An Evening with Marcus Brigstocke and Jess Phillips at the Chiswick Book Festival 2023

Image above: Jess Phillips MP; photograph Roger Green

Talking about everything from crumbling concrete to underwear

Labour MP Jess Phillips was at the Chiswick Book Festival on Friday night (8 September) talking to comedian Marcus Brigstocke. It was an inspired combination because they were well matched and both very funny, even though the conversation ranged from crumbly concrete to underwear, taking in proportional representation, violence against women and the Taliban along the way.

She was there to promote her books, which she seems to pop out with great regularity, about every two years: Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth about Speaking the Truth was originally published in 2017; Truth to Power: How to Call Time on Bullsh*t, Speak Up and Make a Difference was first published in 2019 and Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics: The Life of an MP in 2021.

I suppose it’s all those train journeys between Westminster and her Birmingham, Yardley constituency and all that hanging around waiting for late night votes in Parliament.

But all that may have to change as it is looking increasingly likely that Labour might win the next election and she will be busy. She told the audience at St Michael & All Angels Church she hardly dared let herself believe it might happen, but that they have to start preparing seriously for such an eventuality.

There is a “back to school” feeling about getting back to Westminster after the summer, with everyone catching up, exchanging gossip and chattering about their holidays, but very soon Westminster will empty out as they all go off to their various conferences.

Last year, she said, the Labour party conference was great fun as they watched their popularity shoot up in a converse relationship with the Tories as Liz Truss’s disastrous leadership crashed the economy.

This year it will be different, she says. They have to be more serious. No longer can they say anything they like as Opposition, as they may have the opportunity to put what they say into practice.

“We still have a long way to go” she said, and it would require a landslide victory.

Images above: Jess Phillips’ books

Preparing for power

When she does let herself think about the possibility of power, what would be her number one priority?

“Sorting out social care.” Although the subject she cares about most and has worked most on over so many years is trying to reduce violence against women, if she gets to pull the levers of power, doing something about social care is even more pressing, she said.

Keir Starmer wants to decentralise power and her city demonstrates why. Birmingham City Council has just gone bust.

“The idea that you can raise council tax on Birmingham is just for the birds”, she said, “and we’ve got nothing left to sell. We’ve sold the NEC.”

There has to be a mix of government grants and local fund raising to support local government costs, she said.

“When I had a threat against me, the local MP here, Ruth Cadbury, said why don’t you move your surgeries to a local council building which was staffed and had security. I had to explain to her there aren’t any council buildings left in my constituency.”

They talked about crumbling concrete – as the responsibility for most school buildings lies with the Department for Education it is unequivocally the Government’s fault that the failure of RAAC has not been dealt with until it has come to crisis point, she said.

Image above: Jess Phillips MP; photograph Roger Green

Friendships and parenting

They talked about male friendships. She lives in a male household with a husband and sons.

“You just list things. Football and rugby statistics. Films. Bands.”

Marcus Brigstocke thought about it for a moment and conceded this was true. He has teenage children and a toddler and often goes for walks with his best friend and the toddler and yes, they do exactly that. With them it’s bands.

They talked about parenting. Since he is divorced, he realised his teenaged daughter might well have her first period when she was staying with him and wanted to rise to the occasion supportively.

“I just wanted to her to know she had everything she needed in the bathroom.”

She reported back to her mother: “He was on about it again. He’s obsessed with periods.”

His rueful comment on what he’d learned about parenting: “As soon as you accept that it’s a series of managed failures it’s fine.”

And they talked about underwear. As the church was stifling hot on Friday night and she got pinker and pinker, “I’m sitting here in my underwear” she exclaimed, gesturing to a lacy number from Primark beneath her jacket.

Why Primark?

“It’s cheap, and it’s directly on my route to the train station and I run through it when I’m late for the train getting back to London. I have realised that the thing about living in two places is that your knickers are always in the wrong place.”

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