NUS LGBT+ 2017: When virtue signalling trumps fighting for liberation

NCAFC activist and UCL student Ben Towse writes about last month’s NUS LGBT+ Conference. This is an opinion piece – what do you think? If you want to write a response or another article on this or another topic, get in touch via [email protected].

NUS-LGBT-logoNUS LGBT+ conference this year was a surreal experience, and one that left me and others with severe concerns about the ability or willingness of activists in our union to fight for liberation. What I saw was a tendency of student unionists more concerned with signalling their virtuous principles than putting them into action, who confuse representing people and their needs with actually fighting for their material fulfilment, and who in general are fostering a deeply inward-looking inclination in the campaign at the expense of taking action to defend and extend the rights, needs and material interests of LGBT+ students.

Perhaps the most illustrative and absurd episode of the two days was the conference’s rejection of a proposal to campaign for accessible and ultimately free childcare, and the arguments used to call for this.

Rejecting the childcare campaign policy

Motion 404, from activists at Durham Uni, called for representation of student carers – rightly highlighting that this includes both those caring for children and adult dependents – and for research and campaign activity to tackle problems facing them. NCAFC activists sent in what we considered a friendly amendment, removing nothing from the original motion, only adding on top a specific commitment to campaign for colleges and universities to cover their students’ childcare needs, and ultimately for free universal childcare to be provided as a public service (as proposed by the Labour leadership), funded by progressively taxing the rich and business.

We were relatively confident of passing the motion, and expected that if opposition arose it would come from a minority right-wing perspective (“You can’t just point at things and tax them!”, “This is a lefty pipe-dream, be realistic!”, “If people can’t afford childcare they shouldn’t have children!” etc etc). The proposing speech was handed to NCAFCer Mark Crawford, who is doing solid work around the issue on our campus as UCL Union’s Postgrad Officer.

What followed floored even the most jaded cynics within the huddle of NCAFC activists present. Delegates took to the stage to harshly denounce our proposal – not, they said, because they disagreed with it, but because adding to a motion about all carers with an issue specific only to some carers, would “dilute” the main motion and detract from the representation of carers of adults. We were accused of “conflating” parents with all carers, and told that it was offensive for us to have submitted this as an amendment, rather than a separate motion [1]. The amendment was rejected by a landslide vote, despite not one speaker raising objections to its actual content.

This betrays a couple of deep political problems:

  • First, a desperately limited, inward-looking understanding of what our union can do for its members. To some of these people, the “big win” for student carers would be attaining official recognition and representation by the national organisation, and the fact that this recognition equally noted carers of children and of adults. To defend the needs of carers of adults was not, at least in this debate, about campaigning in the outside world to secure their real material needs (for instance, financial and other support, or combatting the chronic underfunding of adult social care), but about ensuring a nice, right-on document could be posted in the conference minutes on NUS Connect.The substitution of improving representation for improving material reality is a persistent problem in student politics and much of the left. There is a stark juxtaposition in this political culture, between the harsh (often – let’s face it – performatively vitriolic) denunciations of liberalism’s tokenistic responses to oppression and disadvantage, and frequency with which this tokenism is reproduced, albeit with a superficially radical veneer. Other examples in recent NUS LGBT+ conferences include the prevalence of election speeches that prioritise listing aspects of the candidate’s identity over concrete policy, strategy and tactics; or the disproportionate amount of time spent discussing the acronym under which we organise. This is not to ignore the value of representation in democratic organisations, but to emphasise that it is valuable only insofar as it results in the represented groups’ needs and interests not just being performatively noted, but effectively tackled.
  • Second, a hackish obsession with some very particular abstract standards around motions (I say this as something of a union procedural nerd myself) and a failure to understand that the purpose of a democratic union conference needs to be not producing a policy document, but collectively discussing and deciding what we as a union should do to change the world beyond the walls of the Sheffield Holiday Inn conference centre. It is absurd to imagine that anyone struggling to care for their dependents in the outside world, gives a flying fuck what part of a motion document contains their union’s commitment to fight for them and with them.We saw this tendency crop up at other points in the conference. For instance, it was apparent when delegates voted to remove a reference to the fact that LGBT+ people are more likely to be atheists than non-LGBT+ people, because the document did not include a citation, even though they did not dispute the fact and specific research was cited in proposers’ speeches and can be found easily via Google: e.g. here, here, here (although, given this was followed by a – thankfully unsuccessful – attempt to cut recognition that leaving a religion and religious community can be difficult and distressing, it probably also had something to do with certain student lefties’ reluctance to acknowledge any negatives whatsoever about religion). And it was apparent when some delegates got up to give lecturing speeches about how others’ motions hadn’t been drafted precisely in the format they’d have liked.

