The British Labour Party has become embroiled in another major race row following its decision to readmit Trevor Phillips to the party just over a year after he was suspended for alleged Islamophobia. The 67-year-old writer and broadcaster is one of the most high-profile members of the party. As the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the head of its forerunner the Commission for Racial Equality he made a name for himself as an anti-racism campaigner. When he speaks about race, people tend to take him seriously.
According to the Guardian, Phillips was reinstated by the party “at least three weeks ago”, without the matter going to a National Executive Committee disciplinary panel. “A Labour source said that the investigation into Phillips is ongoing and its procedures allow for this to happen even after a member’s suspension has been lifted.”
With Labour embroiled in an ongoing civil war over a number of issues, including its handling of alleged racism within the party, the decision to reinstate Phillips, who has a track record of making highly offensive comments considered by many to be Islamophobic, has fuelled anger and accusations of double standards. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP is still denied the party whip in parliament over comments he had made last year following the publication of a report by the EHRC on anti-Semitism within Labour.
The report was based on a 17-month long investigation which found no evidence of anti-Semitism attributable to the former leader, or any evidence of institutional racism within the Labour Party. It has been pointed out that there is a strong case to be made that the EHRC findings were further confirmation that Labour’s anti-Semitism “crisis” was fuelled by a right-wing faction in order to undermine Corbyn. This was the conclusion of an internal 851 page report by the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit.
As the party turned to the right under current leader Sir Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s suspension triggered a civil war within Labour. Suspending Corbyn, Starmer claimed that his predecessor had “undermined” the EHRC report with his comments that the scale of anti-Semitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated”. Starmer is on record saying that he “support[s] Zionism without qualification.”
While Corbyn waits to have the whip restored, several Labour members are still serving suspensions for alleged anti-Semitism. Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, a senior member of Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) is one of those suspended under questionable circumstances. Wimborne-Idrissi is also vice-chair of her local party. She and the chair, Gary Lafley, were both suspended last December for asking questions about Corbyn’s suspension.
“I feel bloody uncomfortable seeing damned good comrades and friends of mine being suspended from this party for doing nothing more than trying to discuss the questions which led to Jeremy Corbyn’s unjust suspension,” said Wimborne-Idrissi following Starmer’s move against Corbyn. “We know it was unjust because he was readmitted, and then the question of the whip being taken from him which is almost certainly unconstitutional in the party.”The obvious double standard has been pointed out by senior Labour MPs. “The continuing refusal to restore the Labour whip to Jeremy Corbyn becomes even more bewildering and unjustifiable in the light of this decision,” tweeted former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP, following Phillips’ reinstatement.
The divisions of the past five years have resurfaced with Labour MPs questionings their party’s pledge to take Islamophobia seriously.
“Anything less than a full apology before readmittance makes a mockery of the idea that Labour takes Islamophobia seriously,” said the Coventry South MP Zara Sultana. She cited comments made by Phillips about Muslims which many consider to be racist and Islamophobic and led to his suspension. Muslims, he claimed, “see the world differently from the rest of us”; they are a “nation within a nation”.
South African author and former politician Andrew Feinstein tweeted that, “Trevor Phillips’ reinstatement despite his Islamophobic comments shows again that the Labour party has a hierarchy of racism. Many anti-racist Jews remain suspended for supposed anti-Semitism while Islamophobe readmitted. U r either antiracist or u r part of the racism problem!”
The perception of double standards is fuelled in large part because many see Labour adopting a casual attitude towards explicit bigotry and hatred against Muslims. Meanwhile, it takes a harsh approach against alleged anti-Semitism even though the latter is often conflated with legitimate criticism of the policies and practices of the state of Israel.
Phillips’ comments are cited as a clear example of how it is acceptable in 21st century Britain to talk about Muslims in ways that would be wholly unacceptable about any other minority. In an article in the Sun, for example, he said that placing a Christian girl into Muslim foster care was “akin to child abuse”. He is accused of peddling unfounded claims about Muslims that not only align with those made by far-right Islamophobes, but are also used by anti-Muslim groups to justify their divisive targeting of Muslims.
His reinstatement by Labour while others who have been suspended are left out in the cold risks splitting the party even more.
“We are once again in a position where we must express the deep disappointment and frustration of Muslim members and supporters across the UK,” said the Labour Muslim Network in an official statement. “Trevor Phillips’ case is one of the most high-profile recent examples of Islamophobia within the Labour Party and quietly readmitting him behind closed doors, without apology or acknowledgement, will only cause further anxiety and hurt amongst Muslims.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.