In Depth

Labour leadership: does Jess Phillips stand a chance?

The Birmingham Yardley MP says she will stop trying to appear 'statesmanlike'

Jess Phillips has vowed to ditch efforts to appear “statesmanlike” and pledged instead to “give honest answers” in the Labour leadership contest.

Writing in The Guardian after the first leadership election hustings, she described her contribution to the event as “awful”, adding: “I was trying to hit a million different lines and messages in 40 seconds. Some were my lines, some were other people’s and it fell flat.”

Phillips added that she would no longer attempt to look “like a prime minister”, writing that while she “probably won’t win… I am guessing that I might just inspire others to give it a go too”.

The Birmingham Yardley MP has had a tough start to the campaign and is lagging behind Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in the polls. So does she stand a chance?

Where is her support?

Phillips won 23 nominations from Labour MPs to make it on to the leadership ballot paper, including Wes Streeting and Rosie Duffield. 

Duffield made headlines last year when she revealed in a speech to the House of Commons that she is a survivor of domestic abuse, a cause Phillips has championed as an MP.

She does not have the support of pro-Corbyn factions in the party, as she was a vocal critic during his leadership, famously saying that she would “knife him in the front” if it looked like he was damaging the party’s chances of electoral success.

As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush notes, Phillips is positioning herself as “a straight-talker who will turn around a party that has, in her words, ‘been afraid to speak the truth’”. Her campaign slogan is “speak truth, win power”, a reference to what Bush describes as her pitch to that “prized political commodity: authenticity”.

According to YouGov polling, she is also the most popular and prominent of the leadership candidates with the public: 12% say they have a good opinion of her, while 33% have at least heard of Phillips. 

Like Corbyn, she also appears to have the support of the young, polling best among millennials and Generation X.

Why is she struggling?

Her poor performance at the hustings in Liverpool on Saturday has damaged her campaign, as Phillips acknowledged in her article for the Guardian. The “likelihood of someone like me, who speaks like I do and says the things I say, ever being elected to be a party leader is slim”, she wrote.

The next hurdle for the candidates is to get the backing of local Labour parties, known as Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), or an affiliate, including unions. They need the backing of 5% (33) of CLPs or three affiliates - two of which must be unions.

Phillips is yet to secure the formal backing of any unions or CLPs. Emily Thornberry is in the same situation, meaning that the pair could end up scrapping it out for the support of CLPs. Starmer, Long-Bailey and Nandy have all already picked up support and are likely to secure more backers in the coming weeks. 

However, as The i notes, “if the CLP vote mirrors that of the membership… it could lean in favour of Phillips, given she has become a well-known name among many members”.

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So does she have a chance?

While the odds are not good for Phillips (she is currently around 40/1 to win the leadership), she is something of a wildcard candidate.

In a recent poll by the Economic and Social Research Council and the New Statesman, Labour members named Phillips, unprompted, as the third most preferable leader after Starmer and Long-Bailey.

And, as political commentator Matthew D’Ancona notes, the “talented, strong and relatable” Phillips has never held a shadow cabinet role, meaning she “stands outside factions” within the party.

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