    This attitude is obviously completely unconstructive, both because it tends against focussing on effective action to make concrete change in the real world, and because it is exclusionary and alienating to anyone who wants to bring a meaningful proposal for action to their union, but isn’t experienced in writing motions (or, indeed, isn’t familiar with the precise preferences and obsessions of some particular hacks at one conference).

You need a movement to make policies a reality

This was the third (and last) annual conference of the campaign I’ve attended, and in all that time, even when good policy has been passed, serious discussion about what kind of movement we’d need to win radical change, and how to build it, has been largely absent. For instance, a student union movement capable of fighting for LGBT+ liberation would need large, vibrant, militant LGBT+ groups on every campus, vigorously debating the issues facing us in order to develop – and then act on – plans for political advocacy, protest, direct action and so on. Clearly, we’re lightyears away from this on most campuses. But you wouldn’t know it from conference discussions – talk of the actual power of our movement to extract concessions and force change, and how to build that power, is basically not on the radar.

Of course, another big problem is the widespread hostility to the idea that any of us should ever engage in discussion with people who hold bigoted or reactionary views, limiting the campaign’s ability to win hearts and minds as well. This conference again aggressively rejected our motion critical of the way no-platform tactics have been used. I won’t go into detail but check out this article for an explanation of NCAFC’s take on the issue.

What is to be done?

US Catholic school students protest church homophobia & the sacking of their gay teacher

US Catholic school students protest against church homophobia & the sacking of their gay teacher

A union that passes policies for righteous causes but devotes little attention to how we can either convince others of those causes, or build the forces needed to win them, is a union that’s going nowhere. And a union that refuses to even pass good policies because of obsessions around virtue signalling through the particular arrangement of motion documents, is one that’s going backwards. So what can we do?

First, keep arguing within NUS LGBT+ for a materialist perspective – one focussed on the world outside the conference room walls, and on serious, rational consideration of what will and won’t change it. NUS LGBT+ Conference is treated as the centrepiece of the organisation, when it should be merely the beginning – where we decide the activity that we will actually go out and do, together, in the real world.

Second, lead by example. NCAFC LGBT+ caucus has discussed how we can transform campus LGBT+ groups into activist organisations that turn outwards and fight to force change and change hearts and minds. Other organisations and networks are also doing great work in LGBT+ activism – from migrant solidarity to fighting for trans healthcare – but, barring some honourable exceptions, campus LGBT+ groups are not substantially involved, let alone leading. We need to get these groups organising local protests over the NHS, occupying local government offices against cuts to community sexual and mental health services, building tenants’ rights and social housing activism, and fighting to stop the detentions and deportations of LGBT+ and other asylum seekers and migrants (for instance, taking inspiration from the Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants activists who grounded a deportation flight recently).

Realistically, we won’t change NUS LGBT+ from above, but from below. We will transform campus groups into grassroots campaigns, conducting meaningful fights that defend and extend our material interests and needs – creating the concrete examples that illustrate our arguments to change the politics of the national union.


[1] Ironically, we had also been speaking with an NCAFC activist who cares for an adult about putting together a second amendment about material assistance for students caring for adults, but this effort missed the submission deadline – due, of course, to that activist’s time commitments. [go back and continue article]

NUS LGBT+ Conference Bulletin

Today our LGBTQ caucus is at NUS LGBT+ conference! Check out their bulletin below (in both PDF and text format), with articles about living grants, freedom of movement, and the no platform debate.

Download the bulletin here (PDF)


Grants not debt!

LGBT+ students need universal living grants

grantsnotdebtTHE last government abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (which provided a small amount of financial assistance to poorer young students in further education), and now the Conservatives have cut the maintenance grants of the poorest undergrads. We don’t just want to stop and reverse these cuts, because those schemes were never enough. NCAFC demands a grant – non-repayable and offered to all – that is enough for every student from further education to postgrad to live on. This is the only way to ensure that finances are not a barrier to anyone accessing and staying in education, and to make sure that every student has a decent standard of living.

How would we fund this? There’s a huge amount of money available for this and other public services – the only problem is that it is currently kept in the hands of a few. We say, tax the rich and take the banks under democratic control. The wealthy shouldn’t just pay for their own education, but everyone’s.

There are lots of arguments in favour of this, but one is particular to LGBT+ rights.

