With their disastrous election result in 2019, even more dire leadership contest and continued in-fighting, it would be difficult for Labour to look any more ridiculous.
But this morning they have done it. The party has decided to suspend Trevor Phillips, former Head of Britain’s Equality watchdog, accusing him of Islamophobia.
Never mind that Phillips has been a lifelong anti-racism campaigner, nor that he publicised the term ‘Islamophobia’ – having published a report on it in 1997 and successfully lobbied for Tony Blair to protect Muslims from incitement – he has been discarded by a Labour Party in the most authoritarian of ways.
There was, for starters, the timing. Phillips was sent a draft sheet of five charges put together by party members that were mostly taken from 2016 – and out in the public domain. Had they been so offensive, one might assume that he would have been suspended much earlier. Why did they sit on them for so long?
Then there was the obtuse manner in which some of his previous remarks had been read into, such as his joke about being “Islamophobe of the Year” at the Tory Party Conference. It was clearly a satirical comment about his dismay in receiving the award, which has also been handed to Barack Obama, and not – as made out – a slight against Muslims. Only someone looking to find offence would remove the context from this, but these are the times we are in…
Some of Phillips’ comments focus on more sensitive areas. In his 2016 essay “Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence” he highlighted that many men involved in grooming gangs (as seen in Rotherham) were from Pakistani-Muslim backgrounds, for which he has received backlash. Understandably members of this community are concerned about how these events are reported and commentators must be careful. But the sensitivity has gone so far as to mean all discussion is cancelled. Similarly, Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham, was forced to resign from the Shadow Cabinet for bringing up this difficult area.
Today Phillips says “surely honest journalism, unburdened by fear of causing offence, should be beyond contention?” This sentence underlines his approach, which is why his critics find him too brazen at times having become accustomed to the politically correct climate of Britain. The truth is that many of his comments are no more controversial than those found in books such as Amy Chua’s Political Tribes and other non-fiction titles on identity, which seek to analyse political, ethnic and religious interactions in our society, with a focus on integration. Were this literature put out into the public mainstream one suspects, too, that it would be stripped of context, with the worst quotes being used to silence authors, no matter how nuanced their perspectives.
Labour’s main tactic over the last few years has been closing down any political dissent through extreme tactics, such as suspension, and the Islamophobia accusation has been an effective strategy to get rid of Phillips.
None of this is to downplay the issue of anti-Muslim prejudice in our society, which is widespread and dismissed all too often. But Labour are moving to an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) definition of Islamophobia that has been accused of being vague, covering “expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. Some insist these need definitions of their own.
Critics say that Islamophobia has generally become too broad as term and can conflate religion with race. In liberal Western societies, of course, the ability to criticise the former is a central component of free speech.
Khalid Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, believes Labour are ultimately using the APPG definition of Islamophobia “weed out ‘difficult’ voices”, and Phillips echoes his comments – convinced that the accusations have been mounted against him to deflect from Labour’s own allegations of anti-semitism. These are being handled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where he formerly worked.
Whatever the case may be, one suspects that Phillips will not be as devastated by today’s events as some might assume; that the incident, in fact, promotes his brand in many ways. Phillips’ whole raison d’etre, after all, has always been fighting against the majority on a wealth of difficult issues, with political correctness being his more recent interest battle. Just two weeks earlier he was at the launch of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, during which he denounced the UK’s censorious attitude to free speech, which formed the basis of his 2017 documentary “Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?” The programme hypothesised that fear of offence was stifling legitimate debate and had helped to kill off the Left. Labour are about to prove him right all along.