New Labour habits die hard

Observations on Trevor Phillips by <strong>John Kampfner</strong>

As one man was talking about the people's "legitimate" fears of im-migration, another was visiting a hotbed of the British National Party. While Tony Blair was addressing a meeting in London on the problems of asylum, Trevor Phillips was in Oldham looking at housing projects that try to integrate Muslims and whites. Through two of its most prominent figures, new Labour is hitting the issue of race head on. It is not to everyone's liking.

Just over a year into his job as chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Phillips could not be accused of resting on his or his organisation's laurels. Encouraged by his many allies at the heart of government, he appears to relish breaking a taboo a day. During recent weeks, he has declared multiculturalism out of fashion, written a piece for the Sun on the brilliance of St George and denounced liberals for a culture of political correctness towards ethnic minorities. In so doing, he has won plaudits and opprobrium from the chattering classes in equal measure, been embraced by Polly Toynbee as "brave" and derided in the Independent as "foolish".

Is Phillips, a man for whom the term "Blairite" could have been coined, acting as the outrider of a government badly on the defensive on race issues? There is certainly a confluence of purpose, if not completely of views - he has made clear his discomfort at some of the language emanating from David Blunkett's Home Office.

Having lost Beverley Hughes, his immigration minister, Blair is desperate to reclaim an issue that is hurting the government badly. In his speech on 27 April, the PM inevitably tried to look in both directions at the same time, pledging an overhaul of the immigration service and tougher controls, while emphasising economic and cultural benefits from migration. "We need few reminders about what happens when the politics of immigration gets out of hand," Blair said. "There are real, not imagined abuses of the system, that lead to a genuine sense of unfairness . . . We all know as politicians, certainly on the centre left, what we fear: that concern slips into prejudice, and becomes racism. But we cannot simply dismiss any concern about immigration as racism."

Repeated attempts by ministers to start a more active discussion about the nature of Britishness have failed to make headway. That is why they see Phillips's role as so important. That suits him well. He now has the chance to reposition himself (acquiring a political profile that takes him beyond the "Tony's crony" tag), to reposition the CRE (from a special-interest group whose profile appeared to be confined to highlighting individual abuses) and to reposition the debate towards what he calls the "mainstream". He is deploying the trusted Blairite tactic of triangulation - identifying the two polar extremes of an issue: in this case, the liberals' gushing embrace of diversity versus right-wing anti-immigrant prejudice - and portraying yourself in the sensible centre. New Labour habits die hard.