Great Britain

Why Labour MP Jess Phillips is obvious choice for next leader – Susan Dalgety

Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, outside Parliament in September as People's Vote activists protest against the government's stance on Brexit (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, outside Parliament in September as People's Vote activists protest against the government's stance on Brexit (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Jess Phillips has the chutzpah required to face down Boris Johnson in Westminster and be the heroic leader the Opposition must find, writes Susan Dalgety.

History happened last week, and almost no-one noticed. As the Tories celebrated their glorious victory, despite their leader’s shambolic campaign, and Labour erupted, predictably, into internecine warfare, something wonderful emerged from the chaos of the 2019 general election.

Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, is now, for the first time ever, predominantly female.

More than half, 104 out of 202, of Labour MPs are women. The People’s Party – and I don’t mean Boris’s pale blue imitation – finally reflects the population it purports to serve. The British population is 51 per cent female, and so too is the official opposition.

It is a significant breakthrough in the campaign to win gender balance in our politics, and is a testament to not only Labour, but to organisations such as 50:50 Parliament and its Scottish sister, 50:50 Women, who campaign for equality in our parliaments and councils.

READ MORE: Euan McColm: Momentum takes Labour to the brink of extinction

READ MORE: ‘Senior Labour advisers should pay price of party’s failure, not junior workers’: Emily Thornberry

While the women of Labour did well last week, we still have a long way to go before we match Finland. In 1907, its parliament became the first in the world to adopt full gender equality when all women were given the right to vote and stand for office.

Made of strong stuff

And this small country of five million people and 22 billion trees made history again recently. Their new Prime Minister is a 34-year-old woman, Sanna Marin, and she is joined in coalition government by four other parties, each led by a woman.

Ms Marin faces a stormy tenure. Like many other countries in Europe, populist nationalism is on the march in Finland, with the True Finns party now standing at 25 per cent and rising in the polls, but the new PM is made of strong stuff.

She was the first in her family to finish high school, then go to university. She was leader of Tampere City Council when she was only 27 years old, and elected to parliament in 2015.

Since then she has given birth to a daughter, held down a senior post as transport minister and helped her party, the social democratic SDP, win the 2017 election. And now she is the world’s youngest prime minister, and Finland’s third woman in the post.

In the UK, Labour – the party built on equality – has never had a woman leader, save for a few weeks when Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman were temporarily in charge. But this should be about to change.

The party is in the early stages of a leadership election to replace the hapless Jeremy Corbyn. It is probably the worst job in European politics, as the new leader will have to contend, not only with a triumphant Boris Johnson and his 80-seat majority, but with rebuilding a shattered party. It is a task of heroic proportions.

Her biggest challenge is not Prime Minister’s Question Time, but wresting back control of the party from ultra-lefties such as union boss Len McCluskey and Jon Lansman, leader of the Momentum cult, sorry, I mean grassroots movement.

Few men to choose from

Note I wrote ‘her’, because the new leader has to be a woman. Not even the Labour Party, in its current confused state, could contemplate electing a man to lead an official opposition that is predominantly female.

Not that there are many men to choose from at the moment. Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, looks as if he spends at least an hour every morning styling his quiff, but, nice hairdo apart, he doesn’t have what it takes to restore the party as an electoral force.

Apparently former BBC man Clive Lewis has thrown his hat into the ring, saying that the reason Labour lost so badly in its heartlands, such as Scotland and the north of England, is because it had not distanced itself enough from the glory days of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The reason he is standing is for a chance “to tell the truth”, he said, somewhat confusingly as Blair won three elections in a row.

So, who should it be? Not Emily Thornberry, the Islington lawyer, who, in a desperate attempt to prove her working-class roots, once revealed her family had to put down their cats as they couldn’t afford to feed them.

Nor Rebecca Long-Bailey, another lawyer. She has been anointed as Corbyn’s successor by Jeremy himself, but she represents the faction that has just led the Labour Party to its worst defeat since 1935. So that should rule her out.

Which leaves Yvette Cooper and Lisa Nandy. In normal times, Ms Cooper, who is diligent, thoughtful and has had senior government experience, would be in with a shout. But these are not normal times.

Directness can lead to trouble

Lisa Nandy is also diligent and thoughtful. But she doesn’t have the force of personality required to wrest Labour back from the clutches of the hard left, while at the same time showing the chutzpah to face down Boris Johnson in Westminster.

Jess Phillips does. The Birmingham MP has her weaknesses. She has never held a senior frontbench position, either in government or opposition.

She sometimes gets carried away with the strength of her own personality, revelling, perhaps too much, in her celebrity MP status. But leading a political party, especially one in a critical condition, is not for the shy or retiring.

And her directness often gets her into trouble. At least with the militant wing of the Labour Party, whose Twitter rants against her are as odious as they are predictable.

Like Finland’s new Prime Minister, Jess Phillips would be a risky choice. But now is the time for taking risks.

Politics has changed, perhaps forever. Big personalities matter as much as good policies. The electorate want a leader they can connect with over pint or a coffee. Not someone who bamboozles them with policy options or party plans.

Boris Johnson understood this. Jeremy Corbyn refused to, which is why Labour is facing oblivion.

JK Rowling recently described Jess Phillips as a heroine. Now, more than ever in its history, the Labour Party – and our country – needs a heroic leader of the opposition. Someone with courage and, occasionally, a little recklessness, who will stand up for the 18 million people who didn’t vote Conservative last Thursday, and for the millions more who felt they had no option but to vote Tory.

The Labour Party needs a heroine to save it from itself. It needs Jess Phillips.

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