Performing an Idea of Ordinariness
As expected, Jess Phillips has pulled out of the Labour leadership contest. She has based her parliamentary career so far – five long years – on the idea that she is special because she is ‘ordinary’. After becoming the MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, she set to work creating as much publicity for herself as possible, aided by a willing group of journalists and publishers desperate to convince themselves that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was some sort of anomaly, easily remedied by finding the ‘right person’ to replace him.
What transpired was a case of trying to replace a perceived personality cult with an actual one. Within a year of becoming an MP, Phillips had conducted major interviews with the political editors of several newspapers and been commissioned to write a book. Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth about Speaking the Truth, which came out in 2017, is an everyday tale of one middle-class city-dweller’s struggle to reach Westminster from a professional public-sector background, having gone to a highly selective grammar school and two Russell Group universities.
Phillips has spent her parliamentary career performing an idea of ‘ordinariness’ that collapsed at its first real test. At the leadership hustings in Liverpool on Saturday, she was both aggressive and defensive, as she smirked, for example, at Rebecca Long-Bailey’s use of the word ‘deindustrialisation’ to describe the process of deindustrialisation. (I was reminded of Alan Partridge: ‘Don’t know that word, carry on.’)
Long-Bailey, standing next to her, carried on, either oblivious to Phillips’s body language or inured to it. Emily Thornberry, on Phillips’s other side, got worse: the full huff-and-puff every time she dared to open her mouth. Thornberry, who shadowed Boris Johnson as foreign secretary for two years, said that she was the only candidate to have ‘gone toe-to-toe’ with him. But Phillips knew better, mouthing at the audience either ‘she’s not’, or ‘not true’, as Thornberry spoke.
Phillips tried to explain her lack of intellectual curiosity about the purpose and direction of a future Labour government by repeatedly bringing her statements back to individual cases she has dealt with in her outer-urban constituency. Fair enough, perhaps, and in many ways more inspiring than Keir Starmer insisting he should lead Labour because he had ‘run a big organisation’. (Does this mean we can expect the Labour Party, should he win, to be run like the Crown Prosecution Service?)
But no Labour MP has a cushy seat with little casework: all of them have to try to meet the complex needs of their constituents. And it was Phillips’s obsessive desire to get one over on her fellow MPs that made me realise not only could she never unite the historically fractious Labour coalition, but she would never be able to find more than a few allies in it. Her leadership campaign, as far as it lasted, was built on media collusion and a gallery of straw men. Phillips never understood – easy to miss when people are giving you the attention you crave – that she was celebrated in the press because she was happy to excoriate Corbyn rather than for her aggressively performed ‘ordinariness’. Had she been on the left of the party she’d have been trashed.
Pulling out of the contest now means Phillips can claim she was forced out because of her accent and appearance: because, in her words, in Westminster terms she ‘is basically a scullery maid’. Of the five candidates, only Thornberry (raised by a single mother, went to a secondary modern) and Keir Starmer (son of a nurse and a toolmaker) speak RP, and all earn the same tidy sum – book deals notwithstanding – as MPs that Phillips does.
To use a Scouse term, Phillips and her media supporters spied their arses on Saturday. Were we really there to watch Labour MPs try to meet the one test they will always fail at, ‘who is the best at looking authentic’? Of course not. What Phillips couldn’t admit, because it would mean accepting that she too would fail the test, was that there’s nothing more fake, or more doomed, than curating your realness.