Jess Phillips Is Not the Answer to What’s Wrong in British Politics

Britain's right-wing press has been routinely vicious to so many in the Labour Party in recent years. But they've always had a soft spot for MP Jess Phillips. Perhaps that's because they know her PR-driven politics poses them no threat.

Labour MP Jess Phillips for Birmingham Yardley stands on the street as pro-Remain supporters gather in Westminster on September 4, 2019 in London, England. (Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images)

The notion of “speaking truth to power” is odd when you think about it. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “power” already knows the truth; what matters is whether you can bring it to the attention of the wider public. But the expression has a righteous ring to it, and it crops up a fair bit in activist literature, where it is used loosely to mean something like, “standing up for what’s right.”

Jess Phillips, the Labour member of parliament for Birmingham Yardley and leadership contender, is certainly very fond of the phrase: it appears no fewer than thirty-nine times in the 220 pages of her recent book — forty if you count the cover. Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on B.S. may strike you as a cringeworthy title — that tweely abbreviated profanity sitting a little uncomfortably alongside the pious earnestness of “truth to power” — but its awkward tonality is, in truth, a perfect summary of the book’s contents, which form the basis of her leadership campaign.

Truth to Power is ostensibly a beginner’s guide to workplace and community activism. It features interviews with whistleblowers and activists including Zelda Perkins, a former Miramax employee who called out Harvey Weinstein, and Cara Sanquest, a member of the Together for Yes campaign which helped reform Ireland’s draconian abortion laws.

Some of Phillips’s advice is sound and commonsensical: when framing a campaign pitch, try and make your narrative relatable in order to elicit an empathetic response; if you have a team of people at your disposal, conduct a skills audit to ensure you get the most out of each member; reach out to influential people if you can; and so on.

Some of it, however, is so woolly and equivocal as to be practically meaningless: of online petitions, Phillips writes that “Without question they should be used . . . but it takes more than just a petition to change things”; for whistleblowers worried about being discredited by their superiors, she writes, “my best advice is to try to guess what tactic they will use, so you can spot it when they do.” Clichés and platitudes abound: we are reminded that “The world is a changing place — these are important times”; progress is “a long and winding road” in “this crazy, messed-up world.”

Phillips has remarkable faith in the power of public relations and internal company processes to resolve industrial disputes. “Now,” she writes, “if I worked at Uber and I had a problem with the way staff and drivers were being treated . . . the first thing I would do in making a complaint . . . would be to use the company’s own words and point out where it isn’t living up to its own self-imposed standards and values.”

Where to begin with this? Everybody knows that, when it comes to gig economy work, such channels of communication that exist between workers and bosses are mainly cosmetic — anyone kicking up a fuss will likely be booted out without much ceremony. When Uber drivers recently won legal recognition of their employee status, it wasn’t because they had finally mastered the art of persuasion and convinced their employers that their ill-treatment ran contrary to the company’s mission statement; it was because they took them on, and won, in a court of law.

This dubious sentiment is echoed in a later passage about workplace harassment, in which Phillips advises that “asking for help is okay; the worst someone can say is no.” This is incorrect: saying no is not the worst thing your superior can do. Anyone who has ever endured a difficult situation at work, and held their tongue for strategically sensible reasons, would have good reason to feel patronized by these suggestions. “In your life,” she writes, “you have more opportunity to use the systems in place to change stuff than you think.” It is true that many people are not fully up to speed on their rights under company grievance procedures, but this seems rather a tenuous basis for a politics of dissidence.

The vulnerability of precarious workers can only be meaningfully redressed by the institution of legal protections, which requires political power. Phillips has conspicuously little to say on this subject. Indeed, aside from a couple of passages of enthusiastic praise for Tom Watson, there is scarcely a single mention of any Labour Party colleagues in these pages. The resistance being celebrated in this book is of a very particular kind: individuated, rather than collective; PR-based rather than party-political.

