Why 'No Platform' means something different today
posted by: Nick Lowles | on: Sunday, 6 January 2013, 10:52
A few quotes attributed to me about ‘No Platform’ on Huffington Post, as part of a wider article on Free Speech issues in 2012, appear to have caused a bit of a stir in some quarters. The left of centre blog ‘Liberal Conspiracy’ applauded my comments while I have been firmly denounced by the anarchist-aligned ‘LibCom.org’.
Basically, in the course of a much wider interview about the state of the Right and the work of HOPE not hate I was asked about my view on No Platform – the position where we refuse to allow fascists an opportunity to act like normal political parties and, more specifically, which sometimes includes physically deny them the freedom to operate.
I told Jessica Elgot that this traditional position of No Platform was now out-dated and, I went on to say, that anti-racists and anti-fascists needed to do more to debate the ideas we oppose but not the people.
I really did not think anything more of it until my comments appeared on the Huffington Post website. After the applause and abuse, I thought I should expand on my thoughts.
By stating that what we historically understood as ‘No Platform’ is outdated is a simple fact. And of course I still would not give a platform to Nick Griffin or the BNP but others do and enforcing it is no longer a central plank of our work. I say all this for three reasons:
1. The British National Party has won elections and so it has a platform regardless of what we think or would like. Many people got understandably upset when Nick Griffin appeared on BBC’s Question Time but that was a consequence of him getting elected to the European Parliament. The BNP are, or at least were, in council chambers, so what should we do? Under No Platform we would demand that people refuse to sit in the chamber with them or council staff refuse to work for them but that is clearly impossible. Councils have to operate and staff would get sacked if they refused to follow orders.
2. New technology has made ‘No Platform’ increasingly redundant. Back in the 1980s groups like the BNP and National Front would only reach the public by holding papersales on street corners or public meetings at elections. Both gave anti-fascists an opportunity to drive them away and so prevent the public from hearing their racist diatribe. With the advert of the internet and social media that has now all changed. Anyone can now access racist and fascist material without leaving their house or exposing their interest to the wider public.
The rise of the Internet and social media has been accompanied with changing attitudes to freedom of expression and censorship. Arguments about silencing ideas are far less acceptable now than they once were. This was vividly recognised back in 2009 when the BNP tried to hold a fundraising event in Leigh, near Manchester. HOPE not hate joined a community campaign which helped force the venue owner to withdraw the invitation. Success, so we thought. However, a few BNP supporters did turn up and were attacked by anti-fascists, one with a hammer. What began as a great success story turned into a PR disaster as images of the beaten man dominated local, regional and even national news for three days.
3. Hate and hate speech is changing and not all the groups we now oppose are fascists who follow an ideology that is so repugnant that it is easy to explain why they should not be allowed to have a platform. This is especially the case with the emerging anti-Muslim extremists, those in the self-defined Counter-Jihad movement. And it is these groups and individuals who are a far more dangerous threat to local communities than the tiny neo-nazi parties like the British People’s Party or the Racial Volunteer Force. All too often those who profess to be militant anti-fascists ignore these more dangerous racist groups in preference for opposing the miniscule nazi grouplets.
Whether we like it or not the old strategy of No Platform is increasingly redundant, not least because it is no longer enforceable. Despite all best efforts of those who stick to traditional ‘No Platform’ BNP councillors still sit in council chambers, their local branches meet, leaflet and hold street stalls quite openly; the English Defence League march and campaign across the country and anti-Muslim groups oppose mosques and Islam with impunity.
But there is one further point I would like to make. Whilst I still would not debate with Nick Griffin, because at heart he remains the fascist he always was, I also recognise that he and his party do not articulate their true beliefs publicly. Rather, they go into local communities and try to tap into local issues, disillusionment and economic pessimism. That is why I argue that our most important task is to go into these very communities and take on their ideas and arguments.
