Jess Phillips: 'I won't be silenced... I've got too much of a big gob'
The newly-elected MP for Birmingham Yardley on standing up to the Tories, being badly behaved at school and why she would be ‘utterly rubbish’ on the front bench.
She may have only been an MP for a few weeks, but Jess Phillips is already making a name for herself as one of the Labour party’s more interesting backbenchers.
A proud Brummy and a committed feminist, Phillips used a recent speech in the Commons to enquire as to whether the deputy speaker had read Catlin Moran’s book ‘How to be a Woman’.
On the same day, she slow hand clapped Theresa May as the home secretary headed into the lobby to vote against a motion aimed at closing the gender pay gap. And she became embroiled in a shouting match with the education secretary across the chamber after Labour lost the vote.
“Nicky Morgan sat and laughed at equal pay,” claims Phillips. “She stared across and gloated because she knew I was upset. That is never going to work well with me.”
While some new MPs might be intimidated by the rituals of the House of Commons and the grandeur of the Palace of Westminster, it’s fair to say that new member for Birmingham Yardley is not one of them.
“I won’t be silenced. Never ever. If I think somebody’s wrong, I’ll tell them,” she asserts. “Getting what I want will sometimes mean being nice to the Tories. But when I feel they are just wrong I will tell them. When I think they are cruel.”
So how does she feel about George Osborne’s welfare reforms which have caused so much soul-searching in Labour’s ranks over the past few days?
While some Labour MPs have bitten their tongues over Tory plans to limit child tax credits to the first two children, Phillips speaks her mind as we sit down at one of the tables behind Portcullis House on a hot summer day.
“I have a real genuine concern about the potential assault on peoples’ reproductive rights. And as a feminist and a woman who had two children accidentally, I have some concerns about how they still think that peoples’ motivation to have a baby is to get benefits.
“It’s lunacy. They’re trying to take away what they perceive to be the motivations for poor people to have children, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of why anybody does anything."
Phillips becomes increasingly animated as she gets into her stride.
“You don’t just have children because you can afford to. It’s just ridiculous. It’s like they’ve never met a person!”
Phillips, 33, has campaigned for the Labour party all her life and describes her parents as “completely and utterly dyed in the wool socialists”.
She attended a non-fee paying grammar school in Birmingham where she was “not particularly well-behaved,” although she suggests her behaviour would have raised far less eyebrows at the local state school.
"I think they would probably have considered me to be a really naughty girl. At my other local school I probably would have been par for the cause. I think they thought I was naughty.”
Asked if she took drugs, she hoots with laughter. “I’m a kid from inner city Birmingham, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.”
As politicians face increasing pressure to sound like a so-called normal person, Phillips is more forthcoming on her credentials in this area.
In her strong Brummy accent, she declares: “I’m a normal human being, I’m a mum, I’ve got two kids, I live in a normal house in Birmingham, I ran a charity before I was elected to parliament. I’m not somebody from the Westminster bubble.”
Phillips spent some years heading up a sexual and domestic violence charity before defeating Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming on May 7. While some wannabe parliamentarians spend years attempting to find a seat to stand in, she was only motivated to take the plunge after David Cameron entered Downing Street in 2010.
“I’d become, like lots of people, pretty laissez faire about politics in the Blair years and the Brown years because it was pretty plain sailing for most of it, wasn’t it? And the need for radicalism and fighting and shouting had died away with 1980s politics,” she says.
“But when the Tories got in I felt the need to fight and I was working with the poorest people in society, the most vulnerable, the most voiceless, and I thought if you’ve got a chance to get on the other side of the table and bang your firsts you should take it.”
So how has she found Tory MPs in the flesh? She says most MPs across the House are “absolutely lovely” although some are “not my cup of tea”.
Focusing on her Conservative colleagues, she adds: “When you talk to them on a one-to-one level, they’re human beings as well and some of them have the same pressures that I have, having kids and not seeing them and that sort of thing.
“So I can relate to them on a human level. But I fundamentally have a problem with their ideology - so we try and avoid it when we’re just stood next to each other at the bar.”
Perhaps unusually for an MP, Phillips has a number of tattoos. The henna tattoos are stars on her feet and flowers on her back, she reveals. However, she takes issue with suggestion that this is unusual for an MP. It is actually “quite common these days", she ventures.
What might be more unusual is her willingness to clearly answer the question of where she stands in the Labour party. While most politicians refuse to place themselves on the traditional left-right axis, Phillip shows no such reluctance.
“I would say I’m left of the party, I was brought up left of the party no doubt about it," she says.
