Andrew Mitchell is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.
“Everywoman” by Jess Phillips: a review.
Jess Phillips, my Parliamentary neighbour in Birmingham, Yardley, and I are polar opposites. She is a young, sassy Labour MP for an inner-city marginal; I am a grey-haired, crusty old Tory representing the royal town of Sutton Coldfield.
Jess describes herself as the only woman in a family of boys; I am the only male in an all-female household – even the dog is a girl.
I think we first met through Jo Cox – her very close friend, and my co-Chair of the All Party Syria Group in Parliament. In the less than two years since Jess arrived in the Commons, she has planted her standard, set out her stall and been more effective in influencing public debate than she seems to realise.
The book is full of laugh-out-loud moments. If you were to travel back to Birmingham with Jess by train on a Thursday evening and she settled down with a glass of wine in a seat opposite you, this book is a verbatim transcript of what you’d get: home truths, laced with humour from a lippy Brummie barely drawing breath throughout.
My favourite funny lines in the whole book, which encapsulate Jess’s in your face, kick ass, Brummie style are:
“My hairdresser informed me whilst foofing up my barnet that you can get a boob job on the never-never” and “the uterus is just an organ which spends 90 per cent of the time being a total pain in the arse”. We learn slightly too much about her tattoos and tramp stamp. She also has a slightly unhealthy interest in George Clooney’s scrotum.
Jess can be Bridget Jones without the neurosis. But what she really is is Aunt Poll from the Peaky Blinders – the matriarch of the Shelbys, a Birmingham gangster family who ruled the City between the wars: gangsters made famous in the recent excellent BBC series. Aunt Poll sucks up what life throws at her, and gives no quarter to those who cross her. Described as a passionate woman whose heart belongs firmly to her family, she is more than capable of telling her opponents to f*** off. She is most definitely not a woman to be under-estimated in achieving what she sets out to do. In other words, Jess Phillips to a tee; Jess Phillips is Aunt Poll.
Jess inveighs against “shushing” in the Commons – a means of belittling women in a debate. Crikey! You should have seen it in the early 1980s and 90s when I arrived. In those days a still-present knight of the shires could bawl across the Chamber his desire for a Labour woman. Thankfully, such days are long gone. He would probably be threatened with arrest today.
From time to time, Jess is excessively tribal. She is surprisingly unsympathetic to David Cameron, who would agree with much of what she says and whom she would have liked had she known him. Of David, she says: “he’s not clever, just privileged”.
She also denigrates Tories to make her point about All Women Shortlists. So she picks on Philip Davies to make her point. She may not like Philip, or remotely share his views (I have my reservations!), but he is a strong and authentic Parliamentarian who articulates opinions held outside the Westminster bubble.
Likewise, she picks on Mark Spencer, my colleague from Sherwood. His remarkable victory in 2015 was a testament to the respect in which he is held in a community I know well. And yet not long afterwards, we learn from Jess that “the hatred of our politicians and the belief in a homogenous morality is what breeds the populist claptrap of the plastic everyman”.
She is generous – and right – about Jacob Rees-Mogg, and credits Damian Green’s decency, although he runs a Government Department and is responsible for policies she detests.
The central importance of this book however is what Jess Phillips says about Violence against Women. It should be read, for that reason alone, by every male MP. On this, Jess speaks out without fear or favour in the best traditions of Parliament. She has arrived in the Commons bringing with her deep practical experience and understanding of a subject only now receiving the essential level of scrutiny and action that it demands.
I challenge anyone to read what she says about this without being both moved and upset. Those across the Commons who take a keen interest in international development have long understood that it is impossible to combat the extremes of poverty without seeing it through the eyes of girls and women. She makes clear that tackling women’s rights issues around the world is best organised and realised when women self-advocate – a key tenet of Conservative International Development policy. Incidentally, I am surprised that her Parliamentary predecessor, Clare Short, does not get more of a mention. She ought to be one of Jess’s heroines. She sets out in prose that sears off the page a vital challenge of our times.
Finally, Jess focuses on the appalling trolling on the internet that women (and to a much lesser extent men) in public life face today. When I was first an MP, such communications arrived by post – usually written in green ink and capital letters. Today, the extraordinary levels of abuse, especially for women who speak out and which Jess chillingly illustrates, are intolerable. I have in the past attracted low-level abuse which my office loosely monitors. But as a non-tech-savvy man it largely passes me by. But by far the most vile abuse is reserved for women. It is unacceptable in public life, and as a society we should be utterly intolerant of it.
Few MPs arrive in the Commons and establish themselves as quickly and with such authority as Jess Phillips. Although she is not a Tory (and she would find us much more congenial than she seems to think) she is a tremendous asset.
Everywoman by Jess Phillips is published by Hutchinson (£14.99).