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Why is Jess Phillips being singled out by trolls in the Labour leadership contest?

Labour Party MP Jess Phillips speaks to the media outside the BBC Broadcasting House. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media. - Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

STEVE ANGLESEY asks why the MP and Labour leadership candidate seems to have been selected for special treatment by trolls and cranks.

Jess Phillips has an IQ of only 36. The social media posts supporting her run for the Labour leadership are amplified by bot accounts, paid for by the Tories, the Russians and Rupert Murdoch. Meanwhile a team of comedy celebrities backing her is being organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, together with their allies in production companies.

I did not know any of this before researching Phillips on Twitter, probably because none of it is true. While the Birmingham Yardley MP remains an outsider to replace Jeremy Corbyn – she’s currently fourth in the betting behind Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy – she is certainly the favourite when it comes to attracting the attention of trolls and headcases.

No other Labour candidate is being talked about so much. No other Labour candidate is being lied about with such consistency, or such venom.

The reason appears to be that, as well as being the only candidate still bothering to make a strong case for membership of the EU, Phillips is the only one who was a frequent and public critic of the current leader. “Attacking your own side” apparently makes her unfit for the top job (although this didn’t seem to matter when Corbyn was running on his long record of dissent against Tony Blair).

On Tuesday, she was ridiculed by Corbynista historian and author Dr Louise Raw, who tweeted a photo of Phillips’ constituency office. Its frontage features Phillips’ name, twice. “Who works in an office like this? Hard to tell,” wrote Raw, and her followers added comments like “a narcissist by the looks of it”, “someone with a meteoric ego” and “Jess Phillips Me Me Me!” To these Jess-sceptics, it mattered little that virtually every other MPs’ high street office looks virtually the same, as images of those occupied by left-wing loyalists like Long Bailey and the deposed Laura Pidcock subsequently proved.

Many of the charges against Phillips are dismissed just as easily. The ‘IQ of 36’ claim stems from a now-deleted social media post showing a fake BBC News website story about the MP taking an IQ test for charity “as part of a fundraising day for charities benefiting underprivileged children”.

The story is an obvious fake, with a score of 36 indicating severe mental disability. Nevertheless, the accusation has been retweeted scores of times. One typical message ran: “She LITERALLY has an IQ of 36!!!! My dog just may be as intelligent!”

A rash of IQ tweets followed Phillips’ appearance on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, which was dismissed by Kerry-Anne Mendoza of Corbynista website The Canary in damning terms. “Jess Phillips’ car crash on Marr reveals her fragility,” Mendoza tweeted. “The most soft ball, vanilla questioning imaginable, & she could barely string a sentence together or keep her breathing in check.”

This verdict would have come as a surprise to those of us who actually saw a decent if detail-light performance by Phillips, and it seemed to baffle some of Mendoza’s own followers too. “I detest JP but this was fine,” wrote one in reply. “I really think it’s important that we are honest and don’t start imitating our opponents in ridiculing everything. This wasn’t an exemplary performance but it was definitely ok.”

A day earlier, Phillips had been interviewed for the Saturday Times magazine, leading Twitter opponents to brand her “Murdoch’s puppet” and “Murdoch’s muse”. The musician Martyn Ware (Heaven 17, Human League) told his 20,000 followers it would be “a cold day in hell when I vote for Jess Phillips, Murdoch anointee, to get anywhere near the leadership of the Labour Party”.

Yet if any of this was true, Rupert Murdoch’s biggest-selling British newspaper appeared not to have got the memo. On Sunday it devoted much of its comment page to pieces slating Phillips, laying into her “toe-curling, overwrought Commons monologues”. It’s hard to see how she can be a “Murdoch anointee” when his most powerful instrument calls her “a vacuous narcissist… and slippery with it”.

What else is being said about Jess Phillips? That her expenses are consistently higher than those of the average MP, which her election agent John O’Shea says “relate mostly to staffing costs of people who work in her office to support her constituents. We deal with thousands of cases a year and yes, we get paid for it. It is a full time job helping people and it is a privilege to do it”.

That she is anti-traveller, having informed the police in 2016 about an illegal camp at the closed-down Poolway shopping centre. (Her tweets at the time include the entirely reasonable “Not keen on unauthorised camps in the middle of communities without their consent. Think we need to do something for travellers”.)

That she is friendly with Jacob Rees-Mogg, whom she has called a “real gent” (is Corbyn’s sullen schoolboy act before the Queen’s Speech really preferable?). That she is transphobic, having tweeted in support of a group which proposed to exclude trans women from some gender-based domestic violence services (Phillips has responded: “I was one of the MPs who wrote the report on improving trans rights”).

That she has never condemned the abuse of Diane Abbott, and therefore is in some way a racist (Phillips’ tweets on the matter include “if women who rise in public office receive vile on-line abuse as Diane and other Labour women have overnight why would any woman step forward?” and “If you are using yesterday’s anti-Semitism debate to a) say it’s a smear or b) be racist about Diane Abbott you missed the point and are a racist”).

And that, most ludicrously of all, that she is a middle-class masquerader. Brendan O’Neill of the alt-right website Spiked calls her the child of parents with “unbelievably plush, well paid jobs” who has become “something actually quite grotesque: a caricature of a working class woman. The gobbiness, the screaming-mouth photos that people keep taking of her, the expletives – this is what she and her supporters think working class women are like.”

This might say more about the middle class O’Neill than it does about Phillips, the daughter of working class parents who through merit became a teacher and the deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation. Last year, her dad Stewart wrote of her childhood: “We had no money for childcare. So Jess went every day to be looked after by my mom and nan who lived in a council house in Sheldon, while my dad went out to his elevated position: he had become a postman.

“Jess knows, and lives for, hundreds of working class people. They are her people as they are my people – we Brummies are very close. Before entering parliament she worked in a women’s refuge and rape crisis centre in the Black Country. Well, you can imagine, all the clients there were toffs…”

There may be sound reasons to question Jess Phillips’ leadership credentials – on matters like foreign policy, the economy and the environment, for example, she is virtually a blank slate, and it’s unclear how much support she can command even within a Parliamentary Labour Party which is notably more centrist than Labour’s membership.

It’s just that the questions Phillips’ critics are asking of her right now are so silly or so easily dismissed that they raise a question of their own: If she is so fake, so lightweight, such a no-hoper then why are they so obviously scared of her?

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