What? Trevor Phillips was in the Labour party?

Yesterday it was announced that Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the body set up under the Labour government to monitor all aspects of equal opportunities (there had previously been specific bodies related to race, gender, disability etc), had been suspended from the Labour party over Islamophobic comments; this was apparently triggered by a joke he made with Peter Tatchell about who best deserved the “Islamophobe of the Year” award from the Islamic Human Rights Commission (which although it does some good work monitoring the human rights situation for Muslims here and abroad, has pro-Iranian directors). This immediately attracted howls of derision from the right-wing press and from apologists for ‘populism’ on social media, among them Matthew Goodwin:

There is a subtle appeal to authority here: how astonishing that the former chairman of the EHRC, of all people, has been suspended for racism, of all things. The answer to this is that umbrella equality bodies were always controversial because they allow a single, ‘acceptable’ establishment figure who belongs to one nominally ‘oppressed’ group to represent everyone who might have a claim to have suffered discrimination even though he or she may have no understanding or sympathy for some of the different groups’ experiences. In Phillips’s case, he is a Black, middle-class, Christian man from an English-speaking background; this affords a certain amount of respectability, particularly if coupled with overt suspicion of other minorities that are perceived as ‘trouble’ or as making ridiculous or audacious demands. During his leadership, six of the body’s commissioners resigned, accusing him of a leadership style better suited to a political organisation and of not briefing them about policy announcements but leaving them to find out from press releases that had already gone out.

It is ironic that his right-wing defenders point to his past record as an anti-racism campaigner; it was also claimed that he was one of a number of “anti-racists” who signed a letter to the Guardian last year saying that they would not vote Labour because of antisemitism. In fact, Labour has thrown out others with a long record of anti-racist campaigning and service to the party after they were found guilty by its panels of antisemitism, often on much flimsier grounds than those for calling Phillips an Islamophobe (Marc Wadsworth springs to mind). The Labour party, under every recent leadership, has expelled members for campaigning for non-Labour candidates, even by writing letters to local papers giving advice on voting tactically in places where the official Labour candidate was not Labour or socialist by any common definition.

A front page from the Daily Mail, showing two stories, one demanding the abolition of inheritance tax and the other proclaiming: "Warning on 'UK Muslim ghettoes'": Nation within a nation developing says former equalities watchdog".
Daily Mail’s front page from 2016, featuring Phillips’s “What British Muslims think” survey

His expulsion is also consistent with the party’s drive, egged on by many of those in the right-wing commercial media now howling in Phillips’s defence, to rid itself of real or perceived antisemites. He has used both national TV, which has given him hour-long slots for his polemics, and major national newspapers to stoke suspicion and hostility towards Muslims and make sensationalist and exaggerated claims about Muslim communities. The worst was the ‘documentary’ titled What British Muslims Really Think, based on a ridiculously small survey, but he has made a living for years rehashing tabloid talking points about race and claiming to say the ‘unsayable’ when some of these things are in fact stated on a fairly regular basis in tabloids and on radio talk shows. Then there was his article for the Sun in 2017, after the Times’s story about a ‘white’ British girl in a Muslim foster home being “deprived of her cross” and forbidden to eat bacon had been debunked; he claimed it was “like child abuse” to put the girl with the ‘conservative’ Muslim family (it later turned out that the girl was from a Muslim background herself).

His record for attacking Muslims almost rivals that of Boris Johnson. In fact, his output is in some ways worse, as it is in more prominent newspapers and makes specific claims that are calculated to inspire suspicion and, at worst, hatred. He invariably presents it as a threat when too many members of a minority are found in one place, and demands that this be arranged never to happen in a school, for example. He rails against ‘multiculturalism’, communities being allowed to live on their own terms to a certain extent, yet this attitude is as antisemitic as it is anti-Muslim, because Jews have similar population concentrations and community institutions such as schools, family tribunals and food monitoring bodies, particularly for meat. Some Jewish groups are more isolated and insular than any section of the Muslim community in this country. Muslims mostly attend the same schools as everyone else and work alongside others daily.

In all honesty, I do not know why someone with his attitudes would still be in the Labour party. As for why it has taken so long to suspend him, I can only assume that his membership was only just noticed. It’s entirely consistent that a party seeking to rid itself of racism should suspend someone for obvious incitement to racial hatred and fostering of prejudice, regardless of how popular the sentiment is or how unpopular the group targeted are. Phillips is no asset to the Labour party; he is embittered by his failure to secure any meaningful elective office in the early 2000s, when he had hoped to become Labour’s candidate for the first mayor of London, and by the Muslims’ challenge to the authority of the old secular “race industry” from the 1990s onwards. I will be watching the responses of the Labour leadership contenders to this issue with great interest. I hope the Labour party sticks to its principles and does not back down in the face of criticism from racists and hypocrites.

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