We’re often told that means-tested financial support is good enough. That’s where the government decides how much support you need according to your parents’ incomes.

First of all, the support provided now doesn’t cover full living expenses even for the neediest students, so even if we accepted that argument, much improvement would still be needed. But means-testing assumes that parents will always financially support students if they can. If a bigoted family won’t support their LGBT+ offspring, that student can face a choice of living in poverty – because the government says they don’t need full support even though they aren’t getting family help – or being stuck in the closet, hiding so that their families won’t cut them off.

Supposedly, such students can gain “estrangement” status from their parents and be funded as independent from their families. But the estrangement system isn’t just broken, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that can never work. To get it, we have to provide proof that we have completely cut ties with our parents for some time. Evidence can be hard to find and the process is difficult and often deeply distressing. And even unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation have been held against estrangement applicants.

But it also assumes everyone’s whole family is either entirely supportive or completely estranged. How could we fix such a system? Will we means-test intolerance, with a sliding scale measuring how bigoted or supportive a student’s parents are?! This system requires young LGBT+ people struggling with their families, or even just individual family members, to completely give up on their entire families and cut them out. A bitter irony, given how those same authorities constantly moralise conservatively about the importance of the family unit.

And this isn’t just an issue for LGBTQ students. What about students whose families don’t disown them for their sexualities or gender identities, but just refuse to support their ambitions for education, for any number of reasons – from disagreeing with their offspring’s choices in life and career, to conservative sexist parents who don’t believe their daughters should be educated? Everyone deserves the ability to be financially independent.

We support universal living grants, as well as living wages and so on, because we aren’t just fighting to hold off the particular attacks being made on education right now. We are fighting for a radically liberated, socially just society, in which everyone has the freedom to fulfil their hopes and potential, be who they want and live as they wish.


Freedom of movement is an LGBT+ issue

EVERY now and then a story makes the headlines, high-lighting the mistreatment of LGBT+ migrants by the Home Office. We hear of deported individuals being told to “act straight” in a country that bans homosexual relationships, or of asylum seekers forced to show their private photos to prove their sexuality. Shocking cases like these usually cause short-lived outrage, sometimes inspire a petition in defence of a specific person. Calls for a radical change in migration policy which could really prevent such appalling abuses are still nowhere to be seen in the political mainstream.

But these, however far from isolated cases, are just the most extreme examples of the inherent oppressive-ness of border controls. Then there are countless stories that never make the news, of both EU and non-EU citizens crossing borders to live the life they want. LGBT+ migrants moving countries to be able to marry their partner, or to be recognised as their real gender without undergoing sterilisation. People who travel abroad to escape abusive families or to be out in the workplace without fear of discrimination. Although no country is free from structural oppression, for many migration is the only way of accessing the rights and freedoms that others enjoy.

Borders are not only racist – they are also sexist, ableist and LGBT-phobic. That’s why the LGBT+ movement needs to be unapologetic in our demand for free movement of people – not depending on how much one contributes to the economy, on whether or not they’re a model citizen, or on their victimhood and how much their story can move hearts. True liberation means the freedom of everyone to be true to themselves and in control of their lives, regardless of what their passport says.

Grassroots groups like Movement for Justice, or Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants, have been highlighting the links between border controls and the oppression of LGBT+ people. Let’s join them in resisting detention and deportations, and fight for a world where one’s nationality does not determine their fate.


The debate about no platform

At this conference, we’re supporting the motion “Defend and Extend Freedom of Expression and Organisation”, to tackle a range of threats to our political and union freedoms on campuses. Most of these are from the government and college/university managers – like Prevent – but the motion also discusses our own movement’s use of no-platform tactics, arguing that these are only appropriate as a self-defence tactic against groups – mainly fascist groups – that organise to use physical violence against progressive movements and against marginalised groups.

WE believe that open discussion and free expression are the lifeblood of left-wing and liberation struggles. We want to change the world for the better, and that means confronting, tackling and defeating a host of bigoted, right-wing and regressive ideas. Parts of the student movement think that one way to do this is through the use of “no platform” policies on our campuses and in our unions, to shut out the people who believe those ideas. We think that instead, we need to beat those ideas through argument and protest, and change hearts and minds to change the world.

What is no-platform?

No-platforming is a tactic adopted originally by activists against fascist organisations. It means refusing, as a general blanket rule, to permit a specified group any platform to organise, promote their ideas, or act on them. This could mean everything from turning over a street stall, to disrupting a meeting, to denying them an invitation to speak in a student society event. It also includes refusing, again as a blanket rule, to ever have representatives of your organisation or movement share a platform with that group.

