Jess Phillips, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, speaks to Rowan Pelling about her new book, the fight for women’s equality, and how the Tories have had an easy ride during the pandemic
Around twenty minutes into our conversation Jess Phillips says to me: “I just don’t know what legislation I can put in place to make orgasms more likely. It’s a tough one.” It’s fair to say I’m enjoying a more riveting conversation than my last interview with a Labour MP, circa 2001. The then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, didn’t mention climaxes, sex education, the joy of being an answer to a question on University Challenge, the Latitude Festival (where Phillips was a speaker) or the chance of a woman being elected leader of the parliamentary Labour Party. She was once told, “If you put a pigeon up against a woman in the Labour Party, the pigeon would win.”
I’m also feeling a bit guilty, as I’d promised myself before I spoke to the member of parliament for Birmingham Yardley that I wouldn’t cajole her into talking about the big O. But I failed my own highest standards – sorry, Jess. If you’re baffled by this sex-sozzled introduction, I should explain that in 2018 Phillips was a guest on a feminist podcast that segued into a discussion of women’s sexual pleasure. During the discussion she bemoaned the fact heterosexual women are less likely than heterosexual men to experience an orgasm during sex with their partner (65 per cent, compared to 95 per cent). Cue a rash of lurid headlines such as: “Jess Phillips wants to close the orgasm gap” or “Schoolgirls must be taught about orgasms, says Labour MP”. Many were left with the impression that Phillips had stood up in parliament and demanded erotic equity for young women. I rather wished she had.
The furore is vividly described in 39-year-old Phillips’ new book Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP, where she titles chapter eight: “Orgasms and imaginary boats: how politics is reported.” Her point is that although she directs most of her considerable verve at campaigning against domestic violence and sexual abuse (before Westminster, Phillips worked for Women’s Aid), helping the dispossessed, visiting schools and holding surgeries for constituents, tawdry hacks like me leap on juicy quotes and give them disproportionate impact. (Though I also blame you, dear reader, for being more enticed by smut than private members’ bills.)
Phillips knows the games journalists play and is even clearer on the day-to-day machinations of politics. She tells me: “If you want a perfect system and you only want to be a representative within a system that you’re not disillusioned by, politics is almost certainly not the game for you”
As Phillips admits herself the reporting was, strictly speaking, accurate, “but to the reader who doesn’t understand what the game is, it would sound as if I had gone into politics to basically say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if more women had orgasms?’ Which, to be honest, if I’d thought about it before I went in, I might have considered.” I tell her I’d certainly vote on that ticket.
Whichever way you look at it, Phillips is very articulate on the subject of sex education, and I’d argue it’s a deadly serious topic that impacts every one of us. I’ll return to the theme later – if only to keep you reading. The “imaginary boat”, meanwhile, is the fabricated debate around commissioning a new royal yacht. Phillips patiently explains there’s zero parliamentary will for it on either bench, but one fixated Tory MP generated a slew of comment pieces and easy clickbait.
Phillips knows the games journalists play and is even clearer on the day-to-day machinations of politics. She tells me: “If you want a perfect system and you only want to be a representative within a system that you’re not disillusioned by, politics is almost certainly not the game for you… One of the things I’m trying to get across in the book is the idea that a lot of the time it can be disappointing and you have to compromise – and you have to understand it’s not about just you. You have to take huge swathes of very, very different people with you along for the ride and there are ways of doing that, that don’t have to be lying and horrible and fearful.”
Phillips’ book aims to demystify Westminster and the process of political representation for the layperson and does a solid – if slightly rushed – job of it. When I ask her how the hell she fits the writing in (because journalism is a knackering, full-time job for me), she says she’s “incredibly deadline driven” and wrote her university dissertation the night before she had to hand it in. “Also, I write 6,000-7,000 words in an afternoon.” (I tell her I’m lucky if I get a thousand done in a day). The key to Phillips’ fluency seems to be not stressing too much about things being perfect; she jovially declares her next book may be titled That’ll do.
Ditching the tyranny or perfectionism would surely act as a siren call to most women. And judging from the cover, Phillips’ publishers do seem to be aiming her new book at female readers – it has distinct echoes of Dolly Alderton’s bestseller Everything I Know About Love. This is canny marketing, as almost every woman I know is a huge fan of the funny, forthright, grittily determined Phillips. It’s a relief to see a high-profile female who hasn’t undergone a humour bypass to reach the top and hasn’t neutered her personality to be taken seriously. It often feels like the last great examples of the breed were Edwina Currie and Mo Mowlam.
