by Paul Goodman
MPs met on Monday to discuss the future of an All Party Group on Islamophobia. What took place sounds complex (according to reports) but was essentially simple. One body of Parliamentarians – all Conservative – voted for Engage to be removed as the secretariat to the group. Another body (mostly Labour) voted against the proposal.
The three acting co-Chairmen of the Group – Peter Bottomley, Simon Hughes and Jack Straw – are to consider Engage's record, and report back to its members in due course: all three of them voted not to dismiss the organisation. Martin Bright sums up what happened by writing that Engage has been retained, and that, indeed, is the effect of what took place.
Three points stand out –
- Any enquiry organised by Engage is now discredited in advance. To date, the former Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the group – the Conservative MP Kris Hopkins and the Labour peer Lord Janner – have resigned from their positions in protest at the involvement of Engage. The matter has spilled on to the floor of the Commons twice – see here and here. Now MPs have divided almost down the middle about the organisation. All Party Groups are by nature the most consensual of Parliamentary creatures, relying on collegiality and co-operation. If Engage wanted to see one on Islamophobia work properly, they'd have withdrawn from the project when Hopkins and Janner quit. The effectiveness of the new group is clearly less important to them than their own presence.
- Downing Street should take a special interest in what happens next. Backbench MPs should be free to do whatever they like in relation to all party groups. So if Peter Bottomley wants to be an officer of this one, that's a matter for him. However, that's not to say that the Government is obliged to take no view of what an all party group says and does – and the same goes for the Party. I understand that Number 10 is seriously concerned about Engage, partly for reasons which have been set out on this site. It should therefore have a serious word with Lord Sheik, the Chairman of the Conservative Ethnic Diversity Council, who didn't vote to dismiss Engage: the Council, after all, is a body set up by the Party.
- Ed Miliband should be taking a special interest in Sadiq Khan's position. Three very senior Labour MPs voted not to dismiss Engage – Jack Straw, Khan and Stephen Timms. Timms is a member of Miliband's front bench team, and no reference to him is complete without noting that he survived a terrible murder attempt by an Islamist fanatic. So's Khan, but he's much more senior – a member of the Shadow Cabinet, a former Communities and Local Government Minister and – very recently – an intemperate critic of the Prime Minister's Munich speech. Miliband didn't back Khan's stance then. So what's his view now? Does he think that his Shadow Justice Secretary should back so controversial a venture? What's the Labour Party's view of Engage?