A couple of weeks ago there was a controversy in the London student movement about the attempt of the Socialist Workers’ Party to book rooms at University of London Union for their annual public conference “Marxism” – because of the SWP’s handling of sexual assault allegations and the broader political issues about sexism and women’s oppression this has raised.
I have written this article to reaffirm and clarify my position. I opposed preventing the booking – naturally not to defend the SWP, but to fight them in a way which is both effective and not damaging to the wider movement.
Unfortunately – and this may not have been intentional – I feel that my position on the issue has been misrepresented. I have been made out to be someone who is dismissive of women in general and the role of the ULU women’s officer in particular. It has been suggested that I defend the SWP, or that I am myself a rape apologist.
None of these claims are true. Any suggestion that there I, or anyone on the ULU executive does not condemn the SWP’s handling of the Martin Smith case, and its related record on women’s rights, is wrong. My own record on that is clear: I have, for many years, tackled the SWP in the student movement head on, fighting them for a more democratic and open student movement that takes women’s rights seriously. Indeed, I have helped to spearhead the introduction of liberation officers on my own campus at Royal Holloway, and introduced the role of Women’s officer and part-time liberation roles and campaigns as Vice President of ULU.
“Marxism” and ULU, last year and this year
Last year there was a similar controversy about “Marxism 2013”. In that case the ULU executive voted to allow the booking to go ahead, but issued <a href=http://www.ulu.co.uk/news/index.php?page=article&news_id=376413> a statement</a> criticising the SWP, as well as intervening in the event. Because I disagreed with many aspects of the ULU statement, I co-authored my own statement with my comrade Rosie Huzzard: see <a href=http://www.workersliberty.org/marxism2013>here</a>. I’d urge people to read that before they go any further.
Last year’s discussion amongst the executive of ULU shows that the issue is a matter for debate, over which activists disagree, and I think the accusations of supporting the SWP, and even direct rape apologism that have been levelled at those holding minority views are unhelpful and inaccurate.
This year I argued that the decision should, once again, be made by the ULU Executive. The issue of who is allowed to use ULU rooms and facilities is an issue for the union as a whole – and controversies have to be decided by a democratic union body, either ULU Senate or failing that the Exec.
In the event, after I made this argument, the Executive didn’t meet physically, but at least there was an online vote about the issue: as I said, 6 to 2 (including me) to 1.
It has been suggested that I tried to reverse the decision to cancel the SWP’s room bookings. It is not within my powers as an individual officer to make a decision on room bookings. I made a proposal to get the elected ULU executive officers together, to discuss the issue and take a decision collectively. I feel that as a self-governing students’ union it is best we take any organisational decisions collectively and democratically, through a vote.
The issues involved
My opposition to barring the SWP from booking rooms at ULU is motivated by two broad concerns: firstly, wanting to criticise and fight the SWP in a way that is effective rather than counterproductive; and secondly, wanting to do so in a way that does not damage the broader political and democratic culture of organising and debate in the student movement and on the left. Again, I’d urge people to read my <a href=http://www.workersliberty.org/marxism2013>statement from last year</a>, which explains my view in some detail. See also <a href=http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2014/03/19/defend-free-debate-campuses>this statement</a> which the socialist group I am part of, Workers’ Liberty, put out.
In general, I think political problems, should be dealt with through political argument and struggle, not through bans and exclusions. That doesn’t just apply to the SWP: I am also against bans on open right wingers.
ULU regularly has all kinds of bookings from religious organisations which undoubtedly hold ultra-reactionary view on a range of issues. And most of its constituent unions have registered societies with far more reactionary views than the SWP and in some cases worse records in terms of sexual abuse, safety etc – most strikingly the Catholic Church.
Asking those who want to ban the SWP for consistency is not an attempt to trip people up with a clever argument. It is highlighting the fact that in general the student left does not seek (or at least up till now has not sought) to deal with problems through bans and exclusions – and rightly so. We should try to think about how the arguments apply in an integrated way.
It seems to me that a wide variety of organisations holding meetings on campus could make people feel unsafe. What about a student refugee who spent time in detention and comes across the Conservative Society promoting their filth about immigration? What about a Palestinian student whose family home was levelled by an Israeli F16 and is alarmed by a Jewish Society promoting links with Israel? (In fact there was a drive in the 1980s to ban student Jewish Societies because of their refusal to criticise Israel.) Surely these are perfectly reasonable grounds on which someone could feel unsafe or threatened and worry about a particular organisation. It does not follow that organisation should be banned from campus.
The fact that some people feel unsafe is not irrelevant or unimportant – very far from it. But it cannot always and automatically be decisive, unless we want to start banning pretty much all political and religious and many other societies from our campuses and student unions.
It is very unlikely that most of the attendees at “Marxism” believe that Martin Smith is guilty of rape and are consciously trying to cover it up. A very substantial minority at the event may not even have heard of the case – “Marxism” has always attracted many new people, mainly young, without much knowledge of the SWP, and seems to be doing so even in its diminished state this year. Those people are there because they want to be left-wing and change the world, not because they want to apologise for rape.
We want to stop these people from taking up the politics of the SWP. How do you do this? By talking to them, by convincing them.
The SWP’s behaviour and the politics that produced it, I believe, can only be confronted and dealt with by creating a culture where democracy and debate are the norm – just as bad politics in general can only be dealt with through argument and discussion. If they are in a space like ULU, with the possibility of flyering or of holding alternative meetings, or holding them to account in their own meetings, it gives us an opportunity we justifiably want: to tell people what the SWP are really about, and why they are wrong.
There have been suggestions from some quarters that I am against banning the SWP because they are “left wing” or “socialist” – this is wrong. I hope my aforementioned examples explain why but if not: if Tory students wanted to hold an event at ULU, I would not be in favour of banning that.
I think the resort to bans is starting to spread. Tellingly, I recently received a letter from right-wing Venezuelan students calling for ULU to cancel a booking for a “left-wing” pro-Venezuelan government event because of repression in Venezuela – citing the SWP decision as a precedent! The left should not be encouraging this sort of thing.
I’d add that in principle that a Students’ Union has every right to discuss how it uses its spaces, and which external organisations it allows to use its space and facilities. There is no question that the ULU executive does not have the “right” to deny the SWP rooms. I could imagine a case which argued against ULU making an external booking for the SWP’s event as a sort of public statement, but also opposed bans and exclusions as methods for dealing with the SWP (banning their student societies, smashing up their stalls, telling them they can’t distribute their literature at events, etc). I know that at least one of the ULU Exec members who voted to prevent the booking takes that view. But I think in actual, concrete practice all this is very much part of the same debate.
If you’d like to discuss all this or ask any questions, feel free to get in touch. I’d be pleased to discuss further. Agree or disagree with this argument, I want people to understand it. I’d like to re-iterate that whatever your position on the tactic there is no disagreement about the need to confront the SWP for their conduct over the Martin Smith case, and for their wider record and politics. But I think it’s legitimate to debate how that is best done.