I’m scheduled to speak with Jess Phillips MP about her new book Speaking Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on BS, but the phone hasn’t rung. I’m not surprised. It’s the morning after one of the most momentous days in British politics and Jess has given an excoriating speech in the House of Commons calling out the Prime Minister for playing a “bully boy game” over his plans for Brexit, declaring that there was “literally no distance” that she would trust him on anything and shaming the “cowardly” members left on the Conservative benches for sitting silently by as 21 of their colleagues were suspended for rebelling against the PM. Delivered with righteous rage, it was a masterclass in calling time on BS.
Since taking office as MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, Jess Phillips has developed a reputation for calling it how she sees it. Her plain-speaking is a refreshing change in Parliament. (“Let’s just call it shutting down parliament. I literally hate the word prorogation” – another thing she’s bloody angry about.) But it’s won her plenty of enemies as well as supporters. In the book, she reveals that she sleeps with a panic button next to her bed, installed after her close friend and colleague Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist. She is constantly threatened for speaking out and viciously trolled on social media with vile and hateful comments. I can’t help but wonder if the price of speaking up is too high?
Of course, she admits, the backlash is distressing and the most difficult part of speaking truth to power. ‘Backlash usually means you have hit a nerve.’ she writes. ‘It can be terrifying and tiring and you should expect it and prepare for it, but it is also a force we can use for good if we learn what to amplify and what to ignore.’
As well as how to channel the fear, the book is full of practical advice for getting your message across in the most effective way and with the maximum impact and – in case you’re thinking your voice is too small to make a difference – interviews with ordinary people who were compelled to speak out. People like Zelda Perkins who blew the whistle on Harvey Weinstein, Sarah Rowbotham who refused to be silenced having discovered the child exploitation scandal in Rochdale, and the families of Grenfell United campaigning for safer social housing.
It’s an inspiring and emboldening read. A battle cry as well as a ‘how to’ manual. A reminder that, if you want to be heard, you’ve got to speak up. If you’re not ready to start a one-woman crusade just yet, Jess advises that we all start with not being a ‘bystander to bullshit’. As world politicians continue to behave in unspeakable ways, it falls to us to call them out. ‘If you don’t speak back to the bully, the bully always wins.’
Jess Phillips MP will be discussing her new book on Thursday 3rd October at the Brighthelm Centre, Brighton, 7.30pm. Visit city-books.co.uk/events for tickets.