Labour’s Brain-Dead Suspension of Trevor Phillips

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“The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Those are the words of the late historian Robert Conquest – his third law of politics, and it’s still applicable today. Substitute “the Labour Party” for “bureaucratic organization” and you have a pretty good explanation for the party’s recent behaviour.

I’m not thinking of the current leadership and deputy-leadership contests, although some of the candidates certainly seem tailor-made to lose the party votes. Could a Tory double-agent buried deep in Labour’s Victoria Street HQ have come up with a better contestant that Richard Burgon? 

No, I’m thinking of the party’s recent decision to suspend Trevor Phillips and investigate him for being an “Islamophobe”.

In the annals of imbecilic decisions in politics, this ranks up there with Keir Starmer’s rejection of the olive branch proffered by Theresa May last year and his advise to Labour MPs not to vote for a watered-down version of the Withdrawal Agreement that would have kept us in the Customs Union and ensured the General Election took place after we’d left the EU. 

You can imagine Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Seamus Milne and Laura Parker holding a meeting about the looming disaster that is the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in the party. 

“I’ve got an idea,” says the Tory mole, who has cleverly inserted himself as the clerk of the meeting. “Why not suspend the party’s most prominent black intellectual who also happens to be Britain’s most famous anti-racism campaigner? That’ll prove to the public once and for all that Labour doesn’t have a racist bone in its body.” 

“Brilliant,” say the party’s assembled masterminds. “Let’s do it.”

For the purposes of understanding just how stupid this is, we don’t have to get into the question of whether “Islamophobia” is a real thing and anyone guilty of it should be expelled from Labour. Let’s suppose you do believe that. Even so, you still shouldn’t support the suspension of Trevor Phillips. Why? Because he’s about as far from an “Islamophobe” as it’s possible to get. As chairman of the Runnymede Trust in 1997, he published a report on Islamophobia that introduced the word into our political vocabulary and he went on to successfully lobby Tony Blair for a law protecting Muslims from incitement.

Now, it’s true that Phillips has asked some difficult questions about British Muslims in the past. He’s one of a tiny number of public figures to express concern about the sexual abuse of children in northern towns by gangs largely made up of Pakistani Muslim men. As we know, pointing out the ethnic composition of those gangs is completely taboo in the Labour Party. Sarah Champion, the MP for Rotherham, did the same in a 2017 piece for the Sun and was promptly removed from Labour’s front bench. 

Phillips also made a documentary for Channel 4 in 2016 called ‘What British Muslims Really Think’ in which he wrestled with the fact that, on average, Muslims are less liberal than the rest of the population when it comes to issues like gender equality, homosexuality and free speech. There are also some significant differences on attitudes to violence and terrorism – about a quarter of Muslims surveyed by the Sun in 2016 said they sympathized with the motives of the Charlie Hebdo killers.

But drawing attention to these issues doesn’t constitute “Islamophobia”. On the contrary, we need to have an honest conversation about the failure of a minority of religious zealots to fully embrace British values if people of all faiths and none are going to work out how to get along together in a multi-faith society. That doesn’t just apply to conservative Muslims but also to ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

Phillips should be saluted for his courage, not confronted with a trumped-up charge and drummed out of the Labour Party.

There’s a further point here, which is that if you make it taboo to mention these inconvenient facts – such as the fact that grooming gangs in Northern towns are predominantly made up of Muslim men – you enable people on the far Right of British politics, who are more than happy to talk about these things, to pose as fearless truth-tellers and develop a credibility that they wouldn’t otherwise have. So if you’re object is to delegitimize the far Right, you shouldn’t smear people like Trevor Phillips as “islamophobes” for addressing these controversial issues.  

No, there really isn’t a shred of justification for Labour’s shoddy treatemnt of Phillips. It’s a brain-dead move by a brain-dead party that takes it one step closer to electoral oblivion. As if to confirm this, an opinion poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the news about Phillips put the Conservatives on 50 per cent and Labour on 29 per cent. 

Come in agent Conquest. Your mission is complete.

*Sign the Free Speech Union’s petition defending Trevor Phillips’s right to free speech.*

Toby Young is a broadcaster, writer and journalist – and General Secretary of the Free Speech Union. Follow him on twitter: @toadmeister

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