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In conversation with Labour MP Jess Phillips

Posted on 21 April 2022

Earlier this month, Managing Associate Katy Colton sat down with Birmingham Yardley Labour MP Jess Philips to discuss her career and experiences in politics, which she details in her new book "Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP.

Jess spoke about the systems and rules that govern us and her perspective on the current state of British politics. Jess discussed her journey to becoming an MP and how she's navigated everything from changing a law to wrangling fellow MPs.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. 
Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy session.  I am Katy Colton, I am the Head of the Politics and Law Group here at Mishcon de Reya and I’ll be hosting today’s event.  I am absolutely delighted to welcome our guest for today, Jess Phillips MP.  Jess was elected as the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015.  Before becoming an MP she worked with victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking and she continues to speak up on behalf of those who struggle to have their voices heard.  Reflecting this experience in 2020, Jess was appointed the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding in the opposition front bench.  Jess joins us today to discuss her book which I have got a copy of here; ‘Everything you really need to know about Politics – My life as an MP’.  The book is part autobiography and part rousing manifesto I would say, seeking to lift the lift on the inner workings of Parliament and to encourage the reader that politics really is for everyone.  It is very funny and I think it also gives a real insight – you’re laughing – also gives a real insight into the role of an MP, not just as a legislator and political activist but also the role of an MP as a constituency social worker which I think often doesn’t get enough attention.  In the book Jess also says that she wildly agrees to almost anything she is asked to do and we are certainly grateful for that today.

Jess Phillips

It’s an error in judgment right there.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

So Jess, I wanted to start, obviously we’ve got a lot of things to talk about today but I wanted to start by discussing the central theme of the book which is encouraging greater engagement in politics.  Why did you feel that now this case needs to be made?

Jess Phillips

I think that actually more so than ever, I mean on a positive note, more so than ever people seem engaged in politics and were certainly aware of it a lot more in the last sort of five years than maybe they were for some of the preceding years and so there is a genuine interest and certainly amongst young people, there seems to be a peeking interest in cause-based politics.  However, I still, I think that even though there is an interest there is still, that goes along with some of that rising enthusiasm for talking about politics, there is still this very cynical idea that the actual action of politics is in an ivory tower in Westminster, that you can’t really change things, that everybody who is there is some sort of murky, sinister sort of actor who doesn’t have anyone’s best interests at heart but the thing that I come across the most is ‘oh what’s the point because nothing every changes’.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Yep.

Jess Phillips

The idea that nothing ever changes has been put out there just like any other sort of bad faith line by establishments, it is done on purpose, it’s not accidental, apathy doesn’t happen accidentally, it is genuinely the idea that you can’t change things and you should just sort of be a number and just carry on and ‘oh it’s nothing to do with me’, it benefits one group of people and those are the people who already hold all the power if you opt out.  Actually if just like an elite group of people are interested in this, an elite group of people behave like it only belongs to them, then the same dreadful outcomes will continue to happen and so I wanted to turn some of that sort of like anger and enthusiasm into actual active change rather than just people being even crosser and thinking that we are even more sinister.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

You were brought up on politics…

Jess Phillips

Yep.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

…it’s what you talked about every day, you have that education so you know about the issues and you have a strong view on, on what we can do and how we can get involved and the community behind politics.

Jess Phillips

Yep.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

But how do you engage people who don’t have that education, who feel like nothing can change and who are so disaffected that they wouldn’t pick up your book?

Jess Phillips

Yeah, I mean that is… I mean the fundamental is, is that not without effort and hard work. Nothing happens without effort and hard work.  I often say that you know, like on the West Wing on Scandal you don’t see anybody stuffing envelopes or knocking doors but that is the vast reality of most political campaigns and this is a real problem in election cycles because people promise, over promise and seek to take people’s power and act as if you need me to help you with this.  I never ever, ever seek to say ‘I am going to solve your problems, don’t you worry, you leave it with me and we are going to sort this out’.  I engender people to do something with me and so recently in my constituency there is a young woman, she was sexually assaulted in one of the underpasses, it is largely disused, it is just horrible and hardly anyone uses it.  She came in, she said to me ‘this happened to me like it, I just want the underpass closed.  Can you do something about it?’ and so yeah most you know, most members of Parliament say ‘okay I’ll write off to the Council and I’ll say this has happened and we’ll see what they say’ which will be ‘sadly we haven’t got enough money to close this underpass, it’s going to be on the next programme blah blah blah’.  But I said to her ‘well would you be interested in coming and doing a survey of the people who live on either side of this busy road, the A45 like and ask them if they mind if it’s… because I can’t just unilaterally say in an area one thing has happened to one person therefore it needs to be closed, that’s not how politics works’.  So she was like, she was a 19 year old girl, she’d never voted, we went out and surveyed people, we made videos, we held lobby… and she did it, not me, it’s her and she said to me ‘I can’t believe someone like me could do this’ and they shut the underpass.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Wow

