The Charity Commission is investigating a number of student unions for their policies on boycotting Israel and may take action against them, amid right-wing calls for such boycotts to be banned.
Successive governments, keen to head off organised opposition to their policies, have eroded students’ rights to take political action through their unions. Most student unions have been converted to charities, subject to regulation by the Charity Commission (in England) and to laws banning them from carrying out political campaigning that the Commission does not regard as furthering their “charitable objectives” — even if their own members vote for this campaigning.
There has recently been much agitation against the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel), including from the Conservative government which has banned local authorities from taking political considerations into account in purchasing decisions. In March, two University of Manchester students faced disciplinary action for dropping a banner reading “Stop Arming Israel”.
Workers’ Liberty fights to end the occupation of Palestinian territory and the repression of Palestinians, and for a free, independent Palestine alongside Israel. We believe that consumer, cultural and academic boycotts are not the right tactics for socialists to use in pursuit of Palestinian liberation. Even though supporting BDS does not make a person racist, problems of both explicit and implicit antisemitism need tackling within the pro-Palestine movement and can be fed by BDS.
Nevertheless, we are opposed to the Charity Commission’s interference, which is an affront to basic freedom of organisation — and deeply hypocritical from right-wingers who claim to be concerned about union democracy, free speech and political freedoms on campuses. It must be up to a union’s members to decide, through democratic debate, what issues are in its remit.
Much of the student union movement’s establishment and bureaucracy — especially the Trustee Boards brought in with the shift to charity status, and the unelected non-students and professionalised sabbatical officers who sit on them — has internalised the anti-political, service-provider model of student unions pushed on them from above, and has taken up the role of ensuring aggressive self-censorship.
Even before these latest moves by the Charity Commission, last summer saw UCLU’s own (partially unelected) Trustee Board strike down a vote for BDS by its democratically elected Union Council, citing concerns that this would cause trouble with the Commission. In fact, the Board ruled that even raising awareness of the repression of Palestinians was unacceptably political.
This is not just a matter for the BDS movement: it is the thin end of the wedge for all political organisation. What begins with BDS could spread to suppressing all sorts of political activity, from international solidarity, to climate change activism, to campaigns over the NHS and local public services – anything that can be construed to fall outside a narrow, blinkered definition of what affects students solely in their capacity as students. Whatever your stance on BDS, we must all defend student unions’ democratic rights.