ Their faces!
I ask her a question sent to me by Catherine Mayer, the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, which I joined shortly after frittering away my vote at the last election on the absurd notion of a Miliband government. (I’m a founder member, but joined at the level just below the one where you get a free Sandi Toksvig book — I may be an idealist, but I’m not an idiot): ‘Does every day feel like International Men’s Day within Labour, or do you believe in Labour’s ability to fix its own gender problem as well as the wider world’s?’
Says Phillips: ‘In the first few days of Corbyn, I definitely felt it was just going to go back to the same old same old — everyone in any sort of job is a man! But now, even after a few months, I believe the Labour party is capable of sorting it out. But it will have to be the women who sort it.’
Do you think there is as much misogyny on the left as on the right? Is it more sexual and vicious, whereas the right is more avuncular? I would characterise it as: ‘Calm down, dear’ vs ‘Die, you bitch’?
‘There’s just as much misogyny on the left as on the right — on the extremes of both, there are strange bunches of people. At the moment, because the left have their messiah as leader, I’m disappointed to see left-wing women settling for stuff they probably wouldn’t have settled for if Blair had tried to do it.’
A lot of Labour people seem to be suffering from false consciousness while, ironically, accusing others of suffering from false consciousness. They feel that people who disagree with them are misinformed about Labour policies rather than being quite well-informed enough, thank you, and rejecting them. Do you think that Labour leaders need to stop lecturing and start listening?
‘Yes. Not just under Corbyn, but under Miliband, Labour behaved quite like a teenager who had just become a vegetarian, or just discovered sex. We’re not better than people. We are people, and until we stop lecturing people about how good you’ve got to be, people will just turn off — and the people we desperately need not to turn off are the people who aren’t tribally Labour. My mum and dad argued a lot over Blair — it was quite a thing in our house. My dad couldn’t stomach him, but my mum kept saying, “We have to win — we need to win. We can take it from there!’’ ’
Why do you think the Tory party has had female and gay leaders while the alleged party of diversity and equality is invariably led by white men?
‘It’s the structural sexism in all the groups that go to make up Labour. But it’s a massive, massive, massive disappointment that we’ve somehow allowed all the other parties to run away with this. It’s like people on the left are champions of equality until they see that some of their power is being taken away from them — whereas the Tories willingly gave it over.’
The waiter brings her the wrong thing and she beams at him as if he’s presented her with a longed-for gift. I’ve sat with a lot of politicians in quite a few restaurants in my time and the old saw about judging people by how they treat waiters has rarely seemed more telling. I still wince three decades on at the mortifying memory of the time a Tory grandee, who I had been sent to have dinner with at Le Caprice in my capacity as a political columnist, insisted that waiters move a happy family (mid-champagne toast!) on to a less well-appointed table as the one they had the nerve to be enjoying themselves on was ‘his’.
‘You were a victims’ advocate,’ I point out. ‘Do you think Labour suffers from being seen as a party with more concern for criminals than their victims?’
‘I was always a typical lefty, everybody-deserves-a-second-chance type — and to some extent I still am. But when I started working in a domestic violence refuge I became very aware of men who had committed a dozen acts of violence against women being let off, basically, and put into perpetrators’ programmes. It does make you want to cut their balls off. Lock them up, then educate them.’
Do you get called a Tory a lot?
‘All day, every day, especially on Twitter. I get a lot of abuse from both sides — from the Corbynites who won’t ever forgive me for voting for Yvette Cooper, and from the men’s rights mob who won’t ever forgive me for laughing at Philip Davies. But it doesn’t bother me a bit. I’ll be on the train, with my work done, and I’ll turn my phone on just to check how the abuse is coming along: ‘Right, I’ve got half an hour — amuse me!’
‘I was raised to hate Tories; in our house Tory was a swear word. But since I got into the Commons I’ve met so many nice ones, who care about their communities, who care about women’s rights. Some of their feminists are very “strident”! she laughs. ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg, for instance, is great — very funny and kind. The first time he opened a car door for me, I just stood there, shocked. He said: “Doesn’t your husband do that?” I said: “It would be a ruddy long school run if he did!”’
Do you ever get mistaken for a non-Honourable Member at the Commons because you’re so young and cute? ‘A bit.’ (I like that she doesn’t say: ‘I’m not young and cute!’ — no false modesty here.) ‘Sometimes visitors to the House will say, “Who do you work for?” I just smile and say, “I work for the people of Birmingham Yardley.’’ ’
This past election, I voted as always for Labour; tribally, like Phillips. It’s all I can do. But the day after, at a pub rally to celebrate the first-time win of Peter Kyle, my excellent local Labour MP, I was also drinking to celebrate the Tories winning, and to drown my sorrows in knowing that if my party went on to elect a leader even less fit for purpose than Miliband, I’d have to abstain next time. I’ve always been fascinated by those poor souls who somehow manage to run themselves over with their own cars — Brian Harvey of East 17 did it — and I always think of that now when I consider the Keystone Kommunism of Comrade Corbyn; a little man soon to go under the wheels of a big vehicle which he cannot hope to properly drive. But a few more like Jess Phillips — a breath of fresh air with a dirty laugh, Mrs Pankhurst meets Tigger in Topshop, cute enough to leave home for and clever enough to make lost voters go home to Labour — and such humiliating hangovers will hopefully be a thing of the past.
‘Who’s that girl?’ the taxi driver asks me after Jess alights. ‘Is she famous? She’s got something about her. Do I know her?’
‘You will soon,’ I swoon as she sashays away to serve it to both sides. ‘That’s Jess Phillips, MP. She’s going to be leader of the Labour party one day!’