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Why the left needs freedom of speech

It’s time for the Labour and trade union movement to reclaim the ground that is rightfully ours, and defend freedom of speech as a core left-wing commitment, write JANE SHALLICE and SHEREEN BENJAMIN

RECENT weeks have seen the Tories seizing yet more ground in what were previously Labour strongholds.

But it’s not only votes and constituencies that have been lost.

A wave of knee-jerk suspensions of socialists from the Labour Party and the party’s widespread silencing of women who want to discuss sex-based rights, have enabled the Conservatives to present themselves as the defenders of freedom of speech in the face of a censorious left.

It’s time for the Labour and trade union movement to reclaim the ground that is rightfully ours, and defend freedom of speech as a core left-wing commitment. 

Freedom of speech matters. Robust, comradely debate enables us to build solidarity and to work through our differences to arrive at strong and confident socialist policies.

It’s what enables us to hone our ideas, learn from our differences and commonalities, and build our ability to take on an increasingly rampant Conservative Party here in Britain and a strengthening far right in Europe and worldwide. 

Trade unionists know this. Within our unions there have always been differences: for instance, about what was key in any fight, about the strategies required, and about how to build movements and campaigns.

Sometimes those differences have been bitter, going to the core of deeply held political views. But we’ve been at our strongest when we’ve rallied around the need to build solidarity, and that’s been done through debate — on the conference floor and in branches. 

By contrast, an intolerant insistence that some issues must be beyond discussion has been emerging in the Labour and trade union movement in recent years.

This insistence may have its roots in the NUS policy of “no platform for racists and fascists,” but it departs from the original aims of that strategy in important ways.

Where the “no-platform” policy was intended to deny legitimacy to fascism, the new left authoritarianism has turned in on itself, treating established activists as pariahs and refusing to consider any challenges to increasingly narrowly defined orthodoxies.

It rebrands dissent as hate speech, and on that basis seeks to silence or cast out dissenters. 

We see this trend writ large in the Labour Party’s response to alleged institutional anti-semitism.

Instead of careful, evidence-based discussion about the identification of anti-semitic conduct in the party and how it should be addressed, debate has been shut down and dissenters — including Jewish people with long histories of fighting for socialism and against racism — have been suspended.

Constituency Labour parties (CLPs) have been told that motions regarding the controversial IHRA definition of anti-semitism are “not competent business” and directed not to engage with the left-wing Jewish Voice for Labour

We see it too in the debate on women’s rights. It has become impossible across vast swathes of the left for feminists to criticise the sex trade or to suggest that women are oppressed on the basis of sex: those who do so face slurs, abuse and false allegations.

In the run-up to the 2020 Labour leadership election, most of the candidates signed a pledge traducing left-wing feminist organisation Woman’s Place UK as a “trans-exclusionist hate group” and calling for mass expulsions from the party: robust rebuttals from Labour members (mostly women) accused of transphobic views have been dismissed by their accusers and ignored by senior Labour figures.

At its 2019 congress, the University and College Union (UCU) — a union that should have freedom of expression as well as academic freedom at its core — voted down a motion which would have condemned the abuse and intimidation of feminist academics targeted for their public support of women’s rights.

Such intimidation is ideological thuggery and its costs for individuals can be tremendous.

Reputations are ruined and relationships are destroyed with no opportunity for redress.

But the costs for the Labour and trade union movement are perhaps worse.

Without the ability to debate freely, knowledge becomes sterile; without scrutiny a position can become “a line” which is reverentially handed down like Moses and the tablets.

In all our experiences in education and in politics from the 1960s onwards, developing critical analysis has been fundamental to our practice. For Marx, Spinoza’s “Doubt everything” was a favourite aphorism.

So let’s do that. Doubt everything, and subject it to robust scrutiny and debate.

There’s a conversation to be had about any limits to freedom of speech, and in particular the “no-platform for fascists” tactic.

Some argue that such a tactic remains vital, while others say that information proliferation on the one hand and selectively expansive definitions of fascism on the other render it irrelevant or even counter-productive.

Let’s have that discussion. But let’s remember where the real dangers lie.

From the profiteering cronyism of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to rightist developments in Madrid to the threat of a Le Pen victory in France next year, the Labour and trade union movement faces real and pressing dangers nationally and internationally.

We simply cannot afford to be fatally undermined from within by a censorious authoritarianism that divides and fractures.

We need to recognise our differences, and through debate build alliances and develop collective campaigns and strategies grounded in sound analysis.

Freedom of speech is one of the foundational principles of the left, and we need to reclaim it.

Jane Shallice is convenor of the NEU London Retired members and member of Stop the War. Shereen Benjamin is a senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Labour Women’s Declaration working group. They are writing in a personal capacity.

This article is the third in a three-part series previewing an event, The Threat to Free Speech and How to Defend It, today, Thursday May 20 at 7pm, with speakers Salma Yaqoob, Lowkey, Helen Steel, Naomi Wimborne Idrissi and John Rees and chaired by Bernard Regan. Register at bit.ly/defend_free_speech. To read the previous articles in the series click here and here.

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