'Everywoman,' by Jess Phillips, review

8 Mar 2017

'Don't call me a moderate,' I recall Jess Phillips once said. 'I want radical change.' In fairness, she has been called a lot worse: bitch, traitor, scab, main-hater. Phillips has had enough vituperative monikers flung at her that she could put them together in a song and sing it to her children at night, as if to remind them that name-calling doesn't end in school.


For a long time, we could have dismissed such insults as nothing more than the pathetic outbursts of losers that lived in their parents' basements and spent all day on their computers; the type we talked of knowingly as those who 'kept themselves to themselves.' That was at least until last summer, when one of those such characters crawled out from his Swastika-adorned council flat and violently murdered a colleague of Phillips’s on the streets of her Leeds constituency. The late Jo Cox has been given something of a posthumous role in this book, which has been written in the noxious atmosphere of post-Brexit Britain which the young Labour MP’s death seemed to inaugurate.


Phillips by no means wants to return to the old pleasantness, which doubtless never existed in the first place. She may be against trolls and the slanders they emit, but has no time for the stuffiness and excessive formality of her latest workplace. The House of Commons, she finds, is isolating and confusing. Unlike many parliamentarians, the speeches she delivers there are often written just hours, even minutes before she delivers them. Everywoman reads as if it has been prepared in a similar way.


The book is partly a politician’s biography and partly a woman’s guide to surviving in the modern world. Both these genres are familiar, but the blend of the two with Phillip’s own character makes it a superbly refreshing read. She brings urgent honesty to describing the various high and low points of her life, such as dealing with a heroin-addicted brother, or becoming pregnant with her boyfriend of one month when she was scarcely an adult herself. Later, Phillips worked for Women’s Aid and addressed the UN on the issue of violence against her gender. She arrived in the Commons in 2015, having had more ‘real life experience’ in the first thirty years of her life than many of her colleagues would ever know. As both a writer and a politician she seems impatient, so unsurprisingly feels uncomfortable in the unhurried world of parliamentary procedures.


Some critics have noted Phillips has not led a life with which most women would be familiar. This is not true. Having started out at the bottom end of the spectrum, her own toughness has carried her through to the top, teaching her a lot about what it is to be someone who feels they do not fit, or are under pressure to conform, as just about every woman will feel at some point in their lives. Her book, focused on and largely aimed at woman, can and should nonetheless be read by everyone. It is a dazzling refutation of the Thomas Mairs of this world, fighting hate and misogyny with icy intelligence and fiery wit.


Of course there will be those who will not like it, and will use it as another excuse to terrorise its author. The trolls, or at least the ones who can read, will inevitably sneer at her generalisations of men and her chastisements of their many failings as a gender. Occasionally Phillips mistakenly implies that there is a direct war raging between the two sexes in which all men are on the opposing side, but any intelligent and decent man can only admire this gutsy MP, and listen attentively to what she has to say on countless issues, from domestic violence to society’s still very old-fashioned view of the family.


I was disappointed, however, that a woman to whom honesty and pragmatism are obviously important lets her pragmatism triumph when it comes to the issue of the pathetic excuse for a man currently leading her party. She never directly berates Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps for political reasons, instead preserving most of her scorn for nonentities such as a LibDem predecessor in her Birmingham constituency. Nonetheless, Phillips is revealingly honest on one of Labour’s great sources of shame, its failure to take the symbolically important step of electing a woman leader. Should Jess replaced Jezza? She doesn’t seem interested in the job to begin with, but more importantly admits that she believes Labour is simply not ready for a woman leader – something which genuinely surprised me.


A few weeks ago, when writing a brief obituary of Gerald Kaufman for this site, I had thought of how the late Labour MP had in some ways wasted his career, or had had it wasted by other people, as he spent his best days sitting powerlessly on the backbenches of opposition. The similarly passionate and talented Phillips and her many colleagues, such as Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint, may endure a similar fate thanks to Corbyn, whose ‘leadership’ is insuring that the Tory right may run unchecked for several decades. Already a few MPs, such as Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt, have deserted what they see as a sinking ship.


The future, then, seems bleak. Jess Phillips, as this fantastic book demonstrates, has, like many other women, been tested a lot in her life. But in the years ahead she and other ‘moderates’ will have to endure a new, much tougher kind of test: of loyalty.


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