Last week, Intelligence Squared put on a debate called ‘Is Labour unelectable?’ Unsurprisingly, Labour MP Jess Phillips spoke against the motion – yet in doing so she managed to prove exactly why Labour are in fact hopelessly sunk.
The key moment was when Spiked’s Ella Whelan challenged Phillips for having quote tweeted and then promptly deleted an article that was supportive of Kathleen Stock, the philosophy professor hounded out of her job for her audacious view that women deserve some of their own spaces.
'This is worth a read. Thoughtful and gentle,' said Phillips on Twitter, though apparently she quickly decided it wasn’t worth a read and removed the tweet.
Red faced, Phillips denied that there was any pressure to delete and suggested that she didn’t like ‘dickheads’ arguing underneath the post. Phillips then reminded the audience that she has dedicated her ‘entire life (to) talking about women-only spaces’, which would be wonderful if Phillips could spell out exactly what she thinks a woman is. She then called Kathleen Stock Katherine, and insisted none of her constituents cared about that story.
— Intelligence Squared (@intelligence2) November 4, 2021
Is the Labour Party cowardly in discussions about women?Here's what @Ella_M_Whelan has to say #iq2 pic.twitter.com/QgR6mjZdSG
Hmmm. If she didn’t think the story was relevant, why did she link to an article on the subject and call it ‘thoughtful’? The trouble with Phillips’s whole down-to-earth Brummie persona means that women on the left have placed her in the 'say what she thinks' camp, the 'take no prisoners' and 'tells it like it is' barracks. It’s disappointing to find then that she either lacks courage, is disingenuous or has genuinely forgotten about her commitment to women. Phillips acknowledges her regional accent is her greatest asset in politics; she says that people trust her to say what she thinks because of it. But the voice you use to say things is not nearly as important as what you do and do not say.
Some accuse Phillips of being a typical politician, fickle and lacking conviction. It’s probably more complicated than that. Clearly, Phillips does care about women’s rights, women’s spaces and even the very basic idea of what a woman is. In other words, she wants to be a passionate defender of women. But she isn’t willing to risk the ire of trans activists in doing so. These two positions are increasingly irreconcilable.
In a 2020 Mumsnet webchat, Phillips said:
'As a women's rights activist for my entire life, the importance of women being able to organise collectively is a cornerstone and should be protected. I do believe transwomen are women....... Women's only spaces are vital in protecting women and helping women escape violence. I ran a women's domestic and sexual violence service and am confident in specialist services being able to risk assessment for safety. In that service, we had a small number of transwomen in my time there and they did not pose a risk.'
What were these ‘women's only spaces’, then? I hate to harp on about language but, without fixed meanings for 'man' and 'woman', it is excruciatingly difficult to know who or what we’re talking about.
Phillips could be exactly what Labour needs: a leading figure who knows what a woman is, one who can say it out loud and won’t sit in some little cabal and whisper about it. She could be someone who ‘tells it like it is’ by saying she knows that only women have a cervix and that male paedophiles should not be put in women’s prisons. She could – and should – be unafraid to protect women at all costs.
She practically has no competition in this space. Politicians like to insist that voters don’t care about trans issues and the culture wars peddled by the ‘right-wing press’. But the reason these issues resonate so much in the media and on social media is precisely because people do care about them.
If Phillips actually stood up for women, she could achieve her dream of becoming Labour’s first female prime minister. For now, though, she chooses not to.