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Jess Phillips’s Failed Campaign to Become Labour Leader Should Be a Lesson for Centrists

Jess Phillips’s brief but disastrous bid for the Labour Party leadership is a cautionary tale for substanceless centrists in politics: just because pundits and TV hosts love you doesn’t mean anybody else will.

Labour MPs, (R-L) Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips, Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer, take part in the first party leadership hustings at the ACC Liverpool on January 18, 2020 in Liverpool, England. Christopher Furlong / Getty

Jess Phillips’s Labour leadership bid was mercifully short: after the first hustings, she wrote an article in the Guardian denouncing hustings. Then she failed to show up to the GMB union hustings, before announcing she was dropping out. Her campaign was built solely around her personality cult: her Guardian column impressively manages to use the word “I” thirteen times in the first short paragraph. Phillips first came to attention for claiming that she had told Diane Abbott to “fuck off,” a claim Abbott says is nonsense, and she later added that she was surprised no journalist approached her at the time to check or for comment. The belief that she had done so thrilled many centrists, who despise Abbott, the member of Parliament (MP) who receives the most abuse in the Commons and was the first and only black woman in Parliament for a long period.

Most centrists and those on the right have shown little to no interest in understanding what led to the popularity of Corbynism or why Jeremy Corbyn won two leadership elections. Instead, they denounce the phenomenon as a personality cult — as though millennials have always been irresistibly attracted to teetotal middle-aged men interested in jam-making and working their allotments. Momentum was disregarded as a hardened group of fixers, rather than a very benign but effective campaigning group, and Corbynites were dismissed not for their belief in policies and socialism, but for being obsessed with “Magic Grandpa” Corbyn.

In response, then, the centrists and Labour right tried to advance a personality cult of their own. If it worked for Corbyn, surely it would work for them? The section of the British commentariat that regularly tweets “If [X] were head of the Labour Party, we’d be twenty points ahead” fully backed their chosen candidate and were convinced of her ability to upend the race. But the first hustings was her ultimate undoing. What should have been an opportunity for Phillips’s bold personality to shine quickly revealed she had no policies of which to speak, and though her pitch was to unite the party as well as the country, she offered no proposals on how to do so. In response, she wrote an article that would be an instant career-ender for anyone on the Left, then missed several planned media slots and a second hustings before announcing she was dropping out. It remains unfathomable that after spending five years wrecking within the party, she simply had no ideas or policies and seemingly expected to win on the strength of backing from centrist newspaper columnists.

But the media remain obsessed with the cult of personality, and this shapes the way they attack Rebecca Long-Bailey. In contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, she doesn’t have a long history in Parliament to comb through and smear. She grew up in a working-class family in Salford, with a father working as a docker, worked in a pawn shop herself and saw firsthand how poverty affects people, and was a lawyer before becoming an MP. In Parliament she has been quiet, rather than endlessly courting the media like Phillips, and hardworking. Long-Bailey was the architect of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution policy, that would see green jobs with good wages and contracts return to deindustrialized areas, and promises to uphold the policy if elected.

So the smears all fall flat, so paper thin as to be transparent. The fact that she lives in a house was proffered by the Daily Mail as a slight against her. The attacks last week were openly anti-Catholic and quickly dispelled. Now, the fact that she held an interview in a meeting room where Jeremy Corbyn once sat apparently has allegedly shown she was a “puppet” of the “Corbyn regime” according to a London Times reporter, words he would never use for anyone on the Right.

The media don’t know what to do with Long-Bailey, because she relied on hard work to get into her position and focuses on substance rather than showmanship.

Some people claimed they liked Labour’s manifesto but were simply put off by Corbyn; those same people now are attacking Long-Bailey. Many opined that since Labour has never had a female leader, the next leader must be a woman; those people are silent now. Long-Bailey isn’t the woman they wanted, and they’ve now decided they prefer the more centrist Keir Starmer to a woman who agrees with the tenets of Corbynism.