Jess Phillips should not be attacked for making her loyalty to Labour conditional

With the leadership no longer representing traditional Labour values, how many more MPs will question their place within the party?

Chuka Umunna
Monday 11 March 2019 15:39 GMT
Labour's Jess Phillips tells Theresa May she is 'enraged' with Theresa May's 'complete and utter lack of bravery' on Brexit

There was a fabulous interview with one of Birmingham’s finest, Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in The Times over the weekend which is well worth a read.

I first met Jess when, as Labour’s shadow business secretary, I was dispatched on a campaign visit to her constituency in the lead in to the 2015 general election. We visited a motor manufacturer and had a laugh being photographed in a racing car together, if my memory serves me correctly. Jess says exactly what she thinks and I’ve always liked that. If she disagrees with you, she will tell you to your face and not go around briefing against you like some in Westminster.

After her election, she immediately made her mark and is one of those the chamber stops to listen to because she always adds to the debate. Jess is never one to make some mundane, party-political point or question dished out by the whips – she always brings a real-world story into the discussion.

For her frankness and refusal to blow with whatever the Labour leadership and its army of keyboard warriors demand, she has been subject to the most horrific online abuse and yet she has never let it deter her. I get the same nonsense, but nothing like to the same degree and awfulness as many women MPs suffer. The hard-left Twitter trolls are something to behold – and the right-wing equivalents are just as bad. They scream and shout all over my Twitter feed and on my Facebook. I’ve often been tempted to reply asking why they bother following me if they think I’m so evil but I can’t be bothered to do so. Ultimately, what on earth is the point in engaging with the bile?

In her interview, Jess is asked whether she will leave the Labour Party, as I and others have done. She responded: “I feel like I can’t leave the Labour Party without rolling the dice one more time. I owe it that. But it doesn’t own me. It’s nothing more than a logo if it doesn’t stand for something that I actually care about – it’s just a f***ing rose.” You can imagine the reaction from the Corbynite left online which this provoked. But it raises the question, which many have asked: how many others will leave?

The truth is we don’t know. There are a number of MPs in the established parties who are on a journey and only they know if and when they will reach the final destination. It is a deeply personal decision and I would never patronise any colleague by suggesting I know what is right for them to do according to their beliefs, values and judgement – only they know that. I respect those who chose to stay and fight – I’ve just reached a different destination on my journey.

Jess Phillips lists names of women killed by men for International Women's Day

When those of us who left were considering what to do beforehand, and we moved from conceptualising leaving to practically working out when and how we would do so, it was fascinating to see the thought process people would go through. It is not a straightforward decision – it is certainly one of the most difficult you make in life and it is not a purely political.

Some have deep family connections to their parties where their grandparents were members and so on, or their other half might work for the party in some capacity. Their closest friends – who they spend Christmas with or with whom they go on holiday – may be party colleagues. People worry how they will support young families if they lose their job at the next election. There is a real, general fear about the consequences that will follow.

In the end, in so far as Labour people are concerned, I think it comes down to two issues. First, do you think the Labour Party as it was before the summer of 2015 is retrievable? I don’t think it is and, if I am wrong about that, I think it will take many years before it returns to being the broad church it once was. Last week I published a 20,000-word pamphlet on what a progressive agenda for the UK might look like, based on what have traditionally been thought of as Labour values – the sad reality is that in word and deed those values are no longer championed by the leadership of the party.

Second, do you think Jeremy Corbyn and the immediate team around him are fit to move into Downing Street and take control of the levers of state, including responsibility for our national security? I do not. If your answer to either question is no, it is hard to see how you can stand on a Labour ticket at the next election, whenever it comes. That’s the conundrum for many Labour MPs.

Netflix’s ‘Dirty John’ is essential viewing

My latest Netflix recommendation: Dirty John starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton. It is compulsive viewing – the Umunna household watched the entire series this last week – and a true story. It is about a successful businesswoman who falls for a man she meets online dating who turns out to be a complete fraud and a total nightmare. He ends up almost ruining her life and her family. On the one hand you can’t believe that she doesn’t read the signs of how awful this guy she met is; on the other hand such is his skill at deceit and lying, you can see how she was misled. Well worth watching.

Chuka Umunna is the Independent Group MP for Streatham

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