Men’s reaction to Phillips can be far more hostile. When I was researching for this interview, I was shocked by the negative comments – invariably from blokes – that appeared on newspaper websites beneath profiles of her. Take these from a piece in the Times: “a motormouthed, foul-mouthed, faux ‘working class lass’, with zero charisma, zero morals”; “this aggressive misandrist”; “all style, no substance”; “harridan”; “she is so smug at how funny she thinks she is”; “the very sight of her makes me bilious”. As far as I could see, her main crime had been placing herself squarely in the public eye, including appearances on Have I Got News for You (a tactic that never did Boris Johnson any harm). Fame, as she explains in the book, yields tangible benefits: the better known you are, the more pressure you can bring to bear on political decision-making. People listen when you speak up for your constituents.
What’s undeniable is that people know who she is. I made a group of friends play an unkind game before writing this, which was: “Name members of the shadow cabinet who aren’t Keir Starmer.” One managed Angela Rayner, another Rachel Reeves. No one seemed aware Ed Miliband was back in the mix. The striking thing was that pretty much everyone named Jess Phillips, though she’s a rung down the opposition pecking order on the shadow front bench. And indeed Phillips feels so familiar that when she finally materialises on my Zoom screen it seems more like glimpsing an old mucker from student days than an MP. Everything from her bobbed hair, hoop earrings, Brummie accent and ready laugh feels reassuringly familiar.
There’s also the issue of our first-past-the-post voting system and the way boundaries are drawn up. Phillips’ constituency is one of the largest in terms of population, but not so big in terms of square miles. “Literally, the vote of my constituents matters a fifth as much as it might do if I had a seat in Orkney”
We talk first about people’s reluctance to involve themselves with the political process – something Phillips aims to counter with the book. When I ask her if it’s true that only three per cent of people now belong to political parties she replies: “Yeah. More people are in the National Trust, I think. They should start a political movement, the National Trust, they’d probably be very popular.” (Though they’d probably spend their whole time arguing about the legacy of colonialism and might well self-implode.)
If signing up to a party is problematic in an age of political disillusionment, there’s also the issue of our first-past-the-post voting system and the way boundaries are drawn up. Phillips’ constituency is one of the largest in terms of population, but not so big in terms of square miles. “Literally, the vote of my constituents matters a fifth as much as it might do if I had a seat in Orkney,” she says. “They get one MP and [yet] there’s many, many more people in my constituency.” She points out that she also looks after many residents who aren’t eligible to vote in Britain. “It doesn’t mean I’m not their MP though, does it? And you wouldn’t get that in nine out of ten of the constituencies.”
I tell Phillips I’m freshly aware – due to her book – that woman who aren’t UK citizens but suffer domestic violence and sexual abuse in our country aren’t entitled to access help, which really shocked me. She nods grimly. “It’s hard enough for UK citizens: 60% of them get turned away,” adding that migrant workers tend to have even greater levels of vulnerability because abusers may threaten to turn them in to the authorities. “I mean, it’s catastrophic actually that in our country we ask people for a stamp in their passport before we ask what we can do to help.”
One of the most interesting chapters of Phillips’ book explains how MPs can subtly hijack a parliamentary bill when it’s in the planning stages and table amendments that weren’t part of the original vision. Take the authoritarian Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, which will give police additional powers to clamp down on public protests and extend the length of sentences judges can hand out for damage to public memorials (increased from the current three months to ten years in prison). Phillips is trying her damnedest to ensure the bill encompasses radical improvements to the way courts deal with rape and domestic violence cases – not something the Home Secretary Priti Patel seemed too interested in.
But as Phillips – who is Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding – has written: “Often, the most important part of my role is just putting up my hand and reminding ministers that women exist.” She has blazed that message for the past few years by standing up in parliament on International Women’s Day and reading aloud a list of all the women killed by men in the past year. The 2021 tally ended with the name Sarah Everard. As Phillips said that day: “Killed women are not vanishingly rare. Killed women are common.” But then she’s more aware of that fact than most; one of her closest friends from that intake was Jo Cox.
One of the most shocking parts of Phillips’ book deals with the day – 26 September 2018 – when a man called Michael tried to kick in the door of her own constituency office, terrifying her staff and the constituents they were talking to. Michael seemed convinced Phillips was a “fascist” who was blocking democracy. When the police charged him and Phillips got some knowledge of his background details she realised they were a similar age and “lived a few streets away from where I had grown up”. So she decided she wanted to meet the intruder, “to find common ground with him and try to understand why he had done what he did.”
