The issues involved in the suspension of former Equality and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips from the Labour Party on charges of Islamophobia are somewhat murky.
Listening to Phillips talk about them does not clarify a great deal, and the party itself seems to be avoiding comment.
Phillips is a longstanding Blairite, but until this row burst I had no idea that he held controversial views on anything to do with Muslims or Islam. Looking around to catch up now, my reading is firstly that Phillips is unpopular for saying some things, for instance about the failures of “multiculturalism” as public policy and about the reactionary views held by some British Muslims, that are true.
Maybe also he has drifted into a stance of minimising or making casual use of anti-Muslim bigotry. His mantra-like repetiton of “Muslims are not a race” is not the defence he seems to think it is.
In general, even grave differences should be dealt with through argument and education, not through administrative measures.
That goes for mistaken views on anti-Muslim bigotry as on antisemitism. The exception is if extreme and persistent cases are involved – one issue being that for so long the Labour Party unaccountably did nothing at all to some very blatant antisemites. Phillips’ views surely do not fall into that category.
There are also people with much more blatant anti-Muslim views living quite happily in the Labour Party. For instance, former Lambeth mayor Neeraj Patil was imposed by the NEC as a parliamentary candidate, in Putney, in 2017 – after going to India and openly joining the anti-Muslim BJP! In 2019 Patil was allowed to put his name forward in a number of constituency selections and as far as I could see his connections didn’t generate any controversy.
Unless he seriously recants his support for the BJP, Patil should be expelled.
Why the party machine has decided to target Phillips?
At a time when Labour is being investigated by the EHRC over antisemitism (Phillips has been a vocal critic of antisemitism in the party too), the move looks particularly self-sabotaging.
On the other hand, many of those denouncing Phillips’ suspension do seem to apply a different standard than in cases of antisemitism – both in terms of the political threshold for disciplinary action, and the nature of the discipline.
Phillips, with all the well-positioned lawyers and other friends at his disposal, seems likely to receive due process and to be reinstated — unlike many socialists who remain excluded from the party in cases nothing to do with racism.
Asked about reinstating Alastair Campbell, Keir Starmer commented:
“I think we need to get past this whole question of chucking people out and expulsions, etcetera. The cases we should concentrate on are cases, for example, of antisemitism or other racist behaviour within the party.”
This needs to be applied consistently, to “ordinary” members and to the left, not just to the Alastair Campbells and Trevor Phillips of the world.
Immediately it seems like Phillips’ views on Muslims do not meet a reasonable bar for expulsion, so he should be reinstated. Then if the Labour leadership thinks his views are a problem they should — have a duty to — make the arguments to the world.