Jess Phillips, 39, has been Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015 and is an outspoken crusader for women’s rights. She is married to a former lift engineer and they have two sons. Her new book, Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life As an MP, is a robustly autobiographical, entertaining attempt to demystify life in Westminster. Her mission is to enlighten the indifferent about what she does for a living, and why politics matter.
Have you always been outspoken? I bet you were a handful as a child – what did you protest about?
My parents had two older teenagers, so I flew under their radar. I probably was a handful but was seen as a bossy madam. At primary school, I was really good mates with a young black lad called Leon Burnett. I remember vividly a teacher scolding him for something he hadn’t done. I organised a sit-down strike in the playground. I was 10. The strike didn’t work, I got into trouble and had to stand with my face to the wall.
How did your sense of injustice develop?
I was given a sense of injustice from the day I was born. My grandparents set up the independent Labour party in Birmingham. My grandad was a flag-waving activist. I was born, in 1981, to socialist parents who worked in the public sector. Mrs Thatcher was in power and we’d go on rallies, marches and take part in picket lines from before I can remember. It’s not only the sense of injustice that matters, it’s the feeling that it’s your responsibility to get up and do something about it.
You’ve said on record that you’re fuelled by anger most of the time…
Anger keeps me going. It inspires me – I enjoy feeling angry.
But is your sense of humour also useful in politics – would you describe it as a weapon or a hazard?
Humour is a weapon, and it’s rare in politics. People will laugh at any old crap in the chamber. They’re laughing out of loyalty – it’s cringeworthy. For me, being able to laugh at things is my single greatest gift – more than being able to express righteous indignation.
You say “politics is personal”. Do you have any other motto to drive yourself on when the going gets tough? I know you have suffered online aggression… how do you cope?
I tell myself [that] giving up doesn’t make the world a better place. If I get a death threat and feel I can’t cope with it any more… not fighting does not make the death threat go away. But I also try to focus on outcome. If I’m going to fight back, take the piss, highlight the abuse, talk about it publicly, it has to be to give other people strength.
Have you ever suffered self-doubt?
All the time! Literally, every single day. When in front of a group of young people, I have to steel myself to tell them I have got my job because I’m the best person to do it. I have to say these words, but they stick in my throat. I was raised by stern, working-class women who thought the worst thing you could do was have a bob on yourself. They wanted me to be confident but never showy. I’ve totally failed them.
You dedicate the book to your brother – a recovered heroin addict and now a graduate with a first-class degree in political science. Is he also MP material?
He’d make a brilliant MP now, but I’m not entirely sure he has the constitution for the stress of it… He’d take it all personally, in a way I don’t.
Sarah Everard’s death has brought the issue of women’s safety into new focus. Have you ever felt nervous of walking alone on the streets? What needs to happen to make women feel safer?
I have felt nervous. When I was a kid, I had people trying to get me in their car. As a teenager, I’ve had people flashing me, masturbating in front of me in the street. I’ve felt unsafe. I’ve asked my friends to text me to make sure I’m all right. We have trackers on each other’s phones when we’re out. What’s needed is a fundamental political priority to be made of violence against women, not just a fleeting, tick-box add-on.
In your book, you write: “People who you know, like and respect are perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse.” What is it you want to change?
To have a genuine culture shift, because we’ve created a tolerance level for which women pay the price.
How is Labour to restore its fortunes?
It has to do it with confidence. We need to stop diagnosing the problem and start to talk about the future. It can only be done with hope and good humour.
And which book is on your bedside table now?
I read every night to help me sleep. It’s the only way I can relax. At the moment, it’s the new Mhairi McFarlane – Last Night. Because I lead a life where difficult things happen, I like to read something funny and romantic – if I’ve spent my day thinking about enslaved women, it’s good to read about women in their 30s, finding love. But why is it they always work in ad agencies?
Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Which book would you give to a young person?
I recently took one of my constituents to her first AA meeting, after bumping into her in the street and finding that she was very unwell. I gave her Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon. And I’ve given Caitlin Moran’s books to lots of young women. But what I think everyone in the whole world should read are the first three Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend.