In Depth

Why Trevor Phillips has been suspended from Labour

Former head of Equality and Human Rights Commission says he is victim of an ‘inquisition’

The UK’s former equality watchdog chief Trevor Phillips has been suspended from the Labour Party while he is investigated for alleged Islamophobia.

In an article for The Times refuting the allegations, the 66-year-old says he is a “victim” of an “inquisition” and fears Labour is “collapsing into a brutish, authoritarian cult”.

What is Phillips’ background?

Phillips has been a lifelong Labour member and briefly stood to be the party’s candidate to be London mayor when the directly elected position was first created, in 1999, before quitting the contest. He went on to become chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, between 2003 and 2012.

A leading anti-racism campaigner, he now chairs the Index on Censorship charity, which defends free speech worldwide.

The son of immigrant parents, Phillips is from an Afro-Caribbean background and was educated at schools in both London and Guyana. In his Times rebuttal of the Islamophobia allegations, he writes:  “I am a person of colour, with a family heritage of Fulani and Mandinka Muslims going back 1,000 years until ripped apart by transatlantic slavery.” 

He also claims to have introduced the term “Islamophobia” into British political discourse by commissioning a report on the issue as chair of the Runnymede Trust think tank in 1997.

What are the claims against him?

The Times says Phillips is being investigated for remarks made both in print and in person at public events.

The newspaper reports: “Many of his statements date back years but Jennie Formby, Labour’s general secretary, suspended Mr Phillips as a matter of ‘urgency to protect the party’s reputation’, he was told.”

A draft of the allegations seen by The Times refers to a pamphlet that Phillips wrote in 2016, Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence

“The most sensitive cause of conflict in recent years has been the collision between majority norms and the behaviours of some Muslim groups,” says the pamphlet, published by think-tank Civitas. “In particular, the exposure of systematic and longstanding abuse by men, mostly of Pakistani Muslim origin in the north of England.”

Phillips also wrote about attending an Islamic conference where only one attendee was wearing a Remembrance Sunday poppy, saying this illustrated that Muslims in the UK had not “adapted to the mainstream”.

Other allegations relate to a comment by Phillips quoted in The Times that same year, when he referred to “the unacknowledged creation of a nation within the nation, with its own geography, its own values and its own very separate future”. The phrase was later taken up by far-right extremist Tommy Robinson.

How is Peter Tatchell involved?

The veteran human rights campaigner appeared alongside Phillips at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference last September to debate the definition of Islamophobia.

Addressing the audience, Phillips joked that he had been nominated as an “Islamophobe of the year” by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, to which Tatchell responded that he was “jealous”.

The remarks triggered accusations of Islamophobia, as The Guardian reported at the time. Tatchell later said he was making an “ironic joke”.

What else has Phillips said about the allegations?

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Phillips said: “They say I am accusing Muslims of being different. Well actually, that’s true. The point is Muslims are different. And in many ways I think that’s admirable.”

He added: “There’s all sorts of differences in our society, and the central point of my pamphlet was to say we cannot continue simply to say that differences won’t matter. In my view, it’s a form of disrespect to say to people: ‘Oh, don’t worry, the differences of values that they have, the beliefs that this or that group have, they’ll get over it.’”

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And his supporters?

Phillips clearly has the backing of The Times, which has published an article describing him as “a free thinker since his school days”.

The newspaper also quotes Khalid Mahmood, England’s first Muslim MP and a Labour backbencher, as saying that “the charges were so outlandish as to bring disrepute on all involved in making them”.

There is “speculation about the motives” for trying to expel Phillips from Labour now, according to The Times.

Some critics are claiming that he is a casualty of an internal Labour party fight between centrists and supporters of outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn. Phillips last year leant his support to accusations of anti-Semitism within Labour, which some Corbynists saw as a witch-hunt.

The Times also notes that Phillips is a member of the same Constituency Labour Party in north London as Keir Starmer, the favourite to win the leadership election, whose policies are viewed by many Corbynists as too moderate.

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