The left and liberation struggles need to fight a battle of ideas

Our movements exist precisely because reactionary ideas and bigotry are not marginal but dominant and widespread across our society. So changing minds – billions of minds! – is therefore completely vital to what we want to achieve. There is no shortcut and we can’t proceed by hoping to gain control of various little pockets of society (like student unions) and make them ideologically pure through imposing regulations from the top down. No regulation or speaker policy can change hearts and minds. The left has to confront the world as it is, and debate and discuss with people to win them over.

At worst, attempting to apply no-platform policies to widely-held ideas means denying ourselves a platform. When we refuse to share a platform with people who hold bigoted or right-wing views, very often our opponents get a free ride. It is our job as a movement to go out and compete against them to spread our ideas.

It can be exhausting and distressing to go out into a hostile world and confront dominant ideas that attack our freedom and our very right to exist. But that’s why we build a collective movement. No individual can or should be expected to fight every battle, but organised together with everyone contributing as much as they are able, as a collective we can meet those challenges.

Open discussion within the left and liberation movements is also vital – it’s the only way to ensure that our movements are democratic, and that we constantly challenge ourselves to re-examine, refine and improve the ideas that drive them.

Attacks from the authorities

More broadly, progressives and the left always face attempts to silence us. Political freedoms on our campuses are already under attack from the government, from education bosses, and from the marketisation of education.

We need to stop these attacks, and an argument about defending free enquiry, free debate and free speech is essential to winning that fight. There are differences between restrictions imposed by the state and those by student unions, but we can’t win the argument for the value of open discussion if we are inconsistent, if we are simultaneously imposing our own regulations of which ideas can and cannot be expressed. Our best defence depends on building, and embedded as widely and firmly as possible, a consensus in favour of defending open discussion and free speech.

What’s different about fascists?

We don’t think that fascist ideas cross some arbitrary line of being too distressing or offensive to be heard: we don’t want to ban fascist texts from libraries. Nor do we think that policies attempting to silence fascists would be sufficient to beat fascist ideas anyway – we will never beat ideas with anything other than different, better ideas.

Instead, we are committed to no platform as a physical self-defence tactic – part of a militant anti-fascist strategy. Fascist groups are an organised movement of physical violence in the streets, fighting to terrorise, crush, and ultimately murder oppressed groups, the workers’ movement and the left. Antifascists are forced to respond by doing whatever we can to disrupt fascists and their efforts.

Importantly, this is a tactic that the left and student and workers’ movements can use to fight fascists from the grassroots up. We don’t, for instance, call for the state to step in and ban fascist organisations and demonstrations for us. We know we can’t trust the state in the fight against fascism, and experience also shows that state-imposed restrictions on the far-right are easily turned against the left too.

In certain circumstances, we may apply similar tactics to other physically threatening and violent groups and individuals which confront us. Again, this is about physical self-defence.

Reclaiming the issue from right-wing hypocrites

Recently, right-wingers and bigots – from Tory student campaigns to press outlets like Spiked! – have draped themselves with the banner of free speech against the left of the student movement. This has been possible, in part, because of the abandonment of that banner by parts of the left. But the right’s defence of political freedom has, in most cases, been deeply hypocritical and inconsistent. These commentators rail at student union no platform policies – too often because they actually support the bigoted and reactionary ideas that are usually the targets of these policies – but have little or nothing to say about Prevent, university and college managers cleansing campus spaces of visible politics, or the victimisation of student protesters and trade union organisers.

We want to show up these hypocrites, and build a consistent, left-wing campaign to defend and extend freedom of speech, debate, organisation and action on campuses. One that will facilitate a flowering of student and workers’ organisation and struggle. Join us!

Read more about the campaign for freedom to organise and freedom of expression on campuses: anticuts.com/righttoorganise 


What is the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts?

THE NCAFC is a democratic network of student activists on college and university campuses across the country, fighting for free, democratic and liberated education that is funded by taxing the rich and business.

We’ve played a pivotal role in mobilising the student movement and supporting activism since the 2010 wave of occupations and street protests. We’ve been heavily involved in building everything from the ongoing NSS boycott against the higher education reforms to 2014’s #CopsOffCampus movement.

We help activists build for action on campuses, we join together to argue for our causes, and we organise action, such as major national demonstrations and 2015’s anti-austerity bloc on Pride with Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners.

Talk to us or find us online for more info!

anticuts.com

[email protected]

@NCAFC_UK

facebook.com/NCAFC