Jess Phillips’ campaign slogan is ‘speak truth, win power’, but in yesterday’s party hustings, she seemed to think that the extent of the truth that the Labour Party needs to hear is that it needs to win elections again and it had a few duff ideas in its manifesto that voters didn’t believe. The candidate herself didn’t appear happy with her performance when she popped up on Pienaar’s Politics this morning, confessing: ‘I think that maybe I have started to decline in telling people what they don’t want to hear a little bit and I decided yesterday after the hustings the I’m going to actually just be myself again.’
She accused her party of being ‘a bit dour’ and suggesting that ‘things are really terrible in the country and that is absolutely true, but the truth is we’re not going to get anywhere unless we talk to people that things can get better’. She also said that nationalising the water industry and other utilities ‘would never be my priority’, which will infuriate some in the party who still believe its purpose is to ensure that services are in public ownership. This is the kind of thing that a new leader will have to do: disappoint the membership by rejecting some of the ideas they hold dear in order to show the voting public that the party has its feet on the ground and understands what they really worry about.
But she doesn’t want to annoy the membership too much. While some of her supporters feel she needs to deal with what they see as a ‘party within a party’ in the form of Corbynite grassroots group Momentum, Phillips made clear that she wasn’t going to proscribe the organisation. Instead, she would take a zero tolerance approach to bullying and racism in the party. That in itself would be a marked change from the current leadership – though it’s worth saying that all the leadership contenders have made this pledge – which has often turned a blind eye to such behaviour. Indeed, today’s Sunday Times suggests that despite being one of the subjects of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party, top Corbyn aide Karie Murphy is in line for a peerage. Phillips told the show that the rules of the contest banned her from talking about party staff who are unable to reply in public, but said more generally that: ‘I don’t think that anybody should be given a peerage who is currently under investigation by the EHRC.’
Phillips isn’t in a strong position at the moment. She has much higher recognition among Labour members than her rival Lisa Nandy, but it seems that members don’t like what they already know about her, and according to the latest YouGov poll for The Times, she would come third in the first round of votes with 11 per cent. Emily Thornberry, who has arguably been far blunter than Phillips, is struggling still more, and the polling suggests she would be knocked out in the first round. The greatest role that both could end up playing in this contest is as irritants, forcing their rivals to take stronger stances on issues at hustings and in interviews.