It transpired Michael had found copious online misinformation about Phillips: “He told me he had read online that I hated people like him and I had said that people who voted for Brexit were thick. He had read… that I had turned a blind eye to grooming gangs.” Bit by bit the MP gained Michael’s trust and showed him evidence that contradicted the online trolls, including a video where she begged Remainers not to treat Brexiteers “as if they are stupid”. Her proof of the years she’d spent “setting up services for groomed children in the Midlands” included the book she’s written “about the whistle-blowers who fought for the girls in Rochdale who had been groomed by a gang of British Asian men.” She told Michael he’d unwittingly become part of an online game played like Super Mario, where she was Bowser and someone had told him “to stamp on my head”.
I’m also shocked by the chapter where Phillips says people working in parliament often open up to her about the problems of sexual abuse in Westminster. Even more troublingly, those accused of being perpetrators sometimes try to enlist her support and persuade her they’re not guilty. Phillips makes it clear she doesn’t “sit as judge and jury on these issues. I am there to make sure there is a good, honest, reliable and humane system for all involved. And that it works.” She says people from every single parliamentary party have approached her, “apart from the Greens, to be fair.” We agree we can put down Caroline Lucas, the Green’ sole MP, as definitely “not handsy”.
On the other end of the pest scale is Charlie Elphicke MP, currently serving a two-year prison sentence for three counts of sexual assault. Phillips reproduces a note in its entirety from Elphicke; the level of denial is chilling:
“So, I am writing to say this is a dreadful accusation. It has been levelled in such a way I cannot make answer – except to say I would never do something awful like this. I would never hurt anyone… We must take care not to confuse accusation with evidence or allegation with proof.”
Phillips points out that Anne Milton, the then Conservative Deputy Chief Whip, did not swallow this line after talking to his victims. She gave evidence on their behalf at Elphicke’s trial and Phillips writes in a footnote: “She is an exemplar of decency and that is why, in the end, the Tories kicked her out – because she wouldn’t toe the line.”
Johnson’s “a really crap performer” and “knows he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can watch the panic go across his face.” What really aids Johnson is low public expectation. “People have baked in that he’s a bit of a fool. People expect him to be a bit rubbish, a bit badly behaved, a bit selfish, a bit posh and a bit stuck-up”
I would argue it’s episodes like this that so clearly illustrate the need for better sex education – so that men like Elphicke don’t stumble along in miserable denial of the consequences of their actions. Or, better still, don’t behave like sex pests in the first place. This issue weighs heavy on my soul as the mother of two teenage boys and I know Phillips has sons of similar ages. She agrees sex education is vital “from a feminist perspective and also just from the idea that sex is something that has become a danger. Certainly, politically we talk about it as a danger for women in lots of different regards.”
We agree we’d like to see a change in sexual attitudes that helps diminish the level of threat, while increasing women’s agency and chances of equal enjoyment. At root, she says, people need to be able to communicate better to achieve “more fulfilling, healthy, adult relationships.” She’s been with her husband Tom since her early twenties and knew him at school – she got pregnant at 21, just weeks into their relationship – so her robust good sense is grounded in nearly two decades of close partnership and shared parenting.
I tell Phillips I used to edit a magazine called The Erotic Review and she says jovially: “There you go. I could be a writer for The Erotic Review as it turns out.” (Although I forget to mention that we once ran a naïve erotic drawing of Lady Godiva by a reasonably well-known Telegraph journalist called Boris Johnson.) All of which steers us back towards “Orgasm-gate” and the incredible volume of press coverage her comments on female pleasure received: “It’s not like any lies were told about me, they weren’t… I do believe that teaching girls that sex is meant to be for them as well [as boys], not just something that happens to them and gives them diseases and babies would be a massive step forward.”
We agree we both talk to our sons about sex far more than our own parents talked to us and Phillips reveals that when her younger son sniggers about anything, her response is to bring him back to earth: “Oh, you think it’s funny? Tell me about it in front of your nan.”
By this stage I’m beginning to think we should be sent round schools as a double act. But I also realise I haven’t even asked her one question about Boris Johnson, although her book makes it clear she has a shrewd sense of him. She’s good on the atmosphere of reverential brown-nosing that surrounds those wearing the mantle of power – and funny about how she ignores it. Her observation is that Johnson is “terrified of people, actually”. When I ask her why Keir Starmer can’t lay a punch on him, she hedges but says it’s quite easy to make the PM “flap”, as Johnson’s “a really crap performer” and “knows he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You can watch the panic go across his face.”
