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National Education Union asserts importance of debate

Image of cover of NEU conference agenda

Delegates at the National Education Union (NEU) conference recently passed a motion which asserts the importance of discussion and debate, with 75 per cent voting in favour. The text of the motion is reproduced at the end of this post.

This is particularly welcome at a time when commitment to freedom of expression is under threat. There has been widespread criticism of the Conservative government and its attempt to proscribe organisations or topics in schools and colleges even as it presents itself as the guardian of free speech elsewhere.

But it is not only government which is touchy about the right to speak freely. The commitment of many on the left to freedom of expression is becoming increasingly selective.

There is outrage from many when left-wing activists are censored or expelled from the Labour Party but enthusiastic endorsement, or deafening silence, from some of the same people when the expulsions are proposed for women expressing support for sex-based rights. When women have attempted to raise their concerns, Labour activists shut them down, censure and threaten them or smear their reputations.

Such cognitive dissonance looks very much like misogyny.

Unions debating the right to debate

The NEU isn’t the only union to debate freedom of speech. In 2019, members of the University and Colleges Union, UCU, voted narrowly against a motion on academic freedom. Academics who have spoken up for women’s rights have come under attack and have found themselves more likely to be blocked on social media than supported by their union leadership.

This is why the motion passed by the NEU is so significant. The motion asserts that:

  1. advances in the development of culture, politics, science and social and personal liberty are achieved through debate, discussion and a readiness to accept that the orthodoxies of the day can be challenged
  2. freedom of speech and respectful debate is part of any properly functioning democracy; such debate should address issues without threat or hate
  3. freedom of speech includes the right to challenge and contest others’ views, respecting the right of oppressed groups to identify prejudice and discrimination
  4. “no platform” should be reserved solely for fascists and also recognises the right to exercise choice in selecting platforms.

The motion also references the often toxic nature of debate in society, noting:

“the intemperate nature of much recent public debate on a range of issues and condemns any vitriol or personal attacks and any silencing of legitimate discussion on diverse or controversial subjects.”

This will resonate for many women attempting to speak in the public arena – on any issue.

Some people claimed that passing this policy on discussion and debate would open the door to fascism and hate speech but gave no evidence to support this.

Thankfully, NEU conference delegates rejected this claim, not least because the motion affirming discussion and debate makes an explicit exception for fascist views. This position may not satisfy freedom of expression purists but the significance of the fourth largest union in the UK (with more than members 450,000 working in education) asserting the importance of dialogue and challenge should not be underestimated.

The NEU’s membership is 76% female so the opinions of these women really should matter to the union. Signs that the NEU and its members are serious about challenging the oppression women face were evident in the passing of several other motions. These included motions on sexual harassment, abuse and violence against women, maternity rights and tackling pay inequality.

Contradictory policies

Like many organisations, the NEU has equality policies that apparently contradict each other. Labour’s 2019 manifesto has commitments to self-ID as well as to single-sex spaces. The NEU has policy in support of self-ID but will have to navigate its way around the sex-based policies it has also agreed. These contradictions are everywhere and they will need to be resolved.

What is certain is that where conflicts arise, the only feasible response is dialogue. Which is why the passing of the motion on discussion and debate is an important win for all members of the NEU. It could provide a route out of a stalemate which has counterposed two positions for too long.

But it is also a win for the labour and trade union movement as a whole.

Committing ourselves to the rights of discussion and debate means we will all be in a much better position to challenge attacks on free speech when they come from authority or government. Upholding the right to speak out on issues of concern to us, to speak truth to power, not only strengthens the movement but will be vital to stem the rise of genuinely fascist tendencies in our society.

@kiritunks

Kiri Tunks is an activist within the NEU and a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK.

Text of the motion

Discussion and Debate in the Union and in Schools

Conference condemns recent attempts by elected national and local politicians to silence school staff, especially Headteachers, who have spoken out on ‘political’ issues such as funding and recruitment problems in schools.

Conference condemns the government’s proposed measures to ‘protect’ free speech as hypocritical and contradictory and seeks to promote its own political agenda, and notes:

(a) the use of Prevent with its chilling effect on legitimate comment and debate

(b) the contradictory message that criticism of Israel is antisemitic while claiming to want to protect free speech

(c) the attack on calls to decolonise the curriculum as an attack on ‘our’ history

(d) the threat to withdraw funding from universities which do not adopt the government’s preferred definition of antisemitism – a threat in contradiction to its claim to protect free speech;

(e) the minister for education’s equivocal comments on the right to protest.

Conference notes the intemperate nature of much recent public debate on a range of issues and condemns any vitriol or personal attacks and any silencing of legitimate discussion on diverse or controversial subjects.

Conference believes:

  1. advances in the development of culture, politics, science and social and personal liberty are achieved through debate, discussion and a readiness to accept that the orthodoxies of the day can be challenged
  2. freedom of speech and respectful debate is part of any properly functioning democracy; such debate should address issues without threat or hate
  3. freedom of speech includes the right to challenge and contest others’ views, respecting the right of oppressed groups to identify prejudice and discrimination
  4. “no platform” should be reserved solely for fascists and also recognises the right to exercise choice in selecting platforms.

Conference further notes that there is some very good work happening in schools and colleges and applauds such efforts to ensure our young people learn the skills of debate and how to look at issues from different perspectives.   However, we are concerned that the squeezing of the curriculum will limit access for many young people to such opportunities and we call for the reinstatement of Citizenship to the curriculum.

Conference further believes that:

  1. young people should be supported in schools to discuss and address difficult issues in a constructive and respectful way
  2. Union members should be supported to hold personal views that they can discuss in a constructive and respectful way, both in their workplaces and in the Union.

Conference instructs the Executive to:

i) ensure that the Union is a safe place for all such difficult discussions by allowing any topic to be brought for discussion at any level of the Union

ii) do what it can, through collation of best practice and disseminating through Briefings, Equality Conferences, Annual Conference, and other opportunities, to ensure full member participation in the democratic processes of the Union

iii) campaign for the reinstatement of Citizenship to the curriculum

iv) with clear guidelines to ensure derogatory or abusive comments are not acceptable

v) support trade unions defending the right to free speech

vi) to campaign for a critical and challenging curriculum that respects and enables debate.

You can read all the NEU conference motions here.

 

We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.

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