Thu, 15 April 2021

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If standing for the Labour leadership taught me anything it is that out there in the country people want us to be better

If standing for the Labour leadership taught me anything it is that out there in the country people want us to be better
6 min read

When we care more about changing their lives – and are honest about what that will take – voters will trust Labour again, writes Jess Phillips MP


This week I have back in Parliament for the first time since dropping out of the Labour Leadership race. It feels odd, not only because people seem to look at me as if I have suffered some terrible trauma. I haven’t, I am absolutely fine. I made the right decision at the right time for me and the wider contest.

I did absolutely learn from the experience, which was in the most part totally positive.  I will never not be proud of the tens of thousands of people we encouraged to join the Labour party, which now has its highest membership level of modern times. The highlight for me was a 50 something Yorkshire man who came to one of our events and told me that he had never even voted before and had joined the party inspired by my straightforwardness. Politics is for all of us, getting people to take part in it has always been my thing.

I am proud by the mutual love and support that I found in the Jewish community. I am not sure any Labour politician deserves anything more than caution from Jewish people at the moment and yet I found inspiration and hope.

I note that in the week following my departure there has been a ramping up of attacks from some of the campaign teams.  This is a shame, as what I found was that in the most part there was a real decency amongst the candidates. There was very little slagging off that went on and it might come as a surprise, but there was also plenty of genuine kindness. Before any of us had even declared, over the Christmas period candidates were getting in in touch with each other to check if we were all coping. Years of friendship and comradery was not forgotten overnight.

During the campaign I was asked on an LBC call-in how it was that I had got so much press as a backbencher. The insinuation of the questioner was clear – that I was either in hoc to the Murdoch media or I had some fancy PR team pushing my brand. The reality could not be further from the truth.

Online I sometimes feel as if I am Goody Proctor on trial for witchcraft, but in reality I met thousands of members, many of whom told me they like both Jeremy Corbyn and me – if you can imagine such a thing is possible” 

The thing I found hardest about the contest was the sudden installation in my life of teams of people, message discipline and planned interventions. Before doing this, the staff I had were not for me but for my constituents. I had no press officer, no campaign manager, I just decided which interventions I would make, which cases I wanted to highlight, which things I would give my time to fighting for.

The machine of politics at a different level is exactly that, it is a machine. This is not a criticism it is a necessity, but one that I quickly had to get used to. My children grew to expect to see one of the campaign team in the kitchen as they made their morning Weetabix. Between Christmas and New Year, in one room of my house we had old friends visiting with their one-year old twins, in another room six people were plotting timeframes and messaging. It was at times surreal.

The other thing I had to get used to was the dread. Each day I would feel dread about some story or another that might come out about me. Like a person driving well below the speed limit feeling guilty at the mere sight of a passing police car. In my head I had managed to concoct some exotic life I had been living that would catch up on me. No exotic life exists of course, I love my husband and he loves me, I have been honest about my childhood and my misdemeanours. I am quite boring on the tabloid scandal front. However it is always there, always looming, the fear that someone you love will be dragged in to the media, or someone who doesn’t understand the world of political scrutiny will make a mistake and – bang! – you are in a media storm. I comforted myself that Boris Johnson is the prime minister and then instantly I became annoyed that had I lived his life I would never have even made it to be an MP let alone any higher office.

So many times I was asked by the media about the hostility of Labour members towards me while on the campaign trail but I honestly never saw it. Online of course I sometimes feel as if I am Goody Proctor on trial for witchcraft, but in reality I have met thousands of members along the way, many told me how they like both Jeremy Corbyn and me – if you can imagine such a thing is possible.

Many changed their mind on meeting me. One woman in Scotland apologised for having had a pop at me online and said that I was after all much like her politically. One bloke who described himself as “somewhere left of Lenin” got in touch to say he couldn’t believe how some were talking about me online. Labour party members are almost exclusively good and kind and funny and I hope that whoever the leader is that we don’t just turn a page but start a new chapter, because if standing for the leadership taught me anything it is that out there in the country people want us to be better. They want us to do well and when they see that they will want to take part.

The Labour party is not just a political party for the sake of being one. It should always be striving to be in government. When we care more about changing their lives and are honest about what that might take, I know that the country will start to trust us again, from Bury, Wolverhampton, Glasgow and Kent this is what I heard. So let’s crack on.

Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and Associate Editor of The House magazine

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