And this is what HOPE not hate tries to do. We might not always get things right but we go where the problem is. We have consistently taken the BNP on in places like Burnley, Bradford and Sandwell. We produce community leaflets and newspapers in places like Dudley, Croydon and Leeds. In Barking & Dagenham we distributed 355,000 pieces of literature in just five months which helped defeat them in 2010. In Luton, more recently, we have consistently leafleted and campaigned on the estates where the EDL receives its support. The list of our community engagement could go on.
No Platform was a policy we backed in the 1980s and 1990s but it is no longer the same issue or has the same relevance today. But a different type of 'No Platform' does exist today and it is one that I do subscribe to. It is a No Platform which means we deny fascists, organised racists and other haters the freedom to spread their poison within communities unchallenged. Just as the BNP have moderated their public views to win the hearts and minds of local people so we must also change. It is about defeating thier ideas rather than just beating them. Working in the communities targeted by racists and fascists, engaging with ordinary people and persuading them to not support these groups is now our priority.
* Agree or disagree? Let me know your thoughts. Either leave a comment here, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @lowles_nick
Posted: 6 Jan 2013 | There are 18 comments
Comment 1 | From: Lee Newell | Date: 6 January 2013, 12:39
Good article. I agree and would go further in that we should try to ensure that the views of haters are expressed as openly as possible in the media and elsewhere. My stomach turned as much as anyone else's when Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time but I'm glad he did. I'm glad that the wider public got to see him for the misinformed, hateful idiot that he is. It makes our jobs easier after all, they can put their own nails in their own coffins. These are difficult economic times and traditionally we would expect to see a rise of the far right. I believe that the openess that technology facilitates actually helps to expose their ridiculous theories for what they are. The people of Britain are not stupid and the more information they have on which to base their own views the better. The last thing we need is for the voice of the right to be forcibly muted - then we help to romanticise the 'outlaws'. Keep up the good work Nick and let's all have faith in the majority of decent folk that we share this Island with.
Comment 2 | From: Phil Dickens | Date: 6 January 2013, 22:46
As the author of the libcom piece, I should point out that you haven't actually addressed the points I made. In particular, that militant anti-fascists *do* address fascist ideas and engage with public opinion. We leaflet on working class estates, in town centres, etc and challenge the myths they promulgate for this reason. Also, whilst no platform may mean demanding censorship for UAF, for militants it's about cutting off their organising capacity. The BBC let them join talk shows, but we stop them marching, block their routes, shut down their stalls, etc. This was the argument I made, ignored to simply repeat the original argument.
Comment 3 | From: Rob Ray | Date: 6 January 2013, 23:43
Well done for entirely missing the point of no platform, which is not to deny fascists a voice but to deny them the confidence and ability to mobilise on the streets. Honestly do you think fascism has EVER relied on debating the left to death?
Comment 4 | From: Robert | Date: 7 January 2013, 10:22
Hi Nick, Really interesting. Thanks for expanding on the HuffPo article.
Comment 5 | From: Jason Hunter | Date: 7 January 2013, 11:52
I agree with Lee that Nick Griffin appearing on Question Time ended up as highly beneficial to us. He made a total mess of it. Griffin is now one of our best weapons against the BNP. However, I also think it was the 'fuhrerprinzip' that the BNP operate that made it unthinkable to him that he would allow anyone else, other than the leader, to go on in his stead. If they had had a leader with vague charisma the outcome could have been worse for us. It is not ruled out that by dishonestly simplifying complex problems they might not have won more support. So we should not encourage them to be given air time they dont deserve. It is right to say they are largely unrepresentative and should not be treated as a normal political party. However, if we fail to stop them speaking,as we usually will, we cant just condemn the fact that it was allowed, we have to tackle what they raise. I know Hope not Hate did brief other panel members and this greatly helped prevent Griffin using the opportunity better. Nick Lowles is totally right. We cant prevent by force people listening to their views any more. We have to be there answering them in the localities. When we do this, we can beat them as Hope not Hate has proved time and again.