What really aids Johnson, she believes, is low public expectation. “People have baked in that he’s a bit of a fool. People expect him to be a bit rubbish, a bit badly behaved, a bit selfish, a bit posh and a bit stuck-up. They know that. It’s just that there wasn’t enough decent opposition to him in the time he rose to prominence.”
I share my frustration that the PM and his Cabinet have had little scrutiny over the awarding of PPE contracts, and what appear to be blatant instances of cronyism. Phillips tells me, “I saw on the ground exactly what was happening… decent, good people who had provided PPE in my constituency long before the crisis started [and] were literally trying to sell it to the British government,” but without success. She tried to help by setting up basic logistics from her living room in lockdown, distributing protective equipment via Twitter. “If anyone needs this, we’ve got some in Yardley with this provider,” was a typical tweet.
Exactly like the PPE providers she was talking to, Phillips couldn’t get through to key government decision-makers without their personal phone numbers – the infamous “fast track” numbers that the Good Law Project have cited in their judicial review case. It never occurred to her to text Matt Hancock directly. “I thought that’s not the process,” she explains. Instead, she and the “decent people” she was dealing with tried to go through the official routes.
There’s one bit of Phillip’s recollections I find mind-boggling and it’s worth repeating, lest we ever forget how chaotic the government response to the pandemic actually was.
“I had to go and get school science goggles from a local school and drive them over to a care home in my constituency,” she writes, because “the care homes in my constituency had nothing.” That same day she saw “Italian and Spanish wagons driving through Yardley because the Spanish and Italian governments were responding quicker to the actual providers.” She watched “Italian wagons taking proper-grade PPE out of the country. And that is just unbelievable to me.”
She “spoke to the newspapers about it and the story made it into the The Telegraph.” Nevertheless, she feels the public have given the government a lot of leeway for the “mad panic” over PPE. At some point in the future, as the sense of pandemonium subsides and people start getting back to normal, Phillips believes the government will be brought to account. It won’t play well with the electorate, she says, that so many Tory ministers’ chums “made loads and loads of money off the back of people dying”.
Phillips is philosophical when she reflects that you can’t force the British public to take action about this when there’s already so much on their plates. “At the moment they’re mainly worried that the furlough’s going to end, or they can be evicted again. But when they start not being able to access government services, the fact that so many government hand-outs were given [to Tory cronies] … There will start to be an ‘us and them’ about it.”
This leads us to the changing nature of political tribalism. Everyone keeps banging on about the “Blue Wall” in the Midlands and north, but I tell her it’s clear that my own childhood turf of Kent, Surrey and the Home Counties is showing signs of going red – or pink. Quite a few of the younger commuter families are more naturally Guardian readers than The Telegraph ones. “I absolutely think that that is the case,” agrees Phillips, citing “what happened in Chesham and Amersham” (where the Lib Dems took the “safe” Tory seat earlier this year), putting it down to people drifting out of cities “because of expense”. Since I’m on the Kent coast as we speak, she mentions Margate as an example of a southern town “which is now absolutely full of young people who couldn’t afford to buy a house in London.”
Phillips feels we’re using drastically outmoded characterisations of cities and counties when we talk about electorates. “The Hartlepool by-election is a really good example of this,” she says, pointing out that it gets written about as if it’s “a no-hope, forgotten town” when the real truth is “more people in Hartlepool own their own house than in almost any borough in London.” She feels it’s time to do away with the myth that “the whole of the north still have whippets and the whole of the south are playing golf. It’s just not a modern view of Britain.”
As our conversation draws to a close we turn again to the thorny topic of how to make the world fairer for women. “The only thing that will fundamentally protect women and will end domestic abuse and sexual violence (and the reason why it hasn’t happened anywhere in the world, even in much more equal societies than ours, like Scandinavia) is women having equal power to men,” she states determinedly. “Until women have the same economic and social power as men and are truly equals, we will continue to be prey to control and abuse, because it’s about power.”
It’s hard to disagree. Meanwhile, my own long-term plan for female emancipation involves voting for Phillips if she ever becomes leader of the Labour Party. I strongly fancy her chances against the pigeon.
“Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics: My Life as an MP” by Jess Phillips (£16.99, Simon & Schuster)