The Labour Leadership Contest 2020: Jess Phillips
Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Philips is seen as a repudiation to the Corbynite faction of the Labour Party. With 23 nominations from Labour MPs, mostly from centre-left moderates, Phillips is seen as the answer to calls for the party to move away from the radical, far-left agenda that has come to define the Corbyn-led Labour Party, despite not outwardly belonging to any faction of the party and branding herself a “pragmatist.”
Phillips may struggle in the next stage of the contest, where she needs nominations from 33 constituency Labour parties (CLPs), or three affiliated organisations, including at least two trade unions. Her wing of the party is in the minority among Labour’s membership these days, and her criticism of Corbyn has earned her the ire of his supporters. A recent Yougov poll suggested that she was the first preference for 12% of members, putting her third behind Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey.
In contrast to other contenders in the contest, who have focused largely on their politics, Jess Phillips’ campaign has focused on her own background and force of personality with key promises on childcare and social care and a focus on the climate crisis. While her critics doubt her ability to deliver, given her lack of experience on the front benches, her supporters point to her strong performance on the backbenches which have garnered millions of views online and her ability to tap into the zeitgeist and relate to ordinary voters.
Born in Birmingham, Jess Philips is the youngest of four children, the daughter of an English teacher and an NHS executive. She was raised in a politically active household and recalls marching with her parents against the Iraq War, remarking that growing up with her father “was like growing up with Jeremy Corbyn.”
Philips was educated at a local grammar school and then the University of Leeds, before taking on a role as at her parents’ company, Health Links, specialising in events in the health and social care sector. She went on to become a business development manager for Sandwell Women’s Aid, where she provided support to victims of domestic and sexual abuse and trafficking. She credits Women’s Aid for giving her a pragmatic view of politics: “I learned that my principles don’t matter as much as [people's] lives,” she said in an interview. She later studied for a postgraduate diploma in Public Sector Management at the University of Birmingham and has also worked for Jack Dromey MP.
In 2012, she was elected as a Birmingham city councillor and was selected to be the Victims’ Champion for Birmingham that same year. She was also a member of the West Midlands Police and Crime Panel. Phillips was elected to Parliament in the 2015 general election, winning Birmingham Yardley from incumbent Lib Dem John Hemming. She used her maiden speech in Parliament to affirm her commitment to victims of domestic and sexual violence and spoke of her experience working at Women’s Aid.
Phillips nominated Yvette Cooper in the 2015 leadership contest and Tom Watson for deputy leader. In 2016, she was elected to the chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, defeating Corbyn ally Dawn Butler. Despite never having served on the front bench, Phillips has gained widespread attention for her campaigning on violence against women, equality issues and the effects of austerity under Conservative governments.
Following Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat last month, Phillips has argued that the party needed structural change. She launched her leadership campaign in Grimsby, a seat the Labour party lost to the Conservatives. In her speech, Phillips urged the party to recognise that politics had changed in a “fundamental way” and wanted the party to elect “a different kind of leader,” warning that Labour would be in “big trouble” if it did not win back votes from working-class people. Her leadership campaign has so far focused on her working-class background and her personality: “In elections all around the world we see that it isn’t enough to offer big promises,” she said, “You need a big personality. You need leadership people can believe in.”
Her headline policies include a Scandinavian-style universal childcare service, and a commitment to tackling the climate change crisis. Phillips is an ardent Remain supporter in a leave-voting seat. However, since the election, she has said the result of the referendum had to be respected and has criticised of the party’s stance on Brexit as “confused.”
15 January 2020 | Emily MacPherson-Smith