Suspension of Trevor Phillips only highlights the muddle Labour is in

First published by The Herald on 10 March 2020

AS the former chair of both the Commission for Racial Equality and its successor the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), it is fair to say that Trevor Phillips is pretty well-known as an anti-racism campaigner.

Sure, he has courted controversy along the way – most people who are unafraid to speak their mind do. There was that time in 2009 when six commissioners quit the EHRC over what they claimed was his “unnerving” leadership style, resulting in calls for Mr Phillips himself to stand down. Or the time in 2017 when he caused anger by saying there was a problem with Pakistani Muslim men sexually abusing children in northern towns like Rotherham after there was a spate of cases involving Pakistani Muslim men sexually abusing children in northern towns like Rotherham.

But right from his student days Mr Phillips has been known as a fearless fighter for racial equality, organising countless sit-ins to help protect black students from the viciousness of the National Front and going on to help articulate the terms of both the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Equality Act 2010. During his time as chair of race-equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust he even commissioned the 1997 report that first introduced the term Islamophobia to the UK. Which is somewhat ironic given that Mr Phillips has now been suspended from the Labour Party on suspicion of being an Islamophobe.

In an editorial published in The Times yesterday Mr Phillips said he had been “administratively suspended” from the party over comments made at various points in the past, his remarks about Pakistani Muslim men in Rotherham among them. The party had, he said, drawn up its threat to expel him “in secret” and he is “forbidden from repeating the charges”. His fate will, meanwhile, “be decided in absentia”. It is, as former Labour MP Lord Mann put it, more than a little Orwellian.

Given his track record in rooting out bigotry and fighting for equality, the chances are that Mr Phillips does not, as the term Islamophobe dictates, hate Muslims. That did not stop accusers coming forward with evidence that he does, though.

Sonia Sodha, a columnist at The Guardian and chief leader writer at The Observer, took to Twitter to note that Mr Phillips “made a sensationalist documentary about Muslims in 2016 […] that claimed that British Muslims were a “nation within a nation” based on a survey that was methodologically unsound and which contradicts better-designed surveys of British Muslims”.

Many others posting on the social-media site pointed to a column Mr Phillips wrote for The Sun in 2017 that started with the words “At the risk of being branded a raving Islamophobe, I need to say that the officials who decided to place a white, non-Muslim five-year-old in a conservative, burqa-wearing Muslim household must have been (technical term) off their chumps”.

They may very well have a point. There is, after all, nothing that says being a black man who has spent a lifetime fighting for racial equality cannot have any prejudices of his own. Maybe his documentary really was about othering British Muslims rather than highlighting the dangers –to wider society just as much as to marginalised groups – of ghettoising a particular community. Maybe he was casting aspersions on a Muslim family’s ability to care for a non-Muslim child rather than making a point about the shortcomings of the care system more generally.

The wider issue, though, is not what Mr Phillips’s suspension says about him as a person, but rather what it says about the Labour Party, whose cause he has promoted as a member of more than 30 years’ standing.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn’s shock ascension to the party leadership in 2015, UK Labour has lurched further and further to the left, with all the crazy posturing that entails. There was, for instance, that time when party stalwart Hilary Benn was sacked from the shadow cabinet for daring to question his leader’s performance, leading to a front-bench cull of anyone suspected of traitorous Blairite tendencies. Or the time earlier this year when leadership hopefuls Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry and Lisa Nandy, as well as deputy leadership candidates Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler, gave their support to calls for any woman who questions the dogma that transwomen are women to be expelled from the party post haste.

But far and away the most sinister feature of Labour under Mr Corbyn is the fact it has become a breeding ground for anti-Semitism, with the Marxist ideology his acolytes cling to positioning the Jews and Jewishness as the enemies of their socialist ideal.

Despite the evidence of a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, and despite everyone from the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to Labour grandee Lord Falconer saying the party has a problem with anti-Semitism, Mr Corbyn and his supporters have failed to take appropriate action. According to the Jewish Labour Movement there were 130 outstanding anti-Semitic complaints against Labour at the end of last year, a figure Mr Corbyn has been unable to wish away merely by saying that anti-Semitism is “vile and wrong” and “will not be tolerated in any form”.

To suspend – and threaten to expel – a long-standing member over suspicions of Islamophobia while refusing to countenance that very many members could be anti-Semitic reeks of rank hypocrisy.

Just like Mr Phillips may or may not be Islamophobic, Mr Corbyn and any number of his far-left allies may or may not be anti-Semitic. But to suspend one on the basis that long-known-about comments have suddenly become a problem while continuing to defend the many questionable actions of the other is not a good look. As Stephane Savary, national vice-chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, said: “I’ll be honest, it doesn’t look good that we suspend the former chairman of the EHRC whilst we are under investigation by them for institutionalised anti-Semitism.”

There is no denying that this country – Scotland just as much as the wider United Kingdom – has a problem with racism or that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are rife. Demonising the one person who can be relied upon to call that out, who is not afraid to ruffle feathers in the process, is not the way to eradicate it. Far from showing leadership on the issue, all the Labour Party has succeeded in doing is showing what a muddle it is in.