“My parents are socialists as am I a socialist. However I am also a pragmatist. So I fight the war I have, not the war I want. So yes I might want everything to be state run and everything to go back to how it was, but that’s not the world I live in.”
Phillips is backing Yvette Cooper for the Labour leadership but claims not to be spending too much time observing every twist and turn of the race.
She accepts it is “probably true” that many people have struggled to get excited about the contest, but adds that she’s “not sure anyone ever gets excited about political party leaderships”.
I suggest that supporters of Tony Blair may have got quite excited about his leadership campaign in the 1990s. Phillips is unenthused by the idea.
“Did they? Well I was 16 when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party, so I was probably kissing boys. I don’t remember.”
Looking ahead to 2020, she insists Labour can win the election but says it won’t be easy – especially after some of the crowd-pleasing policies unveiled in the Budget.
“Whether I agree with it or not I think the Budget will probably resonate with people outside. So yes I think the Labour party can win, but we need a really clear strong message.”
What should the message be? Phillips modestly laughs off the idea that she might have the answer: “I’ve been here six weeks, so I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m Alastair Campbell."
One thing she is certain about is that Labour should not bow to Ukip. She asserts: “I’m about solidarity and they are about hate. I have no time for anyone who seeks to divide us.”
But does she accept that Labour needs to win back those people who voted for Ukip in the general election?
“Of course we do, but you could do that with hope, not hate. I think that I could sit in a working mans’ club in Rotherham with a load of people who classically voted Labour and get them back without slagging off migrants. I think I could easily do that.”
Phillips won her Birmingham Yardley seat with a majority of 6,595, but she could face a much closer fight next time around if the Lib Dems get their act together under Tim Farron.
So it is understandable that her main priority for the next five years is winning the trust of the voters in Birmingham Yardley. Especially given the general low standing of politicians these days.
“People really hate politicians. I saw a thing today saying only 1% of people would agree to let their child marry a politician,” she says.
She adds with a smile: “I sent it to my mother in law. I was like: 'I know there's a lot of babysitting involved, but really it’s not that bad'.”
Focusing on the Commons, Phillips states her priority areas to focus on as “gender quality, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and childhood sexual abuse, and human trafficking.”
But how ambitious is she in the long term? Phillips quickly shoots down the idea of ministerial office, saying she would be entirely unsuited to it.
“You’ve met me. Do you think I’d ever go anywhere? I’ve got far too much of a big gob, I say what I think. So I’m ambitious to keep my seat. I’m happy to be a backbencher.”
She adds: “I think that’s probably part of the problem with politics and the reason people hate it, is people like me don’t end up on the front benches.
“This is my personality. I wish that I could be more subtle, I wish I could be more guarded. But I’m not. If I didn’t agree with them I would say it. I would just be utterly rubbish at delivering a line.”
But that’s not to say that she gets frustrated by her Labour colleagues bleating out soundbites.
“No I don’t get annoyed. It’s not for me to judge the way that other people behave and I would hope they would give me the same treatment back.”
As the Commons breaks for parliamentary recess, Phillips is looking forward to having her own place in London.
Last month, she was preparing to bed down with her husband and children in her second-hand VW camper van because hotels in the capital were so expensive. She set about cramming sheets in to the van but then changed her plans at the last minute when friends with a two-bed flat in South London said the family could crash in the living room for a few days.
As we speak, she is temporarily sharing a house with fellow new MPs Angela Raynor and Rebecca Long Bailey, both of whom turn up at the end of our interview to meet up with their housemate and poke fun at her while she endures the photoshoot.
“It’s a bit irritating living out of a bag, but it’s not one of the greatest perils in life. I’m not homeless,” says Phillips before they have arrived on the scene.
All things being well, when Phillips returns to Westminster after the summer break, she will have the keys to her own flat in London and sofa surfing will be a not-so-distant memory.
But while her living arrangements will have been transformed, the Labour MP insists that her attitude to taking on the Conservatives will not be changing. Even if she has had a good night’s sleep.
“I have no reason to think that all of the Tory front bench are hideous, horrible monsters. I’ve got no reason to believe that, on a personal level. They are probably utterly charming people. But they don’t know what I know,” she says.
“If half the people in this place had seen the things I had seen they wouldn’t think it was funny to laugh at people in poverty. I can’t bear when they think it’s funny and they laugh smugly. Because I’m alright Jack, I’ve got a comfortable lifestyle, but I have seen people who have been totally destroyed, literally murdered because they are seen as lesser citizens.
“And it makes me cross when people who seem to think they were born to rule don’t recognise that. So I’ll keep speaking up.”
Pictures by Photoshot.