In March 2020, Trevor Philipps, the former politician and ex-chairman for the European and Human Rights Commission, was suspended by the UK Labour Party pending an investigation into allegations of Islamophobic statements1. At the time of the suspension, the Labour Party stated that allegations of Islamophobia are taken extremely seriously and complaints “are fully investigated in line with our rules and procedures, and any appropriate disciplinary action is taken”2. His case is considered to be one of the most high-profile and recent examples of Islamophobia in the Labour Party3. Phillips, however, has been recently re-instated by the Party “without the matter having gone to a National Executive Committee and disciplinary panel”4 and without the investigation proceedings being concluded. This has led to criticisms from both within and beyond the party that the Labour is not taking allegations of Islamophobia seriously5.
Previous allegations of Islamophobia
Following Phillips’ initial suspension, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) released a statement supporting the Labour party’s decision saying: ““Mr Phillips has made incendiary statements about Muslims that would be unacceptable for any other minority. Many of these sweeping generalisations are unfounded, wildly exaggerated and are familiar tropes taken up by the far right“6. The statement listed examples of Phillips’ past comments, including his othering of Muslims as being “not like us“, calling Islam a “nation within a nation“, and saying Muslims “see the world differently”7. The MCB added that the impact these claims can have are dangerous because they can provide a “licence to far-right ideologues”8, and listed Tommy Robinson (the former leader of the English Defence League) as someone who has used these remarks9.
At the time, his initial suspension caused a mixed reaction within the Labour Party. Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, for example argued that the allegations surrounding Phillips were ” so outlandish as to bring disrepute on all involved in making them”10. However, Naz Shah, the shadow minister for community cohesion and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims, said: “Some of the things he has said on public record would not be acceptable to any minority community“11.
Phillips himself reacted to the claims and condemned the suspension decision “as a form of political gangsterism from the party under Jeremy Corbyn, having been a severe critic of the then Labour leader, particularly over his handling of antisemitism in the party”12. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme in March 2020, Phillips also defended his previous assertions that Muslims were “different”13 and added “well actually, that’s true. The point is Muslims are different in many ways I think that is admirable”14. He also went on to describe his objections and disagreements with the Labour Party’s definition of Islamophobia. The Party formally adopted a full working definition of Islamophobia in 2019, arguing it is was a vital step in fighting the rise of far-right extremism in the UK15. The definition, as proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims defines Islamophobia as being “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”16. Phillips added his objections were very simple: “First of all Muslims are not a race […] they became Muslims largely because it is a pan-racial faith. This is not a racial grouping, so describing hostility to them as racial is nonsense”17.
Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative Party Chair responded to Phillips objecting, writing that “Phillips cannot treat Muslims as a homogenised group when it suits him, then later they deny they are racialised. Whatever the outcome of Labour’s inquiry into his Islamophobia, there’s no denying he has a case to answer“18.
Reactions to Phillips’ readmission
The readmission of Phillips to the comes at a time when the Labour Party is facing significant discontent among Muslim voters. In November 2020 the Labour Muslim Network released a report highlighting a range of concerns over Islamophobia within the party, where 29% of members and supporters had experienced it and 37% had witnessed it19. More recently, in June 2021 Labour only managed to secure the Batley and Spen seat by 323 votes, which is one of the top fifteen seats in the UK where Muslim votes have a high impact20. At the time, many Muslim voters in the constituency raised their discontents with the Labour Party, including their positions on Islamophobia, as being a concern21.
The Labour Muslim Network has responded by saying they are disappointed and frustrated by the decision to readmit Phillips, and added that “quietly readmitting him behind closed doors, without apology or acknowledgement, will only cause further anxiety and hurt amongst Muslims”22. Critics of the decision have questioned why the administrative suspension has been lifted despite the investigation into Phillips’ remarks remaining active. A member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has said that “in this instance, Trevor Phillips seems to have been offered preferential treatment […] it is abundantly clear that the party bureaucracy is using suspensions for factional ends. This has to change. We must apply the rules consistently and fairly”23. Another member of the NEC added “if Labour doesn’t stop giving the green light to Islamophobes in our party, Batley and Spen will be the first of many seats with large Muslim populations which were safe under Jeremy Corbyn but become at-risk marginals under Kier”24.
Labour MPs such as Zarah Sultana and Apsana Begum raised their concerns for Phillips’ readmission. Sultana said: “Trevor Phillips has made a string of deeply Islamophobic statements […] Those remarks are racist and should be unequivocally condemned. Before readmittance, the party must at the very least require a full retraction and apology. Anything less makes a mockery of the idea that the party takes Islamophobia seriously and signals contempt for our Muslim supporters”25. Whilst Begum stated that “his silent readmission to the Labour Party without even as much as an explanation or apology is an insult to my community. To fellow Muslims – solidarity, I stand with you on another dark day”26.