Jess Phillips: The message I’ve been forced to send Luciana Berger too many times

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

‘You OK?’ was the message I sent to Luciana Berger last week. As I scroll back through our previous WhatsApp chats I can see that I’ve sent this same message painfully frequently. I’ve sent it each time someone is jailed or charged in court for abusing her and threatening her for being Jewish. I’ve sent it every time the anti-Semitic abuse she receives reaches fever pitch, such as the time last month when she asked for our party to put down a vote of no confidence in the Tories. After which she was attacked as ‘the member for Liverpool Haifa,’ an ‘Israeli shill’ and more merciless racial abuse. We live in backward times. Luciana has by no means been the only MP to criticise Labour’s position on Brexit, nor is she alone in standing up against racism. So it’s funny how she seems to receive the lion’s share of Labour abuse (by ‘funny’, I mean anti-Semitic). On Friday, when I should have been giving my constituents my full attention, I ended up on the phone to Labour women and the party HQ, trying to put a halt to an attempted motion of no confidence in a pregnant Jewish MP — a motion, what’s more, that had been laid down by a man who had seemingly written anti-Semitic comments about Luciana in the past. But yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing to do with her being Jewish. Nothing at all.

In my constituency in Birmingham Yardley, I’m visited by a bloke asking for a food bank voucher. His family, he tells me, are without any resources. Why? He had been 15 minutes late for his meeting at the job centre, so he was sanctioned. He has two kids, who I am sure have learnt a valuable lesson of punctuality. Nothing will teach you to be on time like abject hunger enforced by an oppressive regime. I sometimes wonder how ministers would react if they were held to the same standards. What’s this, Theresa May, late with that Brexit deal you promised? No chicken lasagne and boiled potatoes for you.

On Saturday, for the first time in 14 years, I found myself with no constituency party meeting or campaign event to attend, and no children to look after (they are too old and independent to care to see me at the weekends). It was — gulp — a free day. A cold sweat rushed over me as I sat silently in my house. What to do? I asked Twitter (obviously). As suggestions about drafting a new Brexit deal flooded in, I considered ringing my Northern Irish father to discuss the backstop. But he’d have assumed I was talking about rounders, because he is a normal human being. Both David Lammy and Tom Tugendhat offered me their children to fill my empty nest. (If their fathers are anything to go by, I think we could have come up with a workable plan for Britain’s future modelled in Play-Doh.) It was Nick Boles who won the ‘what will Jess do today’ award, suggesting that I watch Sex Education on Netflix. As a result, the Irish backstop is no further forward — but I am now drafting new guidelines for schools, where apparently young people are going at it left, right and centre.

When I opened my eyes on Sunday, the first thing I laid eyes on was not my husband, but Twitter. The Mail on Sunday had published extracts from what purported to be a tell-all biography of Jeremy Corbyn and about what kind of husband he was. Except almost every tweet or excerpt I saw was not about Jeremy Corbyn at all, but about Diane Abbott. It doesn’t take more than a second for chat about Diane on Twitter to become gratuitously racist and deeply sexist. And on what pretext? The retelling of an old story: a lefty bloke having a liaison with a black woman. It felt like I had woken up in 1979. I read more drivel about Jeremy’s ex-wives complaining that he was never around — and then my husband shouted upstairs to tell me to come and have breakfast. I carried on reading regardless, thinking how awful it must be to be married to a joyless fanatic who obsesses about politics and ignores their family.

My best mate, Matt, says I only ever go to the theatre to watch feminist plays — many with the word ‘vagina’ in the title. True to form, I went with my dad and all his old schoolmates to see Di and Viv and Rose at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham. In the audience during the performance, I saw someone who seemed to be a real-life Twitter troll: he shrieked all the way through, saying things like: ‘A bloke would never get away with saying that.’ And worse. On Twitter, he’d have a hundred ‘likes’ for such comments — but this was real life, so everyone told him to shut up. Perhaps he’d have preferred Jersey Boys.

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