Feminist author and socialist Katherine Connelly on why liberation campaigners must oppose an NUS motion to bar Tony Benn from student platforms
Leading anti-war campaigner and socialist Tony Benn will be ‘no platformed’ like Tommy Robinson of the racist EDL and Nick Griffin of the fascist BNP if a motion to the National Union of Students gets passed this week. If local student unions follow the national union then Tony Benn may be refused a platform in any student union in the country.
Refusing to allow fascists a platform has long been the policy of the left and the student movement. But in a remarkably ill-thought out move the National Executive of NUS is about to apply the same policy to Tony Benn and Respect MP George Galloway.
The reasons given for this unusual step are comments they made about the charge that Wikileaks whistleblower Julian Assange raped two women in Sweden. The motion states that Galloway ‘referred to a man inserting his penis into a sleeping woman as, “bad sexual etiquette’ and that Tony Benn said of the Assange case, “the charges are that it was a non-consensual relationship. Well that’s very different from rape”.’
Tony Benn has since, at the request of Goldsmith Students Union, of which he is the honoury president, retracted his remarks, apologised and restated his life-long commitment to women’s liberation. But still the NUS is persisting with its resolution.
The comments in both Galloway’s and Benn’s cases are of course wrong. It is wrong to state that non-consensual sex is not rape, and it was wrong to try to defend Assange from extradition by dismissing the claims of the women involved.
But beyond this, there is a fundamental problem by responding to these comments by trying to no platform Benn and Galloway. 'No platform' is an exceptional position that the Left has typically campaigned for Unions and other organisations to adopt in the fight against Fascism.
It is an unprecedented departure from the left’s defence of freedom of speech on the grounds that there can be no free speech for those who would deny such freedoms to others. There can be no democracy for those who would use genocide and extermination to end democracy.
These conditions clearly do not apply in this case. It is the exceptional danger posed by Fascism that prompted the tactic of no platform to be applied exclusively to fascists. To apply it indiscriminately to other political views we oppose means fascists cannot be isolated by the no platform policy as an exceptional threat.
Backward ideas about rape are profoundly upsetting and damaging to the fight against women’s oppression. However, the prevalence of these ideas (which the motion acknowledges) points to the fact that they stem from the sexist society in which we live. Therefore it is within society that we have to fight these ideas.
Surely it is much better to have Tony Benn, a figure that many people look up to as an inspiration, apologise and restate his commitment to women’s liberation as he has done, than to let damaging remarks remain unretracted where they can continue to damage and distract our movement. This is a fight we can win – we can change people’s minds, we can challenge sexism in our movement.
Astoundingly, if the writers of the motion genuinely believe these remarks have put Benn and Galloway beyond the pale, then there are a lot of people missing who should be named in this motion.
While the motion makes brief reference to Roger Helmer (UKIP MEP) and Andrew Brons (an MEP for the fascist BNP and a former leader of the fascist National Front), why are the members of the Coalition government who are overseeing massive cuts to rape crisis and domestic violence services not in this motion?
Why not the whole of the Cambridge Union Society who invited Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak there earlier this year? Why not those government ministers whose refusal to demand that Assange will not be extradited from Sweden to the US is effectively prolonging the injustice to the women involved? All these people have gone far further than to make an offensive remark.
What’s more, the NUS would not dream of no platforming war criminal Tony Blair. And the NUS quite regularly opens its platforms to Zionists. In this context the attempt to no platform Tony Benn and Galloway looks absurd.
And why is the NUS, which has let its members down so badly over the fight against fees and cuts, not organising against the closure of rape crisis centres? Where are the leaflets, the posters, the protests, the pickets and the demos?
Tony Benn was a wholehearted supporter of the student movement of 2010. Which is more than the NUS executive can claim. It would be better if the NUS spent less time either censuring or no platforming Tony Benn and George Galloway and more time actually defending its members.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. Her book, ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire‘ was published by Pluto Press last year.
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- Introduction to Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire