It was an off-the-cuff, albeit impassioned, response to a suggestion from BBC’s Question Time audience that sexual harassment could be imported to Britain by migrants.
“A very similar situation to what happened in Cologne could be described on Broad Street in Birmingham every week where women are baited and heckled,” responded Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, when the audience member referred to the sexual assault of dozens of women in the German city on New Year’s Eve at the hands of 1,000 drunk and aggressive men.
Within hours, many a male voice – from Downing Street to West Midlands police – and many Twitter users intervened to put Phillips right. A city’s reputation was seemingly on the line.
“The comments of the MP aren’t borne out in terms of crime statistics,” said Superintendent Andy Parsons, police commander for Central Birmingham, pointing to a record of only 31 serious sexual assaults over the last year in the city centre.
Michael Mclean, chairman of Broad Street Pub Watch, told the BBC: “Is it true what people are saying relating it to the Cologne sex attacks? Absolutely not. The correlation between the two is a massive over-exaggeration.”
But whether Phillips was right or wrong to draw parallels between the scenes in Cologne over new year and on Britain’s city centres on a Friday and Saturday night, the instant attempt to shout Phillips down has sparked its own row.
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries tweeted: “Welcome to my world. As a woman in politics, there is always a louder, nastier group wanting to bring you down than hold you up,” while Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart said: “Keep being different, sister!”
Phillips herself made just one comment yesterday, again on social media, as the abuse on Twitter poured in: “People say they hate it when ‘Politicians are all the same’,” but they don’t, they love it. #admitsdefeat”.
Catherine Mayer, author and co-founder and president of the Women’s Equality Party, said she was struck by how the slight fumble in Phillips’s point had allowed her critics to close down the MP’s argument.
“Jess Phillips’s reply on Question Time suffered from over-compression, but she was clearly trying to make a legitimate point, that violence and harassment against women and girls is sadly not exceptional or limited to one group or type of perpetrator or to one situation,” Mayer said.
“That’s an uncomfortable reality for some people, but that discomfort goes only part way to explaining the process by which she became cast as the villain of the piece. It’s a repeating pattern when women speak out on such issues. If only a fraction of the energy devoted to shutting up women was instead channelled into finding constructive ways to address the problems they’re attempting to highlight.”
Julie Bindel, the writer, feminist and co-founder of Justice for Women, said the “shouting down” of Phillips was typical of a type of sexism that will use any excuse to cut women down. “It happens all the time. We have made huge progress with feminism, but there is a massive way to go. I think that sexist men have been given a new lease of life.”
On Broad Street itself, while no one approached by reporters even recognised Phillips’s name, many were pleased she’d said something, even if it allowed some to misinterpret.
“She’s probably right”, said Mike George, 25. “Lots of guys round here don’t have a problem with boundaries. They’ll go for the grope and hope it works out.”
Lucy St Ledger, a student at Birmingham City University, said: “Yeah, it can be quite annoying. But it’s like this everywhere.”
“I haven’t heard about this, but I’m pleased she’s saying it,” added Natasha, 24. “I’ve felt nervous around some guys in clubs loads of times. It’s worrying.”
Charlotte Derry said: “Yes, it’s definitely a massive problem. I hear loads of stories on Facebook of my friends being ‘touched’ – if that’s the right word. It’s not OK. We don’t like it.”
Phillips may have been shouted down, but it would seem there are plenty of quieter voices who would like her to keep on talking.