“Believe me,” writes Jess Phillips in Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics; My Life As an MP, “if you think you don’t belong in Parliament or in political life because you have never made a rousing speech or are crap at public speaking then you are wrong – you would be in good company in politics.” It’s not so much that the outspoken MP is disillusioned with Westminster. She’s enamoured of everything about the place, from the cornicing to the 90% of MPs who “genuinely want to make the world a better place”. That’s often the figure people use to make this point, that however self-serving politics looks, its participants are generally motivated by public duty. I would be interested to see the field work.
No, Phillips is not disappointed so much as indignant – on a one-woman campaign to strike out the mystique of politics, which is rooted variously in snobbery, the complications and jargon of process and tradition and the overall Hogwartsiness of the place. The debate is often not that erudite, and the number of truly great orators on the green benches is vanishingly small. I think she’s right, and furthermore, she herself is one of them. Yet both as a politician, and here as part-explainer, part-memoirist, she is peculiarly resistant to big ideas.
This can make her concerns sound a little niche: “In my view,” she writes, “anyone who thinks it is a good idea to send a picture of their genitals to an unknown person … must know they’re going to get caught.” It’s … um … a point of view. But in a parliament like this one, rife with cronyism, racist dog-whistling and confected culture wars, we’re looking at a reconfiguration of the possibilities of elected office, away from the power to make law, towards self-enrichment and the creation of corrupted state-backed capitalism. So I’m not sure that dick pics are the priority. Phillips cites Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example of successful brand building, without mentioning the real root of her success, which has been the iteration of an economic programme that could unite large and disparate sections of the left. It’s not so much putting the cart before the horse as failing to notice that the horse was necessary at all.
Phillips flips between two positions: if you want to change the status quo, you have to throw yourself into it, since politics is for all of us and we all belong; but also, the status quo isn’t as bad as you think, and everyone’s doing their best. But if the second is true, what do you need us for? She retains an original turn of phrase that, if she applied it to more original politics, would be absolutely arresting. “I am not saying this in order to defend MPs,” she writes, “far from it, some of them are absolute rob dogs.” It would be good to hear more about the robbing and less about the dogging, in an overall narrative where change is both urgent and possible.
• Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics by Jess Phillips is published by Simon & Schuster (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.