“My husband said in bed last night: ‘I don’t think it’s a willingness to work hard that you have, Jess. It isn’t that. You’re driven by the desire to keep going. You’re wired differently to most. Your end goal is to push yourself to your absolute limit."
Jess Phillips hasn’t reached her limit. Not even close. With International Women’s Day on Wednesday, we’re sitting in the Old Joint Stock with an MP who two years ago was managing domestic abuse refuges for Women’s Aid. She’s done more for women than most ever will and she’s only just got her sleeves rolled up.
“Universal free childcare. Equal paternity pay. These are the things we need to take on.” She says, eyes wide with the rush of the challenge. “I want men to be as big a pain in the arse to employers as women. That's how we get equality.”
It’s hard not to get swept away with the passion, but this is more than soapboxing. This is a woman who’s going in search of her own limit and making it look easy. Switching from sexual inequality to Spider-Man quotes with the realness and warmth that only the most Birmingham of Brummies can.
“I’m reading Harriet Harman’s book. Have you read it? Thirty-five years she’s been an MP. Thirty-five. She’s shown such incredible patience.”
We’ve not read Harman’s book, but we’ve read Phillips’. And she doesn’t portray herself as a patient person. Entitled ‘Everywoman: One Woman's Truth About Speaking the Truth’ it had us wholesale sobbing on the train last week with its thumpingly honest accounts of her childhood in Birmingham, and her traumatic tales from Women’s Aid. But just as with Jess, there’s an overriding theme of hope to every chapter. And a wry humour. “I am a hopeful person, I guess. Which must be a good thing because things are quite shit really, aren’t they?”
Jess talks with such openness and candour that you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d spent Harriet-levels of time in the House. Not so. She first entered the Commons in 2015 and set her stall out pretty quickly. “I nailed my colours to the mast so heavily early on that I don’t think people would mess with me in the same way they might others.”
Her unconventional style might not be to everyone’s taste, but it works. Being herself, being bold, being normal in a parliament where normal seems so abnormal has pushed her not only into the political landscape, but has even had her addressing a UN congress on violence against women.
“The other day Jeremy Hunt was making a statement on how he had basically lost 700,000 pieces of NHS correspondence,” she says, “And to every woman who asked him a question, Hunt would be so patronising. Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem MP who hasn’t been in the House for long, asked a completely valid, well thought through question and he responded in this awful: Oh you’ve not really done this before, have you? sort of tone. I don’t think you understand. It was so patronising. He never would have spoken to her like that if she were a man. And all Labour female MPs rallied. “No mate, you don’t understand. You’re the one who’s lost thousands of cancer results, pal.”
A woman first and a Labour MP second, Jess is not the only female in the Commons who can set political agenda aside to level off gender imbalance. Olney was elected on a ‘Remain’ ticket and Jess, a vocal Remainer, knows all too well the vitriol that can come with that outlook. “On her first day in Parliament I sought Sarah out and said: “You are on not on your own. Do not hesitate to come and find me if you’re finding anything difficult. Particularly on social media. We will fall in behind you. We will back you up. The women across the House — Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, every party — the women stick up for one another because there’s a common agenda.”
We can’t help but think Phillips will be of particular help on the social media element of her pledge. Parliamentary patronisation is one thing, rape threats on Twitter are another. She’s so used to 140-character hate that her stance has had to become utterly resolute. “These days the Twitter abuse is more trying than it is terrifying,” she says. “It’s relentlessly dull. I’m desperate for the trolls to come up with a new angle.”
The fear, for a seemingly fearless woman, is more offline than on. “I don’t feel I can’t walk around Birmingham and be exactly the person I am. I can go to the shop in my pyjama bottoms and buy a pint of milk and feel completely safe. In fact I feel like Brummies who know who I am actually look out for me. But there are moments in my office where I’m sat under a massive sign that says JESS PHILLIPS — I have an open office because I want people to walk in and be able to seek help — there are times when I feel like a sitting duck. I feel like someone could just come in and hurt me. And since Jo [Cox] died that feeling has, I think, got worse. And I know I’m in no more danger than I was before we lost Jo, and I know the rational thinking is that I’m loads more likely to be hurt by someone I know. But it doesn’t stop me feeling at risk. It can unnerve me.”
With that level of pressure we wonder if Jess ever sleeps. “I don’t sleep, but that’s not entirely out of worry. It comes from being a mom and wanting some bloody time to myself once they’re in bed. I work instead of sleep, particularly when I’m in London. I won’t go to bed until 3am and I get up at 7am.” Like Thatcher, we joke. “Exactly like Thatcher,” she responds. “She had two kids too. And that’s where the similarities end.”
If Jess Phillips were a poker player, we get the impression she would go “all in” on every hand. We can't help but wonder if she dialled “the Jess” down by about 10 percent, she might get 30 percent more done. “Yeah I would,” she agrees without missing a beat. “But that’s not a natural characteristic of mine. I’ve never been able to dial it down. It’s not a skill I have.
“But I have learned that there are moments when you don’t need to unleash hell. I’ve learned to pick my battles. I’ve developed the foresight to be able to predict if an argument I’m about to have can possibly result in an outcome I can be proud of. And if I decide it can, then I’ll unleash hell.”
You can buy 'Everywoman: One Woman's Truth About Speaking the Truth' for £14.99 in bookshops or right here.