Jess Phillips on campaign trail: ‘I’m trying to remind people we have power to change things’

<span>Jess Phillips has been the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian</span>
Jess Phillips has been the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015.Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Jess Phillips is eating a sandwich and simultaneously applying makeup in her busy constituency office – a brief break between a visit to a local business and an afternoon of door-knocking. Her seat of Birmingham Yardley, in the south-east of the city, should be safe – she won in 2019 with a majority of 10,659. But like a handful of seats across the traditionally Labour city, it is now at risk.

“The truth is it’s a mixed picture,” she says. “There is an element of some voters hardening against the Labour party no matter what.” The issue for many is the Gaza war and Labour’s stance on it. The party delayed calling for an immediate ceasefire, and in October Keir Starmer controversially said that Israel had the right to withhold food and water from the Palestinian territory, something that comes up regularly on the doorstep.

Phillips took an early stand, resigning her frontbench position in November to vote for a ceasefire. Perhaps because of this, Gaza has not been as divisive in Yardley as in the neighbouring constituency of Ladywood, where independent pro-Palestine candidate Akhmed Yakoob is polling well. But it is a big issue across Birmingham, where a third of the population is Muslim. “You have to have the conversation a lot, and it’s hard,” says Phillips.

Alongside her usual campaign material, she has printed a second leaflet headlined “Action for Gaza … not just words”. It outlines Phillips’s repeated votes for a ceasefire, money she has raised for charity and her work helping to evacuate people. “One of the most palpable feelings people have about Gaza is helplessness: what can I do? So I wanted to take action where I could,” she says. “Most people can be convinced by the effort that I’ve put in, but I’m not going to loudly promise things that can’t be delivered.”

As Phillips knocks on doors, it is clear her message has got through to at least some people. Andy Simpson, a 58-year-old contract manager in the NHS, has a “Ceasefire now” poster in his front window. “Starmer’s position has been appalling from the beginning,” he says. “But within her constraints, Jess has done everything she can.” Simpson is a long-term Labour member but says if he lived in a different constituency, with a candidate less proactive on Palestine, he might vote for another party.

For others, the Palestine issue feeds into a wider feeling of cynicism. “Politicians are just using Gaza to get people’s sympathy, and they aren’t going to change anything,” says Mohammed Toqeer, 29, who owns a grocery shop in Acocks Green. “If they really did care about humanity, they would have stopped arms deals to Israel ages ago, but they won’t because it’s an ally. There’s no justice.”

Toqeer has voted Labour in the past, but he’s currently undecided and might vote for the Workers Party ­candidate, Jody McIntyre, who is standing on a pro-Palestine platform. But the decision, for Toqeer, does not rest only with Gaza. “We’ve tried Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, and nothing made a difference,” he says. Pinned to the wall behind the till of Toqeer’s shop are scores of credit slips for people who couldn’t afford their groceries. “Food prices are rocketing and people are struggling,” he says. “It’s shocking. People are dying to come to this country, to make some money, not realising local people are relying on food banks to survive.”

Although Phillips is conscious of the role Gaza is playing in her constituency, she feels there is an even bigger battle: apathy. “People have forgotten that things can get better, so there’s a level of despondency at the idea that politics can help you. People just don’t believe it any more,” she says. “This is a place that suffered such austerity that there’s nothing left to close. People want to talk about the state of things – holes in the road, drop curbs. It feels hopeless.”

This is clear on the doorstep. Chris O’Donovan, a 51-year-old postal worker, tells Phillips she can be sure of his vote because she’s “done good by the community”. But he is dissatisfied with the high cost of living, the NHS and social care, and has lost faith in politics’ ability to change anything: “I’m disillusioned. Politicians talk about the big issues but aren’t actually interested in solving them. After Brexit and the lies that were told, it’s hard to trust any of them.”

Elsewhere, 50-year-old laundrette owner Dolraj Pandui – who voted Labour in 2019 – is still undecided about his vote. “Palestine needs to be a priority because innocent people are suffering – but I’m not going to vote on that issue,” he says. “I’m a small business owner, and we’re suffering because costs are so high. There’s a very bad situation in the NHS. We can’t even see the doctor face to face.”

Most people express dissatisfaction with the state of the country, and with mainstream parties. But some have a very different analysis of why Britain is struggling. Reform is polling second in Phillips’s constituency, with 16% of the vote share, significantly ahead of the Conservatives on 8%. “The Tories are too soft on immigration,” says John Fraser-Morris, a 55-year-old telecoms worker. “You go to the hospital, you have to wait days to get seen, because it’s full of people not from the UK, who don’t pay into the system and don’t work, bleeding the national services dry.”

Fraser-Morris and his wife, Samantha, a 46-year-old foster carer, are planning to vote Reform, after ­voting for the Brexit party in 2019 and Conservative before that. “I don’t believe anything Starmer says. I’d rather shoot myself in the head than vote for him,” says Samantha. “And Rishi Sunak is asleep. If anything, immigration has got worse. Now it’s like if you’re not this side of the argument, then you’re racist. What happened to having an opinion?”

Ian Marsh, a 48-year-old who is currently unemployed, has always voted Conservative – except in 2019, when he didn’t vote because he was so frustrated with politics. This time he is still deciding. “The country is overpopulated and we need a proper leader to put their foot down. But Reform is relatively new so they’ve probably not got much chance of getting in. I’ll probably go for Labour because the Tories are finished.”

One challenge Phillips has is that she’s been Yardley’s MP for nine years and people feel they’ve given her their vote without seeing positive change. She tries to explain that being an opposition MP is very different from being in the party of government.

“Everything good that we have, every liberty, was fought for by ordinary people,” she says. “I’m trying to remind people that we do have the power to change things.”