In the past few minutes, Jess Phillips has confirmed that she is pulling out of the Labour leadership race, saying the party needs a candidate who can unite people across its movement. In a video message, she said: ‘I have to be honest with myself, as I said I always would be throughout this campaign, that at this time that person isn’t me. In order to win the country, we need to find a candidate in this race who can do all that and then take that message out to the country of hope and change for things to be better.’
Sending a message to everyone who has backed me, to all who have joined in and joined up – I promise that your voices will still be heard. We all have a role to play in changing our party and our country. pic.twitter.com/xianaiGpPr
— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) January 21, 2020
Phillips appeared to have accepted that she wasn’t going to get through to the ballot paper at the weekend when she penned a piece for the Guardian describing her performance at the party’s first hustings as ‘awful’, and vowed to be more true to herself. It’s the kind of thing that’s rather easier to say when you know you’re not going to win the contest – she had failed so far to secure any nominations from affiliated organisations including trade unions or from constituency Labour parties, which suggested that the membership was not particularly enthusiastic about her, despite apparently recognising her more than rival Lisa Nandy.
I understand that failing to secure the nomination of big trade union Usdaw was what sounded the death knell for the candidate’s hopes. Had the moderate shop workers’ union backed Phillips, it might have been reasonable for her campaign to try to continue. The absence of that, plus information the campaign had gathered privately about the membership’s response to Phillips, meant it wasn’t right to carry on.
So what went wrong with her campaign? One of Phillips’ problems was that the recognition she had gained among the membership wasn’t particularly positive. Her comment, made very early on in her time as an MP in 2015, that she would stab Jeremy Corbyn ‘in the front’, are still often quoted by her opponents, and she and her campaign team were still trying to insist that her words had been taken out of context and that in fact she was promising not to stab Corbyn in the back like many colleagues by briefing against him, instead telling him face to face when she disagreed with him. That this was still an issue in this leadership contest showed Phillips had lost the battle to be quoted correctly.
Another problem was that Phillips chose to speak to the country first, rather than trying to flatter the members. This was what Liz Kendall did in the 2015 contest – and ended up with 4.5 per cent. Neither Phillips nor Kendall were particularly challenging in their analysis of what needed to change for Labour to win again, by the way, but they still went too far in members’ eyes with assertions such as renationalisation ‘never’ being a priority. Other campaigns had calculated that Phillips might draw away some of the fire from their own candidates, particularly Keir Starmer, who looks set to end up the ‘moderate’ candidate in a two-horse race with Rebecca Long-Bailey. ‘People might say I can’t vote for her, so I’ll vote for Keir,’ one party insider told me at the start of the campaign. ‘She’ll have a lot of good things to say for the country, but the Labour Party is not the country.’
The chasm between country and party was one reason some ‘moderate’ MPs felt they couldn’t back Phillips. One told me they had turned to another candidate because ‘whilst I admire Jess and I think she is a fantastic communicator I’m not sure that she’s ready or the party is ready for her’.