Labour leadership: Jess Phillips vows to stop acting 'statesmanlike'

Outspoken candidate concedes she ‘stopped being real’ in Saturday hustings

The Labour leadership contender Jess Phillips has pledged to stop trying to appear prime ministerial as she battles to secure a place on the ballot paper after what she described as an “awful” first hustings in Liverpool on Saturday.

Writing for the Guardian, Phillips acknowledges that it looks highly unlikely anyone but the two frontrunners, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, would win the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

She conceded that she had “stopped being real” during the hustings event on Saturday – the first of a dozen – as she tried to deliver carefully prepared lines in a limited time.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

A close ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the Salford MP and shadow business secretary has been groomed as a potential leftwing contender for the top job.

Pitch Promising to champion “progressive patriotism”.

Lisa Nandy

The Wigan MP has built a reputation as a campaigner for her constituency and others like it, many of which have fallen to the Tories. A soft-left candidate, she resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2016 over Corbyn’s leadership and handling of the EU referendum.

Pitch Wants to “bring Labour home” to voters that have abandoned the party in its traditional strongholds.

Keir Starmer

Ambitious former director of public prosecutions has led the charge for remain in the shadow cabinet. He was instrumental in shifting Labour’s position towards backing a second referendum

Pitch Launched his campaign by highlighting how he has stood up for leftwing causes as a campaigning lawyer, and unveiled the slogan “Another Future is Possible”, arguing "Labour can win again if we make the moral case for socialism"

“The hustings was awful. I was awful because I was trying to hit a million different lines and messages in 40 seconds. Some were my lines, some were other people’s and it fell flat,” she wrote.

She lamented what she called “triangulation”, as candidates try to appeal to different factions in Labour, and said she would now ditch any attempt to appear “statesmanlike”.

“I might not look the most like a prime minister in this race, because apparently looking like a prime minister is a thing. I cannot win that war, so I am going to stop fighting it. I am going to do the thing that made tens of thousands of people ask me to run to be the leader. I am going to say what I think. I am going to give honest answers. I probably won’t win, but I am guessing that I might just inspire others to give it a go too,” she wrote.

The outspoken Phillips appears to be faltering at the second hurdle that candidates must clear to get on to the ballot paper after receiving enough nominations from MPs.

Each contender must win the support either of 33 constituency Labour parties (CLPs); or of three affiliates, two of which must be unions, and which between them account for at least 5% of the affiliated membership.

In practice, that means they need either a strong base among grassroots members or one of the “big five” unions on their side. Of those, only the shopworkers’ union Usdaw appears likely to consider supporting Phillips.

Its 15-strong executive will meet on Monday to make a decision, and some trades union sources have suggested it could opt for Starmer in an attempt to “back a winner”. In that case, Phillips would have to hope for an upsurge in support from CLPs.

Only 14 CLPs have nominated so far – and of those, 11 have backed Starmer and three have gone for Long-Bailey. There are fewer than four weeks left until the 14 February deadline for gathering nominations.

Of the other “big five” unions aside from Usdaw, Unison has already backed Starmer; the GMB is expected to choose between him and Wigan MP Lisa Nandy on Tuesday; and Unite is highly likely to support Long-Bailey when its executive meets, also this week.

The leftwing Communication Workers Union (CWU) also appears unlikely to throw its weight behind Phillips, who is not from the left of the party.

While Starmer has been ahead in recent opinion polls of Labour members, Long-Bailey can count on the backing of the leftwing Labour campaign group Momentum. That will give her team access to its formidable database of party members, who will be encouraged to staff phone banks supporting her candidacy.

The shadow business secretary has said she would score Corbyn’s leadership 10 out of 10 but has sought to distance herself from the party’s disastrous general election campaign, saying that it had no overarching message.

At the hustings on Saturday, she said she and her colleagues needed to become “salespeople for socialism”.

“How do we show people that everything we believe in in this room is sensible, credible and will transform our economy?” she said.

“Because what we are talking about is being done in other European countries and they are not calling it far-left or crazy. It’s what a civilised society expects. And I want to be the leader that gets the aspirational message through to people.”

Like Phillips, Emily Thornberry’s campaign appears to be struggling to make headway. She urged union bosses last week not to “keep the gates closed” to a wide field of candidates.

Nandy will visit the port of Grimsby on Monday, and argue that the government’s industrial strategy should be reshaped to prioritise the “foundational economy” – the things Britain relies on, including food and energy.

“The Brexit debate has lifted up the bonnet of the UK economy and should let us better appreciate who owns what, who supplies it, and from where. It should make us question the very essentials of our economy and consider the production of things most take for granted, including the food we eat and the services we all rely upon like energy,” she is expected to say.

“Too many major public contracts worth billions of pounds – in sectors like offshore wind and the rest of the energy industry – have benefited overseas firms at the expense of British jobs despite these investments being funded by everyone through their energy bills. The Tories have tried to deflect blame on to the EU for this when in reality it is a failure of their political vision, which all too often has seen us lose out on jobs and tax revenues to state-backed monopolies from other countries.”

This message appears likely to find favour among the unions, including Unite and GMB, whose workers could benefit if more taxpayer-backed projects went to domestic firms.

The promise, announced in the Sunday Mirror, appeared squarely aimed at the GMB and Unite, both of which have fought against job losses in the steel industry.

Phillips criticised the format of Saturday’s hustings event, which saw candidates given just 40 seconds to answer each question, and offered little opportunity for debate or follow-up questions.

“To answer any question in 40 seconds is ridiculous. If it were possible to sum up, for example, an economic plan or an industrial strategy in 40 seconds, one wonders why they are actually hundreds of pages long! What a ridiculous farce,” she wrote.

Corbyn’s successor will be announced at a special conference in London on 4 April.


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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