As one of Westminster’s most straight-talking MPs, Jess Phillips knows a thing or two about calling out BS. Now she's being tipped as the best hope for resurrecting the Labour Party following its huge defeat in the election. Here, she pays tribute to her four-foot-nothing nan, who taught her to call a spade a spade, 'even when that spade is the Prime Minister'
October saw the release of Jess Phillips’ new book, Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on BS. Here, she tells us where she got her grit – and why now’s the time to stand up and be counted.
Learning to stand up for myself didn’t come to me in an epiphany – it was my culture.
I guess you could say that I was raised by wolves. Both of my parents were strident political campaigners, and in my house you were as likely to hear the phrase, ‘This isn’t right, we’ve got to do something about it!’ as you were to hear, ‘Pop the kettle on, bab.’ The folklore of my family always revolved around things people had done to stand up to bullies and bigots. I remember how proud my parents were of my brother, Joe, when he took on the local bully as he was picking on our neighbour.
As I was raised by wolves, so too were my parents, and when asked who taught me to be a stroppy madam who will not quit if something is not right, the answer is my nan and grandma. When I was little, I spent my formative years in the homes of my grandparents while my parents were at work. My grandmothers lived streets apart from each other and were hard, working-class women. They knew pain and hardship and it had made them tough. They were generous and kind, and were certain about right and wrong – and didn’t mind telling you, or anyone, if you fell on the wrong side.
My favourite story about my Nanny Jess (my namesake) is the time she was on the top deck of a bus with lots of people, including a load of skinheads who were abusing the only Asian bloke. It was the early 80s and she was in her seventies. While everyone looked out of the window, my tiny four-foot-nothing nan went and sat next to him, then turned to this gang of racists and told them that racists was what they were and asked them why they had no humanity for their fellow man. I don’t think she clipped them round the ear, but the threat was probably there, and miraculously they quietened down.
I’m glad to say that race relations have moved on a bit since the 80s, but I think we have lost some of the grit of my grandparents’ generation. They definitely gave that to me. I have stood up to school bullies; I have stopped dangerous fights in the street; I have walked into the middle of angry protests and stood my ground. My grandparents and my parents taught me that you should call a spade a spade, even if that spade is the Prime Minister. Nowadays, we worry too much about offending people or saying the wrong thing. Today, we desperately want to be more like my granny and stride up to people and give them what for, but something stops us.
There is no better feeling in the world than the euphoria you get from calling out bullshit. The buzz I feel in my chest when I swallow my fear and rise to my feet in Parliament to fight back, or when I stand up to those who don’t like people who are gay or of colour. People cheer the brave and, as they cheer, they are wishing they had done or said something, too. Being brave in the face of conflict was the way. Nothing changes if we do nothing. My nan knew that and so should you. Let’s be more Nanny Jess.
Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on BS by Jess Phillips MP is out in October (£9.99, Monoray).