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A Policy Widely Abused: The Origins of the “No Platform” Policy of the National Union of Students

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In early 2016, the media reported that two long-standing campaigners, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell and Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles, have been ‘no platformed’ at different events on UK university campuses for their alleged ‘Islamophobia’. In both cases, this was a policy officially instigated by the National Union of Students (NUS). However, this policy has, in the eyes of many media commentators, been abused and used by fringe sections of the student community to ‘silence’ opinions contrary to their own.

This controversy is no new phenomenon.  ‘No platforming’ in the early 1970s was a reaction to the rise of the National Front (NF) and their attempts to recruit people on campus, based on earlier strategies used by communists and Jewish activists against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. When the NF started to grow in the early 1970s, left-wing Trotskyist groups such as the International Marxist Group (IMG) and the International Socialists (IS) argued that physical resistance to fascism should be applied to this next generation of fascists. The term ‘no platform’ was first by the IMG, who argued:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

Despite numbering only hundreds, both the IMG and IS were influential within the student movement at this time.  At the 1974 NUS conference, these groups were able to push for the adoption of a ‘no platform’ policy, which stated:

[C]onference believes that in order to counter these [racist and fascist] groups, it is… necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).

In the eyes of the IMG, this extended beyond the NF and could also be applied to others, such as Conservative MP Enoch Powell, the right-wing Tory group, the Monday Club, and controversial psychologist Hans Eysenck. Others on the student left believed that the ‘no platform’ policy should not apply to those who may make racist and sexist statements, but were not violent fascists.

From the very beginning, there were criticisms of the ‘no platform’ policy. The Guardian described the move as a denial of free speech and warned, ‘Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.’ However, in June 1974 a student demonstrator was killed during a demonstration against the NF in London’s Red Lion Square, with tens more were injured. The NUS alleged police violence and the militant anti-fascists’ argument - that fascism must be countered ‘by any means necessary’ to avoid people on the left becoming targets of violence – was reinforced

By the late 1970s, the NF began to target the ‘white working class’ for support, and held controversial street marches through large inner city areas with large migrant communities. At this time, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF sought to publicly assemble. The Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’, when their National Executive Committee in 1978 declared, ‘Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.’

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was unsuccessfully challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. Alan Elsner, from the Union of Jewish Students, protested in the New Statesman in May 1977 that the policy ‘could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’, such as Zionist or pro-Israel speakers.

Despite the collapse of the NF in 1979, the ‘no platform’ policy survived into the 1980s.  It became used more diversely, being applied by various student unions to ‘sexist’ groups and individuals. For example, the feminist magazine Spare Rib reported in 1981 that a group of 50 feminists at the LSE had called for the policy to be applied to the dance outfit Hot Gossip, who were alleged to have a ‘sexist’ stage act and portrayed women in a demeaning manner. The gig went ahead, but was postponed and poorly attended after protesting women occupied the venue.

Critics feared that feminist use of the policy might lead to its abuse. Writing in 1986, Lindsey German said:

The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but feared it could allow ‘the right to pose as defenders of free speech.’ Student activists of the twenty first century should heed German’s warning against using the strategy against political opponents far removed from its original targets: the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the NF onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse.

The history of how the policy has been applied shows that as the progressive left has become more inclusive, the scope for those identified as politically ‘undesirable’ has also significantly widened. ‘No platforming’ successfully prevented the NF (and its successor the BNP) from gaining a foothold on campuses across the UK. It remains effective for this purpose, but should not become a substitute for debate with political opponents.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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