Comment 6 | From: Mark Gardner | Date: 7 January 2013, 12:33
An excellent, coherent and much needed article. Thank you.
Comment 7 | From: Darron | Date: 7 January 2013, 13:39
Yet another really well argued article by Nick, which I both agree with and also accept is another challenge to many in the anti-fascist movement. I would go one step further. Can it be right that, say on a radio phone in, about the far right that a BNP or EDL/WDL/SDL spokesperson is speaking and we cannot phone in and challenge the arguments and ideas in real time? Am I the only one who knows that anti-fascists routinely get their 'mates next door' to call in on the basis that we can challenge fascists without losing our principled no platform stand? It seems to me that it might make us feel good amongst ourselves to effectively leave the BNP to their own platform (whilst standing outside with banners and loudspeakers) but I don't believe we should act to make ourselves feel good or principled - we need to act based on how our actions will actually influence someone making decisions on who to vote for at an election or whether to support a local campaign. I for one was not unhappy before Griffin went on Questiontime, I was not unhappy that the BBC put out the panel that they did and I for one am happy that the panel shared the platform and didn't do a runner and stayed to trounce him. Indeed Griffin now blames the BBC for his disastrous performance. What do we make of that? I would add that just because an alternative fascist to Griffin might have been more 'eloquent' it is not a reason, in my view, to stop us challenging the BNP in prime time. I am not afraid of eloquent fascists. I am more afraid when eloquent anti-fascists feel that they have to bite their lip and say nothing for fear of offending their comrades rather than their communities. I know that there are many fine anti-fascists across the left (and the right it should be said) who believe in the no platform stand, and I am proud to call them comrades. Perhaps what this article can kickstart is a debate amongst the sensible and thoughtful anti-fascist majority in the country on whether the traditional no platform position has relevance to the most important people - our local communities. If it does then let's keep it, but let's not run away from a meaningful debate just because that is what we have always done.
Comment 8 | From: kelvin | Date: 7 January 2013, 18:07
"Whether we like it or not the old strategy of No Platform is increasingly redundant, not least because it is no longer enforceable. Despite all best efforts of those who stick to traditional ‘No Platform’ BNP councillors still sit in council chambers, their local branches meet, leaflet and hold street stalls quite openly; the English Defence League march and campaign across the country and anti-Muslim groups oppose mosques and Islam with impunity." So Nick, what YOU are saying here is that by and large the EDL and BNP do what they like - when they like. This statement is at best misleading, and at worst dishonest. Whilst every activity of such groups cannot be prevented (particularly in certain areas) they are far from confident enough to act at will and with impunity. We do not see BNP/EDL stalls in most towns and cities across the country because of the opposition they would face. The EDL marches are more often than not opposed by counter protests which seriously hinder their ability to build either in numbers or confidence. Norwich, Brighton, and Walthamstow are but a few examples. Very rarely and in very few towns and cities across the country do racists and fascists feel confident enough to set up stalls and leaflet and this is because they would be confronted and forced to abandon the platform they are trying to create for themselves. Only recently the now imprisoned leader of the EDL Robinson was prevented from attending a meeting at London's Conway Hall because of a 'No Platform' campaign by anti-fascists. Yes the internet changes things to an extent but it doesn't make every 'traditional' method of opposing racism and fascism as obsolete as you would have us think. The Fascists in Britain are in turmoil at the moment because of the active opposition they have faced. We need to use this opportunity to pile on that pressure rather offer out an olive branch.
Comment 9 | From: Tony | Date: 7 January 2013, 23:13
Kelvin, Just a quick comment:"Very rarely and in very few towns and cities across the country do racists and fascists feel confident enough to set up stalls and leaflet and this is because they would be confronted and forced to abandon the platform they are trying to create for themselves." Did you miss the years between 2003-2010? The BNP still set up street stalls all over the country even today, too. I am all for defending No Platform's core principles but I think what Nick says is right. They found their way around it.
