In recent weeks there have been attemps to ban the Socialist Worker Student Society at Edinburgh University, Sussex University and Goldsmiths, University of London.
The motion to ban at Edinburgh was withdrawn when the SWP threatened to sue the student union. The motion at Sussex failed by a large majority. As we go to press we do not know the result at Goldsmiths.
In their handling of allegations against Martin Smith from start to finish, and up until today, the SWP have utterly disgraced themselves: brushing aside two extremely serious allegations, setting up a deeply compromised process of “investigation”, manipulating votes to legitimate that process, trying to shut people up... At the end of the “process” the person at the centre of the scandal was allowed to resign before he could face up to a judgement by an SWP committee that there was “a case to answer”.
However disbanding their student society is wrong in principle and likely to have counter-productive consequences in practice.
The SWP is — and has been for many years — a tightly-run and intolerant sect.
Those on the left who have been its critics are not tolerated. Workers’ Liberty has often found itself prevented from speaking in SWP meetings; we have been subjected to tirades, lies and abuse; we have even been physically attacked.
Even more serious was the major crisis which engulfed the SWP where they put the narrow organisational concerns of their “party” far above the what should have been the ordinary rights of members.
We are profoundly sympathetic to the women in the SWP, the ex-members of the SWP, who have been abused, and to anyone who has been affected by their crisis.
There cannot be absolute freedom of speech in a student union. It is a community and has the duty to ensure there is a secure environment for all its members. It has the responsibility to promote solidarity and equality.
But the limits on freedom of speech in a student union have to be clear and robust. Beyond the imperative that we never allow the far right any kind of platform in our institutions (“no platform”), we often make other “restrictions” on free speech.
We have high standards, and not everything goes. We should not allow members or societies to say things, or print things, that are likely to stir up hatred against oppressed and marginalised groups. There are many kinds of “hate speech,” and misogynistic encouragement of sexual harassment and assault is one. Recently the LSE’s Rugby Club was disbanded because it issued a leaflet inciting sexual harassment. Quite right, we agree.
However, SWSS societies are not producing materials advocating anything remotely similar. If members of SWSS harrass people then, like anyone else, they should be asked to behave better and be dealt with according to the rule of the student union.
Of course it is a concern that people may join the SWP without knowing what they are about. That is, in fact, a good reason to keep them “in plain sight” — to challenge their views and to distribute materials with accurate information and sources of information to the people whom they are meeting and talking to.
Part of the background to these moves is that the internal fight within the SWP is now over. Many will rightly feel sore that attempts to hold the SWP to account failed. It is up to those of us, and in the first place the left, to renew a campaign of pressure. We should hope that we can improve gender politics across the left and through that reassure survivors and others affected by the crisis that the situation for them will improve.
But if we ban SWSS we are using our power to limit free speech in an inappropriate way.
A student union is also a political body, there to represent students in the institution and in the wider society on matters that affect and concern the student body. It needs freedom of speech!
Rosa Luxemburg once said that “without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element”.
She could have added that democratic freedoms are important to the most exploited, marginalised and oppressed. And her point, that curtailment of freedom has an inescapable effect of “hollowing out” democracy, that it never stops with this or that other restriction, is an important one here.
A knee-jerk culture of always acting violently against people who are appalling in their views without thinking whether they can be convinced to give up those views is very prevelant and we should be aware of that. Cameron’s response to Islamist fighters in Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan is to jail and exclude; we say, discuss and argue.
The movers of these motions say they are only interested in disbanding the SWP, but successful attempts are unlikely to be an act that stops there. Others may come along and decide to use these moves as a precedent. Who will be next?
Perhaps someone will decide to campaign against the Catholic chaplaincy’s presence on campus (because of the enormous series of abuse scandals). That would be both sectarian (against Catholics), and a blow to freedom of expression.
Or what about trying to stop Lib Dems from speaking (because of Lord Rennard’s behaviour, and the unwillingness of the Liberals to deal with it)? Or banning Tories from having a stall at Freshers (because of Brooks Newmark’s behaviour)? Depressingly, there will be no shortage of such examples in the future.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the SWP has been guilt of rape apologism, of denying the complaints of rape by women in their organisation (they do not, of course, say rape is acceptable). Many members minimise these abuses. Why?
Some in the SWP have not read about and do not know what happened. Some believe the SWP is truly fighting for socialism. They are completely misguided, but we should demand they explain themselves; we should try to discuss with them.
Bans can only prevent us from discussing and arguing. Moreover they poison any open, democratic, political culture; the very idea of discussing will suffer. And we risk giving the SWP publicity and the opportunity to rally people around themselves using the banner of free speech.
Many survivors are finding the strength to speak up. That’s an unequivocally a good thing. The BBC, the Catholic Church, Sinn Fein and other organisations are being shaken by the voices of those that have been abused.
We do not want anyone to feel they are fighting alone; we have to play our part. Yes, the SWP should be held to account and punished for its behaviour. But the best way to hold them to account is to protest outside their meetings, to argue with its (small number of) activists, and produce dossiers of evidence which expose its past activities.
We can win these arguments!