Jess Phillips

So like you know, that… but it doesn’t, I can make amazing speeches and I can inspire people and I can speak like a normal human being so ordinary people feel inspired but that’s not enough, it takes effort and work like anything takes effort and work to engage people in actually changing things but once you’ve got them, you’ll have them for life.  She will never stop politically campaigning and now when something bad happens she will be like, right what can I do to change it.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

You are not going to be able to stop her.

Jess Phillips

And that’s what I was raised with, I was raised with ‘right don’t like it, do something about it’.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

In your chapter on what does an MP do all day, you account in great detail your average week if you do have an average week and I’ve got to be honest, by the time we had got to Wednesday I was absolutely exhausted.

Jess Phillips

Yeah it is tiring.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Between Monday to Wednesday you had worked about a 40 hour week…

Jess Phillips

Easily yeah.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

…away from your family home and votes on a Monday go past 10.00pm…

Jess Phillips

Yeah, yeah,  yeah.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

…and then you have your, the rest of your week in your constituency and then this is on top of the fact that you calculate that for you even to stand as an candidate in 2015, it cost your family £40,000 in lost wages, money which your family didn’t have and I suppose that leads me to three questions which are linked.  Is Parliament a welcoming environment for women with small children and those who can’t afford expensive childcare, does this matter and if it does, what needs to change?

Jess Phillips

I mean of course it does matter, it definitely does matter.  Is it welcoming?  More so than it’s ever been to give it some credit there is childcare available but it’s still, it’s not, it’s not perfect, it’s not ideal and the worse thing about it is actually it’s got a geographical basis so can you be a mother of young children pretty much anywhere in this country and still be elected?  Yes but it’s not going to likely be as easy for you as it would be for a man.  Can you be a single mum and be elected to Parliament if your children are little and you don’t live in London or basically London or Birmingham essentially or Manchester, like somewhere where it’s a two hour train journey.  The answer is no.  I had to tell a women from Cornwall, she was like ‘I could do it, I could do it, couldn’t I?’ and I don’t want to be disappointing to people but I just had to say ‘well you’d have to move your kids to London and they’d have to travel with you and so you could only really go back on the weekends then rather than a Friday because your kids would be in school in London and then you’d… so then you’d have to all of your constituency work Saturday, Sunday so you are never getting a break at all’ whereas I do mine Thursday, Friday, Saturday and I get a day off on Sunday.  I just had to say ‘I am sorry it’s just not, you are not going to be able to represent a seat in Cornwall and do what I do which is get home late on a Wednesday night’.  It’s just, it’s not viable.  So what needs to be done about it?  I mean that, that issue that I’ve just said I have no idea what the solution to that be, better transport links across the country that go that way?

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Well that, that kind of change happens very quickly.

Jess Phillips

Yeah that’s I mean, it’s like HST when it finally, when I finally get on that train people are like, ‘well you only want it because you can get to work quicker’, as if I am still going to be elected to actually get on that train.  But yeah, so there is, there is both an education piece with the public about, look if you want it to be open and varied then that is potentially going to have costs associated with it.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Yep.  On the topic of women in politics it is hard to avoid the question of the fact that the Labour Party has never had a female…

Jess Phillips

It hasn’t.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

…leader, even the DUP and even UKIP briefly…

Jess Phillips

I know.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

…has had a few.

Jess Phillips

I mean for like 25 minutes wasn’t it that everybody got to be the leader of UKIP, like the Sugar Babes.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Yes.  But does the Labour Party have a problem with women?

