July 30, 2021

Can we solve political alienation? This is a question everyone asks these days but no one, seemingly, can answer it. In Batley and Spen I met a woman who has never been in a polling booth and met the suggestion that she could enter one with wide-eyed surprise.

In Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics [But were too lazy or numb to ask?] Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, asks again, though she can’t answer either: who can?

Instead, she offers partial solutions, one of which is: treat MPs better. Give them better working conditions: the Palace of Westminster, she points out, is unfit for purpose because it is falling apart, in exquisite metaphor. Give them more support, or you will not have young mothers in parliament, or anyone who is not affluent, or insane. (She calculates the cost of her entering parliament at £40,000, in lost earnings for herself and her husband, “a painfully calm pragmatist” as she campaigned, and he gave up night shifts for childcare.) Give them more time — social media and 24-hour news offer none — or you end up with narcissists who are addicted to anxiety, and risk. This book was written at speed, and so it reads, obliviously, like a parody of her predicament. No time.

I admire Phillips. She is close to my ideal feminist — she reads out the names of women murdered by their partners (their murderers) in parliament each year and her principal concern is women’s safety. But that is not good enough. Phillips’s fame itself — she is the most visible of Labour’s parliamentary class of 2015 — makes her vulnerable. She is accused of appropriating working-class manners because her parents, working-class born, had good jobs and sent her to a selective school, though she retained her regional accent. It’s as though she’s expected, with these privileges, to appear as a woman in a Waitrose advert holding pinot grigio and laughing at charcuterie. It’s a ludicrous notion which wouldn’t be asked of a man. I’m not surprised she admires Harriet Harman, the mother of the House, whose class (upper-middle, if you care) has been treated as suspect for a lifetime. What is she hiding? A piano?

I like Phillips’s politics, she’s centre-left, but, in the popular yearning for authenticity – the desire to know them intimately that is mere childishness — there must be more. There must be a friendly narrative: a brand. She knows it too: it is all within this book. A brand is less work for the voter, and it soothes the journalist who will tell your story. It saves time. I like the Phillips brand. Many do. When Luciana Berger gave her testimony of anti-Jewish racism in Labour, I was in the House and I saw Phillips sit beside Berger, so she did not feel alone. In Corbyn’s Labour — the “anti-racist” front bench was completely oblivious to Berger, they did not even look at her — it was brave. It was moving, too, watching Phillips draw the poison meant for Berger to herself. Phillips is obviously a compulsive rescuer and I wonder who, in her private life, she couldn’t save. Her brother was a heroin addict but — and I know this sounds odd — it doesn’t sound close enough.

But a brand can’t write to my taste because a brand cannot be ambivalent. It is not allowed. I am fine with this as a consumer of her politics, and that is really all I — or any of us — should ask from her. We know what happens when artists become politicians, and Phillips isn’t an artist. They try to blow up Paris. And, of course, when a politician can write memoir really well — when a politician allows himself ambivalence, allows the monsters to walk freely on the page — it is only to convince you to never let him near power, because he is a compulsive risk taker. (Alan Clark.) It is that old question, pertinent to the Prime Minister particularly: do you want to be governed or entertained?

I suspect that, in her heart, Phillips could do both. But here she tries for middle-aged female normality (though she is only 39). It is conversation, not prose, littered with slang, anecdotes about standing over photocopiers in her bra and pants, and tangents about Super Mario. Will someone stand on her head? There are passages explaining parliamentary procedure, presumably written to convince that anyone can do it, if they know the language and the way.

Is she really like that? “It is important to show that I live a normal life,” she says. But she doesn’t. She lives in two cities, she is an avid consumer and maker of news, her constituency office was attacked, her friend Jo Cox was murdered, and she is a workaholic. (Her son calls her Jess because, he says, when he calls “Mum” she cannot hear him.) She is a bridge-builder who will work with the other side because it works and who is charming to the media because that works too. She stoops to charm.

She writes her chapters — on the triviality of the media, the formality of the UN, campaigning (she thinks it is like Glastonbury, but it is more like Edinburgh) and life in parliament (ludicrous and ripe for reform) — in a folksy style: presenting your everywoman. If she is on a quest, like Frodo Baggins by way of Bridget Jones, she even has a grail: an ideal voter, whom she calls Brenda, a mother in her fifties who works in ASDA in Birmingham: “One day I will [ital] find her”. The italics are typical. The quest is real.

I wonder if Phillips, with her energy and her passion, denies her singularity. She is cleverer and angrier than she is pleased to admit — there I was, in my pants, campaigning — and that she seeks to hide it is depressing, because it feels like a denial of herself. No everywoman can be herself. That experience — of hiding or inflating elements of who you are — is familiar to all women of her generation who seek power. She’s not pretending to be working-class; it’s hardly a secret that she’s an MP. She’s pretending, rather, to be unthreatening.

It has purpose though: she wrote this book, with its tangents on what people write on ballot papers (“cock” mostly, sometimes illustrated) to show the way. She wants people who, “have never had to face the consequences of a risk gone bad” to make it, as she did, to that unhabitable house, to which she wakes each morning with a “gasp of anxiety”. (That does sounds real.)

It is parody, though, because it’s parody that sells and that is awful and telling: because a normal-seeming woman in parliament is a story worth telling. (That goes beyond parody. It is more like satire.) Here is an extraordinary woman straining to seem normal in a place that is abnormal because that is what’s expected if she would do what she loves: politics. The book’s flaws are those of the system. That’s your metaphor.