Leeds University Union’s No Platform policy was renewed two weeks ago at one of their Better Union forums but a motion to extend it to the student newspaper was sent to referendum. The reason for the second motion was an interview that was published with Griffin in Leeds Student a month ago, which caused a massive controversy on campus because it didn’t technically break the No Platform policy. The whole controversy, though, I think exposes exactly why the policy is broken as it currently stands.
First, let me say, that I think it was wrong, in the context of what had recently happened – having recently tweeted the addresses of the gay couple involved in the B&B discrimination case – to publish the interview. I think it was a case of Griffin seeking attention and a naïve student newspaper giving them it. The press freedom angle is hard to argue in the week Lord Justice Leveson delivers his report on the freedom of the press (for what it’s worth, I would really like to see a change to the current omnishambles that is voluntary self-regulation).
I think it’s important to talk about the stated reasons for No Platform for a second. There are two major stated reasons for No Platform: the political argument and the welfare argument. The political argument comes from the seventies and the heyday of the National Front, when student unions voted to institute the current “no platform for racists and fascists” policy. Controversially, it was used against both Jewish societies (based on a link to Zionism) and some members of the Conservative Party during the Thatcher years (although, admittedly, the youth wing of the Tories was horrifically pro-apartheid). The second, the welfare argument, came through in the nineties, claiming that the presence of fascists on campus would put students, especially LGBT students and Black students, at risk for their safety.
It’s telling that the second argument often gets used in arguments about No Platform, even though really the first is the main reason for some people. I’m not a fan of the political argument, as it leads to the same Cable Street attitude we’ve seen over the years. There are probably some in Unite Against Fascism that believe that counter-demonstration is the most effective tool in anti-fascism. It really isn’t. It’s evident that BNP electoral gains are made in working-class/poverty-stricken areas where the BNP can exploit a public that feels betrayed to vote for them. Anti-fascism can make huge gains by engaging with the public.
The problem is when some people, especially on the Left, try to keep the No Platform policy strictly for racists and fascists. A brilliant example was two months ago, at the NUS’s NEC meeting. There, a motion was put forward to No Platform rape apologists, which was brought in the wake of professional kitten imitator and current MP George Galloway saying that Julian Assange did not rape the two women he is alleged to, but instead committed “bad sexual etiquette” by sexually penetrating the women while they were asleep. Among the people to be No Platformed were Galloway and Tony Benn, both heroes of the Left who had jumped on the Assange defence bangwagon (which I’ll talk about another day…). That’s where things got ugly.
Aaron Kiely, Student Broad Left/Labour member and NUS Black Students’ Officer, and Jamie Woodcock, SWP member, put forward an amendment gutting the policy and replacing it with a aren’t-you-a-naughty-boy fingerwagging at Assange and going on a tirade about American imperialism (a favourite word of some on the Left, used to defend, for example, the “right” of Iran to forcefully transition gay men, if you believe the CPGB-PCC). The argument got heated to the point that, allegedly, several women left the room in tears from the arguments that SBL/SWP members put forward, some about the “tactics” of No Platform. If you want an example, check out SWSS’s site for their reasons to oppose that motion.
Kiely popped his head up again to co-author an open letter demanding that Leeds Student remove the interview. While some of the signatories did agree with No Platforming rape apologists, some of them were stuck in their Cable Street mentality. For example, the editor of London Student, Jen Izaakson, signed the letter, just weeks after publishing and defending Jason Wong’s horrifically transphobic comment piece. I actually challenged her by asking whether Wong’s comments were part of “societal discourse” that could be debated with (it was a trick question, I admit, because you really shouldn’t debate anyone who has the view that all trans women are rapists). What followed was a litany of privilege denial, ableist slurs, and Stockholm Syndrome-like defence of oppressive forces.
But one thing that stuck with me was the implication that anything is fine to say as long as you don’t wear a BNP rosette. While a simplistic view, it does raise important questions about how exactly you make a political No Platform work, especially as policies often include an exhaustive list of organisations. No-one complained when, the following week, Leeds Student published an interview with a man who has historically made comments about Pakistanis being complicit in child grooming and, in the interview, criticised the Union’s response to previous racist comments as “Stalinist”… but that’s because he was a former Home, Foreign, and Justice Secretary. Well known cloaca, journalist, and not-someone-who-works-as-a-cunt* Richard Littlejohn is regarded as one step away from fascist, but because he holds his nose and votes Conservative, he’s safe to come onto campus. So is Andrew Brons, who was elected as a BNP MEP, but by all accounts, is no longer a member (but it still a fascist).
*I wouldn’t personally describe Littlejohn as a cunt, because of the well-known “warmth and depth” defence of female genitalia.
This is why, to make No Platform work, to fix it, we need to talk seriously about the welfare issue of No Platform. In a way, it wouldn’t make a negative difference, as the BNP really can’t go anywhere without their brigade of thugs making the area not only unsafe for minority students, but unsafe for those who don’t fit the racially homogenous profile of the BNP. It would, de facto, still ban Griffin from coming on campus, and for good reason. But it would also make it safer, for example, for LGBT students when a cleric who has previously called for their murders is prevented from coming on campus (which didn’t happen). At the same time, we need to talk about an anti-fascist campaign that doesn’t just counter-protest, but tries to cut off the blood supply of new fascists, for example, by going into deprived communities and bringing them away from the BNP.
And you know what? No Platform currently is edging towards accounting for welfare. Ask Julie Bindel, whose transphobic comments led to NUS LGBT no platforming her (a motion which, I believe, was supported by SBL and the SWP). Michael Chessum, who was a member of the NUS NEC who voted against the amendments, has written a brilliant piece on why he did so, which also talks about the elevation of alleged “imperialism” being the oppression above all others (which may be another post). I would encourage you all to read it.