Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Free speech within the labour movement is essential

Between the decision of the Supreme Court, and Labour Conference adopting radical policies such as the Green New Deal and support for freedom of movement, this has been a pretty momentous week.

As I continue to recuperate following my hospitalisation a few weeks ago I have mostly been reduced to observing events – and admiring the exceptional contribution of the Brighton Pavilion delegation at Labour Party Conference – as a television viewer.

I was, however, pleased to be able to honour a commitment to draw the fundraising raffle at Monday night’s excellent “Stand Up For Labour” event, organised by the marvellous Crispin Flintoff (who receives barely a fraction of the recognition he deserves for his service to our Party).

This meant that I came to share the stage, along with Crispin and Tosh McDonald, with Chris Williamson MP (who is currently suspended from the Labour Party). Chris had originally been due to speak at the event, but his name had been removed after the venue came under pressure from people who don’t feel that he should be permitted to appear and speak in public.

I am very disappointed that some of those who have been applying pressure on local venues are Labour Party members. I don’t know Chris, and hold no particular brief for him, but I do know that – whilst he has been suspended by the Party – he has not been found guilty of any breach of Party Rules.

Even if he had been found guilty, the idea that he should be “no platformed” seems to me to be absurd. In his speech on Monday evening, Tosh spoke about how his trade union, ASLEF (of which he is, of course, a former President) had taken up the fight against bigotry in the rail industry. (He wasn’t making any comparison with the case of his friend and comrade Chris Williamson, his respect and admiration for whom he made very clear).

In seeking to win workers to oppose racism, sexism and homophobia, he pointed out that the trade unions had certainly not sought the immediate dismissal of an individual because they had exhibited (for example) racist opinions or behaviours. Instead they had sought to change opinions – and behaviours – through argument and persuasion.

“No Platform” is a tactic (with a particular history in the student movement) which represents an exceptional departure from the principle of free speech. This tactic can justifiably be employed against, for example, the fascist British National Party or the likes of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, because they use their speech not simply to express hate, but to incite violence and to attack the working-class movement.

Used against the organised far-right, the application of the tactic of “No Platform” follows in the footsteps of the workers who gathered in Cable Street in 1936. However, extended inappropriately to silence debate within our movement (even when used against those expressing opinions which may be considered wrong-headed, or even reactionary or offensive) then this misuse of “No Platform” owes more to the historical tradition represented by those the workers prevented from marching.

Those who think it legitimate to try (and fail) to prevent Chris Williamson from speaking in public are simply wrong, as are those who reportedly bullied Waterstones in Brighton in order to cancel a book launch for a scholarly work on media coverage of allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. This is an illegitimate misuse of the tactic of “No Platform”.

Free speech is a vitally important principle for the labour movement, because the founding ideas of our movement had to be expressed in an environment in which the ruling class sought always to silence the voice of our class. The history of our movement is a history of those who were demonised and imprisoned for their dangerous and seditious opinions.

A contest of ideas, through dialogue and debate, is also essential within our movement if we are to move forward. Labour Party Conference this week adopted radical policies following – and as a result of – debate within the movement between different points of view.

It is only through respect for free speech, including respect for the expression of minority points of view, that such debate can enable our movement to develop policies and strategies which meet the needs of changing circumstances. The inappropriate use of the tactic of “No Platform” to stifle debate and silence opponents is therefore damaging not only to the rights of those who are (or may be) silenced but to our movement as a whole.

Given that these are my beliefs, I was entirely comfortable, on Monday evening, to listen to Chris Williamson speak, to applaud him when he said things I thought worthy of applause, to solicit his assistance in drawing the fundraising raffle and – in particular – to have his assistance, with other comrades, in drowning out my tuneless rendition of the Red Flag.

Elsewhere in Brighton that evening, my sister was attending a meeting addressed by her partner, my sister outlaw, Dani Ahrens. This was an unofficial fringe meeting with the title “A Woman’s Place is at Conference” organised by a group called “A Woman’s Place” which had originally been founded to coordinate contributions to a government consultation on gender recognition legislation.

Some activists fighting for the rights of trans people (in line with the agreed policy of our local Labour Party and with the motion submitted by Brighton Pavilion to Conference) feel very strongly that the arguments advanced by some feminists concerning the protection of the rights of natal women to safe women only spaces are transphobic.

Some of those who took that view organised a protest outside the meeting (which was an expression of their right to free speech) – but, in so doing, sought to silence and intimidate those attending the meeting. That was wrong. It is a misapplication of the tactic of “No Platform” to seek to apply it to gender critical feminists every bit as much as it is to apply it to Chris Williamson MP.

In the world of Trump, Johnson, Bolsanaro and Modi it is clear that the real – existential – threat to our movement (if not our species) is posed by the climate crisis and the rampant nationalist far-right. Legitimate targets for the tactic of “No Platform” are growing in strength here and abroad, just at the time when the scale and complexity of the challenges facing us make it essential that we should listen to and learn from all those who have something positive to offer (regardless of whether we may disagree with them on important issues).

I am proud to have been a Labour Party member for forty years, and to hold office in the local Party. I want our Party, and our wider movement, to be a place where we listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree. No Party member should seek to censor the expression, within our movement, of opinions of which they disapprove, whether by cajoling venues into cancelling bookings or by trying to shout down a meeting.

Labour Party members – and labour movement activists – who take different views (whether about the scale of the problem of antisemitism in the Party, about gender recognition legislation, or about any other issue) are not fascists, and no other Labour Party member should treat them as if they are.

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