Nick Cohen

Why Labour wants to smear Trevor Phillips

Why Labour wants to smear Trevor Phillips
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I do not know enough to comment on the merits of the Labour party's action against Trevor Phillips. But I know what the far left looks like when it is building a cover story to hide its wickedness, and everyone else looking at the Phillips case should know it too.

In normal circumstances, you would wait to see the evidence that Phillips is an 'Islamophobe', and read with care the judgement of impartial and competent Labour officials. But nothing about Labour is normal now, and its officials are the last people whose judgement you should trust.

The easy point to make – and just because it is easy does not mean you shouldn’t make it – is that the Labour party isn’t competent. Lost in a far-left fantasy land, Corbyn’s appointees fought a disastrous election. They believed the precariat and the proletariat would rise like lions from their slumber and turn to socialism in their millions. They wasted resources contesting Conservative-held seats, which they were never going to win, and did not defend Labour seats, they lost by the score.

As for impartiality, Phillips description of the action against him as 'pure political gangsterism' isn’t too hyperbolic. The BBC’s investigation into Labour anti-Semitism had distraught members of staff describing how Corbyn’s officials consistently interfered to stop complaints being investigated. The whistleblowers have all gone now. Several were so abused by Labour they are suing it for libel. Their replacements are Corbyn-compliant bureaucrats, who I guess may not be too displeased to take the chance to investigate Phillips, and not only because he is a declared opponent for the Corbyn left.

The fact to keep at the front of your mind is that Phillips is a former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission – and his successors are now investigating Labour’s alleged institutional anti-Semitism. In his Times article, Phillips talks about the possibility that Labour is attempting to 'scare' the commission. It is just as likely that it is attempting to brainwash its supporters into refusing to accept the commission’s findings.

The defining feature of left-wing racism is the pretence that it doesn’t exist. Socialists cannot be racists, the comforting story goes – even if they do say so themselves. They can't because they ‘do not have a racist bone in their bodies,’ – an excuse which, incidentally, says nothing about the contents of their minds. They are the victims of ‘smears’ by the right and the ‘Israeli lobby’.

Examine the rhetorical manoeuvre, and you see that the left puts Jewish victims of its abuse in a double bind. First, it accuses them of bearing false witness. The deflection doesn’t stop there, however. The accusations are not only false but also malicious. The accuser is lying to further the interests of Israel, or to brand all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, or because he or she is a supporter of the Islamophobic far right.

‘It’s almost certain who is behind all this anti-Semitism against Jeremy: almost certainly, it was the Israeli embassy,’ said Labour NEC member Pete Willsman last year, and variants of this flannel have been repeated tens of thousands of times. 

The double bind is by no means confined to Labour. How many times have you read in the right-wing press that accusations of anti-black racism or Islamophobia are just logrolling by special interests? That said, it is a measure of Labour’s decadence that they are at their most frequent and intense on the left.

You think I’m exaggerating? Read Labour’s race and faith manifesto for the 2019 election. It contained the apparently throwaway promise to 'enhance the powers and functions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, making it truly independent'.

What the hell? In what way did Labour think that the EHRC was not 'truly independent'? Journalists searched to find an honourable reason. Admittedly, there had been arguments within the organisation – there are arguments within every organisation. BBC Newsnight acquired a letter dated June 2019 from the Commission’s chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath to the Civil Service’s head of HR alleging that the Commission’s chair David Isaac was declining to take public positions on the loss of EU Structural Funds, or the withdrawal of Shamima Begum’s citizenship. Yet her comments did not help Labour. Hilsenrath had also tweeted that Labour needed to establish that it ‘is not a racist party’ and needed to display ‘zero-tolerance’ of anti-Semitism’.

In any case, it was up to Labour to make the argument that the commission was not independent, not journalists. And that it never did. It just left the accusation hanging in the air, unsupported by anything as solid as evidence.

I could see then that, to use the language John le Carre uses for spies, the far left was ‘building a legend’. Should the EHRC produce a damning report, a false back-story would be ready for publication. There is something wrong with the commission, the left will say. It is not ‘independent’ but the tool of the government or the Jews or the Israeli embassy. Now the accusations against Phillips make the commission guilty by association of Islamophobia. The only reason it has found against Labour on anti-Semitism, the implication will run, is because it wants to cover up the real racism inflicted on Muslims.

If something like this scenario unfolds, two truths will be self-evident. The first is evident enough already. I, like thousands of others, have given up on the left. They ask for proof of Labour racism. You provide an abundance of evidence. They never accept one word of it. If the EHRC produces critical findings, they will not accept them either. In that sense Corbynism is a dark religion that has inoculated its followers against evidence that might show their faith is an illusion.

The underappreciated second point is the huge job of organisational change that awaits Keir Starmer, when and if he becomes Labour leader. Like a retreating army abandoning its trenches, the far left has left unexploded mines and booby traps all over the Labour party. Starmer will have to deal with and remove hundreds of placemen and women who are better suited to a job with the Socialist Workers party or Communist party of Britain than Labour.

The Phillips affair may be a one-day wonder but it illuminates the long, hard road back to power for Labour after Corbyn. It remains an open question whether the party is in a fit enough state to walk it.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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