On October 5th, Jess Phillips MP gave the Policy & Politics Annual Lecture in the University’s Wills Memorial Hall.
Here, Dr Oscar Berglund, co-editor of Policy & Politics, gives an account of the lecture and its themes. This report was first published in the Policy & Politics blog.
Policy & Politics was delighted to host Jess Phillips MP to speak to a large audience in Bristol about ‘Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics’.
Jess has been MP for Birmingham Yeardley since 2015 and is arguably one of Britain’s most prominent feminist politicians.
The aim of Phillips’ talk, based on her recent book of the same title, was to demystify British politics in an effort to strengthen the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. The general scorn for politicians that is so common across the UK serves the Conservatives, she says. When people say ‘What’s the point in voting? You’re all the same’, people think that they are soldiers, that they are taking a stance. But on the contrary, to Phillips, it sounds like surrender.
What has always motivated Phillips to engage in politics has been to end violence against women and girls. ‘Whilst change is slow and hard, everything good in my life, the right to vote, the right to abortion, was delivered to me through politics’. Politics is everything, she says, ‘from the clothes we wear to what’s in my womb’.
Phillips has some key messages in order to demystify and detoxify politics.
People have good intentions. 95% of MPs want to change the world for the better, Phillips states. We also have remarkably similar ideas of what is good, such as people not going hungry and having housing and education. Although people do obviously have different views of how to get there. Painting people as though they are gruesome or evil does not help Phillips in her work to make women and girls safer, she says.
Another important lesson for Phillips has been that most people don’t care about almost anything that you care about. It is futile to lecture people on the basis that they do or should care about something as much as you do. The vast majority of people are not deeply wounded by whatever issue. Apart from the rights of Palestine, Phillips’ constituents don’t care about any of the hot issues on Twitter. People, she says, care more about bins. Aggression and righteousness will never be enough to win people over. Instead, there has to be hopeful vision.
Don’t assume bad faith. For Phillips, bad faith is stifling political activism. We too often assume that people are in politics for the wrong reasons and that stops us from meeting people where they are to achieve our goals. Unfortunately, the small percentage of politicians who are out for themselves often rise to the top. David Cameron and Boris Johnson are in that category, she says.
Central to Phillips’ view of politics is that there is no such thing as perfect policy. There are no obvious answers even though we often think so. All policies have downsides. As an example she cites her first vote on bombing Syria. Although she voted against it, she has come to recognise that people die whether you bomb or not. You’d just feel better about it if you’re not the one pulling the trigger, she says. The idea that there are easy options is wrong. We need to move away from a view that you’re either perfect or you belong in the bin, she says. The certainty that there are simple solutions does us no favours. Slogans don’t mean anything. Instead Phillips believes that we would get more out of our politics if we had more faith and nuance.
Phillips’ final message is to have hope, not despair. Things can be better if we make them better, but it relies on people making it better. Everything that ever changes does so because people decide to.
Asked by an audience member about being brave and outspoken and the danger it brings, Phillips states that if you’re not brave in politics the outcome doesn’t change. Nine people are currently in prison for trying to, or threatening to, attack Jess Phillips. She is one of the most targeted MPs in the UK. ‘If I stopped speaking from a feminist perspective I might be safer but the world doesn’t become safer’.
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