Why No Platform is broken… and how we can fix it.

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.

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