A culture of trying to ban people you don’t like is edging into the student left.
Administrative exclusions are fairly common on the right wing of the student movement. Right-wing or “apolitical” student union officers will often find excuses for shutting down left-wing meetings and activity; but they won’t call them bans.
It is on the student left that a culture of banning, more openly proclaimed as what it is, is starting to develop. Such bans are usually aimed not against right-wingers, but against others on the left.
Following the Socialist Workers Party’s terrible and cynical mishandling of charges of sexual assault against an organiser, some at the University of London Union wanted to shut down, at short notice, the SWP’s “Marxism 2013” event scheduled at ULU. Workers’ Liberty consistently argued against this. It would allow the SWP leadership to present itself as persecuted and rally its troops, and anyway it was wrong. We argued for a culture of debate in the movement, and for intervening to raise the issues at “Marxism”.
Last weekend, 2-3 November, the Socialist Party’s “Socialism” event took place at ULU. We raised the question of the SP’s response to the Steve Hedley cases, and there was again argument for trying to stop the event by cancelling the booking at the last minute.
In the recent controversy about the AWL and Islamism, one or two of our more hostile critics at University College London have demanded that the Workers’ Liberty society be banned. (By chance, the president of the society is a Muslim-background Afghan refugee. This is not the fundamental issue, but a reminder of how strangely the issues were posed by some.)
All this mirrors a similar, though more vigorous, trend in student politics in the mid-1980s. Then there was agitation on the student left to ban university Jewish Societies on the grounds that they refused to condemn Zionism, and “Zionism equals racism”. A few university student unions did ban J-Socs. At what is now Manchester Metropolitan University, there was a campaign to ban the J-Soc; down the road at Manchester University, there was a campaign to ban the Islamic Society. The Easter 1986 NUS conference saw one faction demand “No platform for Zionists”; delegates voted to ban a “Zionism = racism” badge.
The forerunners of the AWL opposed all those bans.
Of course, there should be basic standards of decent behaviour upheld in the movement and its institutions. Of course, physical spaces should be safe, accessible and welcoming. But all that is a different matter from seeking to ban meetings or organisations because of your objections to them. Such bans should be kept for fascists and the like (“no platform”). Violence against the student movement, labour movement and oppressed groups is part of fascism’s essential political character. The same cannot be said of e.g. the SWP and the Socialist Party.
When SWP and SP members were aggressive towards those intervening at their events to criticise them, or whether or not to exclude particular individuals, are different issues again.
Such bans are rarer in the labour movement, but they happen there too.
Behind the controversy about the SWP and SP events at ULU were real issues about women’s rights. But four Socialist Party members were banned from office in the trade union Unison because a leaflet the SP distributed at Unison conference in 2007 was artificially construed as “racist”. One of those banned was Asian, and another of partly Iraqi background.
We should oppose the student left’s incipient “banning” culture seeping into the labour movement.
Bans hinder or exclude debate, replacing it by a culture of anathemas and prohibitions. They hurt all of us and weaken the possibilities for left-wing and liberation struggle. Instead of tackling political problems, they freeze them by dividing the labour and student movements into segregated sectors, each with its ban against others.
Arguing, as some do, that student union members should have a right to decide who does or doesn’t have meetings in their union is really beside the point. Of course they should, but how should the left advocate that power of decision-making be used?
Again, when activists objected to the National Union of Students feting anti-immigration Labour right-winger Maurice Glasman as the “keynote speaker” at an upcoming conference, they were not saying Glasman should be banned, or ruling out the idea that NUS might debate him.
Democratic control of student union spaces, events, etc. should as a norm be used to promote debate, not shut it down. We will solve the problems on the left, and go on to transform our whole movement, through debate and argument free of barriers erected by rival anathemas, or we will not do it at all.