Jess Phillips

Every single political  party has a varied and different problem with women and the Labour Party no less but yeah, look it has… it’s shameful that the Labour Party has never been led by a woman without question and the reason that I… the only reason I can come to is that being a Labour woman is a considerably more radical thing, it’s considerably more anti-establishment in its broadest sense because you… most of us to be a Labour woman is to be a feminist activist and it is to completely and utterly think that the systems that currently rule over almost every one of our institutions essentially needs dismantling but one of those institutions is the Labour Party.  So you know, they are an institution, an old fashioned institution just like every other institution and so it’s quite a bit, it would be you know, a Labour woman Prime Minister would be a radical thing.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

So moving on to a slightly different topic of the Rule of Law, we’ve seen in…

Jess Phillips

It doesn’t exist anymore.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

…well that is going to be the question?  You’ve seen the internal market spill which broke international law in a specific and limited way, risking the attempt to re-write Standards, Policies after the Owen Paterson scandal, Party Gate obviously.

Jess Phillips

Obviously.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

It was a big one and we are very energised about the attempts to water down Judicial Review process.

Jess Phillips

That’s a first day back isn’t it, or the second day back after the recess is the… but if you have got enough people in the Lords they are on a tight timescale because Parliaments going… the Parliament finishes so the Bill will fall if it doesn’t get through.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Yes, well they have already watered down quite a lot of amendments so…

Jess Phillips

Yeah, yeah.  The Lords really have all the power at the moment.  I mean not that I agree with it obviously.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

But moving on, we’ve seen lots of those examples.  Do you believe that this current Government believes in the Rule of Law?

Jess Phillips

No.  There is no… they give me no evidence that they believe in the Rule of Law and going back to Margaret Thatcher like you know, I didn’t like the woman.  It’s like…

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

That’s a surprise.

Jess Phillips

…George W Bush was like totally rehabilitated by Trump.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Trump.

Jess Phillips

We are all like… and then they made all those documentaries and I think ‘well he had a point didn’t he’.  Like what was I thinking like he seems quite a sensible man.  Margaret Thatcher has been totally rehabilitated by Boris Johnson like you would give your right arm at the moment, she, she… I, she respected the Rule of Law.  If we don’t have that, if we don’t have a basic principle and there are no consequences for breaking a basic principle then you are a hop, step and a jump away from very, very dangerous regime in my view that the people owning things is my whole shtick.  I want people to feel like they own things and actually the law, beyond criminal law which I do think that the general public do feel you know, that’s why Party Gate has been interesting because they feel affronted by one rule for you, one rule for another.  They definitely feel affronted by that but the sort of lack of understanding of what the law does and the importance of holding boundaries is not something that is taught particularly well in school.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

No and I think you see the lack of education particularly, we’ve seen it in relation to Human Rights Act and that being used to say well we can’t deport criminals and taking out, stripping out the entire facts of these cases.

Jess Phillips

Oh a hundred percent, I see it all the time.  I mean the famous case is the Cat case that Theresa May highlight where she said somebody had got to stay because they had a cat, I mean which… there’s no bit of the law, it’s like bendy banana’s, there was nothing that said that banana’s couldn’t bend.  There is no, there is nothing that would have allowed that man to stay because of his cat.  However, so, so it’s just not true, so that is one thing but yeah, people will totally misrepresent the law all the time and it’s very, very pernicious because in politics it’s very easy, divide and conquer, is the quickest route to power without question and so to make somebody hate somebody from over here without understanding the details of their lives or their case or what is going on, I have to spend my entire life trying to the exact opposite so you knock on someone’s door and they’ll say ‘well I go to work every day but her next door she’s got a couple of kids and she has just bought a new Range Rover and she doesn’t even go to work.  If only I could afford a new Range Rover’ and I just think you know nothing about the woman who lives next door, you’ve made a series of assumptions based on your own life experience, you’ve presented, you’ve prosecuted a case against this woman because somebody else has made you feel like the reason that you are not getting the things you want is because she’s getting them rather than looking to the power in our country of how things get done and given out, it’s so easy in politics to make people hate somebody else and the talk about the Human Rights Act is absolutely 101, that game being played, it is just simply you know, divide, conquer, make out like somebody is getting something you’d never be entitled to like you know, when every migrant arrives on a boat they get given like a DVD player and you know, like all of that rubbish is just entirely to do that.

Katy Colton
Mishcon de Reya

Thank you so much, it’s been really interesting and entertaining and I would highly recommend the book, we have got copies outside but thank you so much for coming in today.

Jess Phillips

No worries, my pleasure, thank’s for having me.

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


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