BY NOAH KEATE
Jess Phillips MP, pictured here in 2017 on the left at an event for International Women's Day in 2017, in her latest book reflects on her political career.
If you follow British politics closely, you’ll know who Jess Phillips is. The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, she also serves in Labour’s Home Office team as Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding. Phillips has always been regarded as a political maverick: unafraid to speak her mind, confident on the media and impossible, in my mind, to dislike, even if you disagree with her policies.
Phillips has translated this passion for politics into her latest book ‘Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP’. Part-memoir, part-call to arms, it details the day-to-day life of being an MP and conveys the responsibilities that high office of an elected representative entails.
It was pleasing to read a book which celebrates the idea of personal agency in politics. Over the last year especially, politics has often been portrayed as something that happens to people. Apart from general elections, the act of politics is viewed as something reserved for those in Westminster. The electorate delegate responsibility on matters that govern society to a higher body, something definitely notable during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Phillips takes on this fatalistic notion by highlighting the way in which we are all linked to politics. Whether it’s healthcare services, transport links or even the simple task of bins being collected, Phillips highlights how none of us can escape politics in our daily lives. As such, we shouldn’t believe that decisions about how politics operates are beyond us.
The book follows a fairly methodical, comprehensive analysis about how one is both elected as an MP and responsibilities undertaken once that role has been achieved. I appreciated Phillips’ honesty about the huge cost - personal, social, financial - of campaigning and the huge amount of time spent leafleting, speaking to groups just to get to Westminster. Naturally, that could make the corridors to power seem inaccessible, with Phillips recognising that things need to change.
‘Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics’ works, I think, for both those with a basic knowledge of Parliament and also those who have pre-existing knowledge. The explanation of an MP’s role in Westminster sounded hectic and demonstrates just how much they do everyday. Rushing from meeting to meeting, taking part in endless votes all while trying to change laws, the life is just so busy that I am surprised Phillips has time to stop and relax.
This again helps the book in cutting through lazy stereotypes. Phillips receives expenses not for her own personal spending but to employ staff who work in London and her Birmingham constituency. She has a flat in London simply because it would be utterly impractical to travel between London and Birmingham every day. Were these expenses and housing not available, politics would become even more the preserve of the very rich.
Phillips writes first and foremost in an anecdotal manner, which is enriching and makes the book pleasurable to read. It might have been nice to have some interviews with different MPs to learn about their experiences in the role, to demonstrate how such a responsibility differs from MP to MP. I like an anecdote, piece of gossip or recollection of the past as much as the next person, but that can work the best when rooted in history and a broader context.
Phillips is assertive and assured in her belief for the need for more political outsiders to become involved with politics. Yet Phillips herself is very much an insider, having been ‘raised in the Labour Party’. However inaccessible politics may appear, she at least has the reassurance having been in the system for a long time.
Similarly, populism across the world has seen the consequences of the political outsider and someone with no qualifications whatsoever for high office (need I mention Donald Trump). While Parliament should celebrate those who have not followed the conventional university-span route, it must be careful to ensure knowledge is not denigrated at the same time.
I found Phillips’ book moving, emphatic and revelatory. Perhaps the most rewarding aspects of politics are those human facing sides. Even when MPs are dealing with the hardest of cases, involving vulnerable individuals facing numerous problems, the ability to offer support and positively shape their situation must feel immensely empowering. It is a testament to Phillips that, for all the issues an MP’s role involves, she has not been put off and is fighting on.
Image - Flickr (Theirworld)