The lessons of “Poppygate”

Submitted by AWL on 15 March, 2013 - 8:48

Since last November, when Workers’ Liberty member and University of London Union Vice President Daniel Cooper declined to take part in an official, pro-war “remembrance” ceremony and published a statement explaining why, there has been a major right-wing campaign to oust him from office. After failing to get a referendum, the “remembrance” lobby had a final flurry this month, supporting Tory candidate Will Hall against Daniel’s bid for re-election. The issue came up again and again during the election campaign, but Daniel won.

Anti-Cooper campaigners tried to popularise the phrase “Poppygate”, in the tradition of controversies given the suffix “-gate” after the early 1970s scandal involving US President Richard Nixon. But this was not a “-gate”: Daniel and his supporters were not embarrassed or ashamed or “caught out”, but proud of the stance he had taken. We did not apologise, but coming under pressure, fought back. (This was a stark contrast with a previous ULU controversy, in which President Clare Solomon apologised after making anti-semitic remarks – and then lost re-election.)

Why we did what he did

One idea spread by critics of Daniel’s stance over “remembrance” was that he did it to gain notoriety. This is bizarre. Daniel is not a “student politician” or a career politician of any kind. We have no desire to be better known as individuals, except in so far as it allows us to fight for our ideas.

The assumption there – sincerely believed or, in some cases, probably not – is that the official “remembrance” campaign is “non-political” and that everyone, regardless of their views, must support it. The whole point of Daniel’s stance was that he disagreed.

Even more nonsensical was the idea that we were seeking to offend people. Offending people unnecessarily is not in socialists’ or any political agitators’ interests; it simply alienates people from us and our ideas. We generally try to be as “unoffensive” as is compatible with standing up for what we believe in and what we think is necessary – which is exactly what we were doing here.

Is it worth noting that Daniel has repeatedly been asked why he could not just have kept quiet, and not attended the “remembrance” ceremony without saying anything. We think this would have been wrong and far more “disrespectful”. For us, ideas and principles are things you talk about and fight for, not things you keep at home on a shelf.

An “unrepresentative” minority?

One assumption made by many of the anti-Cooper campaigners was that their view represented all or almost all University of London students. They claimed that the stance he took was “unrepresentative”. This is a highly dishonest or at best confused way of approaching these issues.

None of us know what all or most University of London students think about “remembrance”. Given the prevalent climate of opinion in society, promoted by a monolithic establishment consensus, it is likely that most think it is right to take part. But we don’t know. Moreover, in our view, politics should not just be a matter of working out what most people think and following it. It should be a matter of working out your views and fighting to persuade others of them (while of course being open to learning from and being persuaded by others in the process). It means accepting democratic decisions in the organisations you are part of, but not accepting bullying by self-appointed spokespeople for assumed majorities. The alternative, practiced by the "remembrance" lobby and by many others on the right of the student movement and broader politics, is posing as “representative”, while actually being manipulative. Of course, such people would not apply the idea of following the pre-existing majority to all issues: they only apply this principle when it suits them.

ULU has no policy on “remembrance”; Daniel never tried to claim that his views represented ULU as an organisation; and given that the issue had just blown up, he did not prevent a ULU staff member from attending. Equally, he felt it was his right and duty to be honest about his views and what he was doing. That honesty is why over the last five months we have won or partially won many students over to our view. (If you think we were wrong over this and would like to discuss it, feel free to get in touch; we would be happy to discuss further.)

This difference was reflected in the recent election, where Daniel once again campaigned openly and honestly as a socialist, while Will Hall desperately pretended not to be a Tory – and the “Daniel Cooper must resign as ULU Vice President” Facebook group was turned into a Will Hall campaign group, to the protests of some of its members.

The role of the left

A wide variety of left-wing activists rallied to defend Daniel Cooper. The role of the organised socialist left, beyond the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, was poor, however.

Despite its obvious significance, none of the socialist press covered the “remembrance” controversy. Back in November, Stop the War and Student Stop the War did not even reply to requests for help. During the election, the record was mixed. Some groups did not reply to requests for support, and we were told that the SWP student office ordered their members not to help the campaign, though in fact many ignored that and did help. Counterfire students, it should be said, were helpful.

We think the irony is clear. In the past, the AWL was often accused of being pro-imperialist, pro-war etc. But when a prominent AWL member was witch-hunted for taking a stand against militarism, and faced losing an election to a right-wing Tory because of it, much of the “anti-imperialist” left could not even bring itself to comment, let alone help.

The big lesson

There is a fundamental lesson for activists on the left: do not be afraid to speak up for what you believe is right because you think (or know) it's unpopular. That is true when it’s a question of fighting the right; it’s true when it’s a question of disagreements and disputes on the left. For a long time it has been common even on the radical student left to hear things like “I agree with you, but if I say that I’ll get all sorts of shit”. Better to follow Marx’s approach: “Go your own way, and let people talk”. That is the way to win people to socialist ideas and be an effective militant.

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