In fairness, Truth to Power isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive political tract: it’s one of those hardbacks you find on the counter at Waterstones, alongside novelty books of Donald Trump quotes. But its author is now running to be leader of the Labour Party, so we can be forgiven for taking an interest in its contents. Amid the ongoing postmortem into Labour’s disastrous showing in the general election, Phillips is being talked up as one of a handful of people who could help the party reconnect with its traditional voters. On what evidence? While there is no doubting her energy and dedication as a constituency MP, very little is known about what her political vision is, or if she even has one.

Her eligibility would appear to rest entirely on certain personal characteristics: she doesn’t reside in Islington, and she has a West Midlands accent which fits some London journalists’ idea of working-class authenticity. It is sadly not surprising to see that many of the same commentators who accused Jeremy Corbyn of having fostered a cult of personality are today cheerleading for Phillips on the sole grounds that she seems a good sort.

Her admirers in the media say she has charisma. But what is being talked about as charisma is, in truth, little more than a tedious everywoman shtick, the kind of thing we would have no trouble calling out if it were being perpetrated by a Tory. In Truth to Power, the dichotomy between good and evil is represented in the language of paranoiac populism: Phillips rails against the “dark forces” of “the powers that be,” with their “fancy words” and “fancy buildings”; she does so on behalf of “you, the regular people in the world” in a studiedly disarming idiom that combines earthy dropped consonants (“I might be stating the bleedin’ obvious here”) with as-seen-on-TV Americanisms (“a weak-ass attempt”).

At one point, she criticizes the report of a parliamentary committee for being insufficiently colloquial in its language. Anyone who has seen Phillips in action in parliament will know she rarely misses an opportunity to remind us that she does not have the same educational background as certain other MPs; the way she goes on about it, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was the first and only elected politician not to have been educated at Eton.

When a person performs their humility with such relentless and contrived intensity, it ceases to look like humility and starts to resemble something altogether different — a kind of wheedling passive aggression, soaked in the kind of self-regard that would prompt someone to unabashedly declare, as she does in this book, that “my voice has remained clear, authentic, and believable.”

In one particularly embarrassing passage, Phillips relates verbatim a not very interesting Twitter exchange she once had with the former Labour MP George Galloway: when the spat was over, she achieved a moral victory by incorporating some unkind remarks he had made about her into her own Twitter bio. The self-satisfaction of this anecdote calls to mind Alan Partridge’s complacent refrain: “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”

Elsewhere she makes frequent — and inadvertently revealing — references to superheroes: “you can do it, you don’t need to be a superhero”; social media is “like a superpower: you really have to use it with great care and thought.” The really striking thing about these passages is what they say about Phillips’s regard for her readers and supporters: this is not how you would speak to someone you consider your equal, it’s how you would talk to a child.

And there’s the nub. As with Phillips’s erstwhile Conservative counterpart, Rory Stewart, who is credited by some in the media with having refreshed political discourse by recording vox pops and posting them on social media, it’s hard to shake the sense that her political instincts are more demagogic than democratic. British politics has a long and proud tradition of eccentrics whose self-styled USP is that they are simply too decent, too honest, too damned salt of the earth for the regular parliamentary fray. Back in the 1990s, the archetype of this species was the journalist-turned-independent politician Martin Bell, who went about in a white suit to emphasize how pure he was. He was insufferably pompous, as such people always are.

Rory Stewart has had a lot of airtime, but none of us is any the wiser as to what he stands for politically. The same can be said for Jess Phillips. Whether they are nominally Labour or Tory, such politicians have one thing in common: their contempt for “normal” politics invariably leads them to objectively reactionary positions, because they are more interested in their own opinions than in the dull grind of material questions.

In the most startling passage in her book, Phillips condescendingly praises the Grenfell United action group for not having fixated unnecessarily — as she sees it — on the causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster, and just getting on with helping former residents instead. She compares this favorably against the “long obsession in the media and in parliament with the types of fire-resistant cladding on buildings.” Heaven forbid. No wonder the right-wing press, which has been routinely vicious to so many of her Labour colleagues over the past couple of years, has such a soft spot for Phillips: they know she poses no threat.

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Houman Barekat is a book critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He has reviewed for a number of publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the Irish Times, the Spectator, Prospect, Literary Review, the Tablet, the New Internationalist and Frieze.

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