Jess Phillips interview: Factions, feminism and a fighting chance

Sienna Rodgers

“It is amazing to be considered a right-winger. It makes me laugh, if I were to be perfectly honest,” Jess Phillips replies when I suggest that many Labour members would describe her as a Blairite. Although she left the party under Tony Blair’s leadership, over the Iraq war, you only have to look at the list of MP nominations from last week to see that she attracts support from colleagues closely associated with the Blair era. Why is that? “You’d have to ask them that question,” Jess says.

We’re in the Ministry of Sound, and in the next room local MP Neil Coyle is holding a members’ event. Jess is a guest speaker and will take to the stage once our interview ends. She will talk about Labour’s aim of winning power above all else – often the primary way that those considered to be ‘on the right’ of the party would say they are different from the rest. In terms of actual policy, Jess says she cannot think of how the leadership candidates “diverge”. At least in terms of domestic politics, she clarifies.

On her rival Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess says: “I do see her as continuity Corbyn”. But that is not a judgment of her politics so much as “the manner in which the party has felt exclusive and a bit controlling”. Though she later says: “I have no reason to believe that Rebecca would be continuity in that regard. I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”

Back to her factional designation. Jess stresses: “I didn’t self-identify into this label, this is a label that is given to me. And I think a lot of time in bad faith.” During our interview, she mentions “cancel culture” and people being “cancelled” a couple of times. There is a distinct worry that people aren’t allowed to disagree with each other in the party. She reckons this approach “largely comes from the internet”, whereas: “In real life, no one on a doorstep ever asked me if I was a socialist. No one on the doorstep ever said, ‘oh, I’ve seen you chatting with Margaret Hodge’.”

Jess Phillips isn’t just described as a right-winger or a Blairite. She is also accused of being a “TERF”, which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It usually means you don’t think trans women are women, or you want to make a distinction when it comes to single-sex spaces. How does Jess feel about that label? “I don’t like it,” she replies firmly. “I reject it entirely. I mean, today I was with Juno Dawson, who’s a woman I’ve worked with.” The writer and activist was interviewing her for Pink News. “She got in touch with me, and she said: ‘I don’t know why everybody is saying this about you. You’re the person who’s been in all the meetings, you’re the person who has tried to help us.’”

The debate over the leadership candidate’s views on this issue stem largely from a tweet in which she described the demands of Woman’s Place UK as “completely reasonable”. Does she stand by that view? “At the time, the demands, they’re not unreasonable – it’s things like women should be able to organise. Collectively, women’s voices should be heard. These are not unreasonable things.” But Jess adds that things “in hindsight” look different. “I was saying to Juno today, no trans person has ever asked me not to refer to myself as a woman, or no trans person I’ve ever worked with has said, ‘I don’t want you to talk about your periods’. But these things are ascribed to the trans community, I don’t know who the hell by, but they’re ascribed to them… It’s not the reality.”

On the specific debate around women’s spaces, Jess says: “This isn’t theoretical to me. This is practical. I ran a rape crisis service and a women’s domestic abuse service that had trans women within it.” Referring to the parliamentary report she worked on, which recommended that women’s services should not be able to exclude trans women, she states that she trusts organisations to conduct risk assessments. “I have turned away women from refuge based on risk to do with child protection, based on a history of arson… I believe that these professional people should be able to risk assess an individual based on an individual, and I hold firm on that view and always have.”

The other label found in feminist circles and on Twitter is “SWERF”, i.e. sex worker-exclusionary radical feminist. It refers to the belief that prostitution or sex work – this difference in terminology being itself essential to the debate – is inherently oppressive and should be opposed. On this subject, Jess is crystal clear. Asked whether she supports the Nordic model – criminalising buyers, not the women – as opposed to full decriminalisation, she says: “I do. I ran a human trafficking service and child sexual exploitation service. I have met women and children and men who’ve been forced into sex slavery, brought on the back of lorries, when they were told they were coming to be nurses or care workers… No one listens to the voices of those trafficked people.”

The Birmingham MP is more direct and self-assured when talking about this issue than any other. She considers paid-for consent to be “not real consent” and, on the notion that sex work can be empowering, she says: “I can only speak from my experience, and that is of horrendous exploitation. And people being forced to have sex with 20 men in one day, against their will.” She believes that the current legal situation is a “sham” and wonders “why you can’t have decriminalised women, criminalised punters” while “resourcing the safety of that system” as well as “safe passage out of it”. “Sometimes there’s a bit of a blind spot about capitalism when we’re talking about women’s bodies,” she concludes.

It is understood among Labour activists and feminists that Diane Abbott also favours the Nordic model. In fact, Jess Phillips and the current Shadow Home Secretary appear to share quite a few interests, despite the infamous ‘I told her to fuck off’ claim. Asked whether she would serve in Long-Bailey’s shadow cabinet, the leadership hopeful replies “yeah, in principle” but “that would entirely depend on what she wanted me to do”. Which brief would she like then? “Home affairs,” comes the unhesitant response. “We need a massive overhaul of how the immigration system works. It is horrendous and hostile. And I’m not afraid to talk about immigration, which is why I think I’d make a good Home Secretary.”

Jess says she would end indefinite detention “on day one”. She laughs off the idea of ‘no borders’ – “it’s an island, there’s definitely a border” – but maintains that “the function of the system needs to be much more humane”. I wonder whether she would go further than Labour’s current position on immigration: the party has pledged to shut down Yarl’s Wood and Brook House, but not all detention centres. Would she do that? “Over time, you would want to close them all down, and I would base that entirely on the model of offenders centres… The cost to the taxpayer of detention to deliver what is an inhumane system? It’s so high.”

Jess Phillips looks unlikely to win Labour’s leadership election – not unless something big changes. In the first LabourList/Survation poll of the contest, she came a reasonable third, but with only 9% of first preferences. How is she planning to build support? “I do love this question of ‘how are you planning to do it’, like I’ve got some sort of nefarious plan. But the campaign is long,” she points out. “I come at it from the low point of having to prove to people that I’m not some sort of Tory.” Noting that there will be lots of new members with voting rights, the contender says you simply have to talk to people and convince them. “There’s no master strategy beyond being yourself and being honest. And if that’s not enough, it’s not enough.”

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