Watching and listening to Jess Phillips I am faced with the fact I have been taught not to admire someone like her. I am a fully-paid-up feminist and daughter of an old Red, brought up in the West Midlands not far from Phillips’s constituency, and yet I have not been taught to read intelligence or excellence in the lines of her (distinctly womanly) face and figure, or in her Black Country tones and phrases. I see a flash of green nail varnish as she moves her hands, and some very confused voice of internalised misogyny wonders how any serious person can have painted their nails; as her voice fills my ears I simultaneously bask in the familiar accent and detect a treacherous whisper of doubt about her credibility coming from the back bench of my mind.
This is unconscious bias, of course, and Phillips knows perfectly well how it works – and how it works against her. Not only is she female, but she’s “gobby” and she isn’t stick-thin, which is to say she’s got both her sex and her failure to conform to approved gender norms against her. On top of that there’s class, and her sex intersecting with this makes it worse – because, let’s face it, there is at least such a thing as a working class hero in the cultural imagination, while the working class woman is less glamorised. Phillips has tales to tell of Labour Party reluctance to use women in campaigning because male voters were the target; as she puts it in her book, Everywoman, “the party of workers seems to have failed to notice that over the past hundred years – and in fact for all the centuries before that – women have been workers too.” These are the tired old stereotypes holding industry as well as the Labour Party back “when considering women,” argues Phillips: the images both of “worker” and of “leader” in our minds are still men, and probably white.
No, we haven’t been taught to hear the voice of the working class woman as the voice of authority. And yet scarcely ten minutes into Phillips’s talk I have become fully aware that this woman is among the most intelligent people I have ever heard speak. This is a woman who comes to Parliament as an outsider – a young, working class mother, precisely the sort of person Parliament’s traditions and atmosphere alienate – who instead of being intimidated into anxious conformity begins immediately thinking how Parliament can be improved. It’s a “terrible working environment”, she says. “Even on my first day I was like, what is wrong with this place?” She was incensed, for instance, that there was no procedure for her staff to complain (about her) if they needed to. She also has criticisms to make of parliamentary procedures themselves, such as the Private Members’ Bill ballot (the lottery process by which some private members’ bills are given priority and are thus more likely to become law). “That’s how we make laws in this country!” she exclaims with humour as well as scorn, and all at once I see how ludicrous is this convention that I’d never thought to question. That critical, reforming intelligence of hers: that’s how progress happens.
So this is why we need all women shortlists (and could do with BME shortlists, in my opinion): because there are these impediments to our seeing excellence and intelligence in people who are not white men educated at prestigious public schools; and we need their intelligence. Phillips was selected from such a shortlist (having been approached by the Labour Party on account of her community activism), and there are plenty who like to tell her this means she’s only in Parliament because she’s a woman. Start implementing or even just talking about what is officially known as “positive action” (but often called “positive discrimination”) and people – especially white men! – will inevitably begin crying “meritocracy” and “the best person for the job!” This goes for other workplaces, not just Parliament, and schemes that aim to benefit BAME individuals as well as women: a friend of mine was once told – by her employer – that she only got the job “because she was brown”. My friend was so humiliated by this that she began to think positive action should be avoided: she concluded that prejudice will only be exacerbated if people of colour and white women don’t demonstrate that they can achieve these positions by their own merit.
Jess Phillips, however, gives the lie to the myth of “meritocracy”. As she succinctly put it in her talk, if you believe that all positions are automatically filled by the best person for the job, “you must by extension believe the right person for a position of power is always a white man, and the right person for a cleaning job is a black woman.” In the book she puts paid to the idea that quota candidates are under-qualified, citing a 2015 study that compared the qualifications and experience of all women shortlist MPs with their non-quota colleagues, both female and male. It emerged that the quota women were, overwhelmingly, more rather than less qualified and experienced. Just for example, in 2010, “the mean years of prior experience of AWS women was 6.8 years, compared to 4.4 for Conservative men.”
“For many of the men in Parliament – and I am sure the country – my place in the House of Commons represents the lowest standard in the building. They think I only got there because I am a woman, when in actual fact I got there in spite of the fact that I am a woman.”
The authors of the study, Nugent and Krook, suggest that women tend to underestimate their suitability for positions and will wait until they are thoroughly qualified to put themselves forward; what quotas do is mobilise, “inspiring qualified women to come forward as candidates”. In a nutshell: positive action enables us to access untapped intelligence and talent, of which we would otherwise remain deprived. This point was demonstrated at the beginning of the Q&A section, when chair Andrew Kelly invited the audience to raise their hands with questions. No women did so. When called upon as women, however, in the interests of gender parity, there was a sudden proliferation of female hands. And their questions were good, enabling Phillips to elaborate on issues that needed discussion.
Sexual exploitation, for instance, and the way it is often too normalised for us to see it, especially when we are young. She has always considered herself “properly feminist”: “there was always some women’s group in my living room doing primal screaming or something,” she says; “classic women’s movement” stuff. (And these were working class women, she adds. “I hate the way it gets portrayed as a middle-class affair.”) Nevertheless, she and her peers grew up with a feminism inflected by lad and ladette culture, thinking that “being empowered was doing what they [the boys] wanted you to do.” She recollects the time that one of her friends was sold by her (older) boyfriend to another man in return for a bag of weed. She writes, “we joked and laughed about how we would have a whip-round to buy her back. Today I call this sexual exploitation; back then I swooned over the idea that these edgy men found us so desirable.” She thinks that today’s girls are “better versed” because of the “latest feminist movement” and are more likely to have the ideas and language that will enable them to see exploitation for what it is, but of course there are still plenty of young women, especially the vulnerable – like those of Rotherham, who won’t.
Phillips says that, personally, she is “not deeply traumatised” by the distinctly exploitative dynamics of those early relationships, but that this gung-ho version of empowerment “did make the women of my generation continue to be part of a patriarchal culture: that was the damage.” “I thought I was in control at the time – which is what patriarchy does to women.” Questioned on this further by an audience members she clarifies: “I don’t feel traumatised, but I was a victim.” Though she doesn’t personally “have flashbacks”, that doesn’t make what happened OK. And she acknowledges that her “conditioning as a woman” encourages her not to think of herself as a victim: women are “taught by our mothers and grandmothers to ‘just get on with it’ … But ‘just getting on with it’ lets people off the hook.”
The amount that Phillips managed to pack into a one-hour conversation is reflective of how much she has already packed into her thirty-six years. Topics touched on included Brexit (of course): her constituency is “a really Brexity area” but – and she gently condemns the snobbery of the Remain camp – that doesn’t mean they are to be despised. “People where I live are not stupid. They are also, largely, not racists.” (Some are, she confesses darkly.) “They are aware of migrants – or they are migrants. They live in Birmingham, for god’s sake! But they voted because they were unhappy. They voted with their unhappiness.”
She also touches on the fact that because of Brexit negotiations very little is “going through” Parliament at the moment other than budgets. “Totally maddening.” David Cameron called the referendum to conclude the conversation on Europe, but now they discuss almost nothing else. “I mean, what a twat,” she sums up. “We’re just fighting to stay where we are: we’re just holding the fort” so that past gains in workers’ and women’s rights won’t be lost – which is a very real danger. “If you want to change the world I’m not sure that Parliament is – currently – the place to do it,” she says, sort of off-hand. Even so, there’s something about her influence that makes me think perhaps I should become an MP…
To learn more about how Jess Phillips is no longer letting anyone much off the hook – least of all Jeremy Corbyn on his “problem with women” and his tokenist use of them – you must read her excellent, humorous and hard-hitting book, Everywoman.