Comment 10 | From: Caroline | Date: 7 January 2013, 23:33
Darron, if he's already on the radio, get ringing. Standing outside will not shut him up!
Comment 11 | From: David Jones | Date: 8 January 2013, 08:10
Please keep the no platform policy, please continue to physically stop BNP activities - both show the general public just how undemocratic, totalitarian and wrong are the activities of Hope Not Hate.
Comment 12 | From: Nick | Date: 8 January 2013, 09:44
Kelvin, I am not saying that the BNP/EDL do whatever they want, far from it. All I was saying was that the old strategy of 'No Platform' is less relevant today as it was and we need to be honest about that. That is partly because of the issues I outlined in my blog but also due to other factors, including CCTV and the change in their tactics.
The BNP have changed and rather than trying to dominate the streets they have now turned to elections and community campaigning. While they might not hold street stalls in every town they certainly have campaigned in most communities without problems. Our focus has had to change too. Just as the BNP attempt to win support from people in local communities so our priority has to be to win hearts and minds of people to. We do this by campaigning and engaging with local people. That does not mean we engage with the BNP but we have to take on the issues they campaign on.
I would never share a platform with the BNP nor would I recommend anyone else doing it but it is a fact that the old No Platform strategy has become increasingly irrelevant and outdated - not least because they are getting a platform by getting elected. The best way to prevent them having a platform is to ensure they fail to win elections.
Comment 13 | From: Rob Ray | Date: 8 January 2013, 19:41
The irony there Nick is that liberals and lefties who are uncomfortable with the idea of confrontation have been saying "far right street violence is old hat" since the 1980s, if not sooner. Hell AFA was founded by people who had been run up against that particular Swappie shibboleth and just as well it was or the far right would have rolled the left over and over again. The fash have gotten (slightly) cleverer by dividing up their electoral and street presence, but that doesn't mean they don't go for street-level intimidation any more or won't in future, or that the gains they make in either field don't feed into the other. I mean you even mention the EDL which has made its name doing exactly the sort of thing you say never happens, had significant crossover with the BNP and has produced spin-offs which are far more extreme. And the collapse of the BNP as a political force is exactly the moment to become more vigilant, not less - what do you think happens when a fascist decides the voting game is going nowhere?
Comment 14 | From: kelvin | Date: 9 January 2013, 13:47
Thanks Nick. I agree that more sophisticated surveillance such as CCTV (and the monitoring of internet sites for that matter) have changed the situation. Groups such as the EDL are still learning the hard way that it's not a good idea to blab about your hate crimes on the internet or ignore the cctv camera when you put a pigs head on the door of a mosque etc. The sort of direct action we've seen in the past is also made all the more difficult for all concerned. Yet, whilst there is a virtual army of anti-Fascists on the internet who counter the hate mongers it would be wrong to say we don't need counter protests at street level and that the internet combined with cctv has made street protests virtually redundant. Marching unopposed can only give racists and fascists more confidence as I'm sure you will agree. Also, we need to remind ourselves of the state of the far-right today. Simply put, the BNP's once mighty electoral strategy is in absolute tatters. The EDL which could once organise thousands on the streets is being torn apart also. Yes, some of this is a result of tensions from within (leadership, rivalry, policy etc.) but we need to take a proper look at the type of opposition both groups have faced and the range of strategies anti-Fascists have employed which has added to their woes. No platform in our colleges, universities, and beyond. Exposing their hate and lies through leafleting and petitioning etc. Countering and exposing them on the internet. Organising counter protests when they march or rally. etc etc etc. The fact that this sometimes does't happen is not the point. Actions such as these have all been successfully used at one time or another to combat the Fascist threat and it can only give succour to the likes of the EDL and BNP if we agreed to abandon any one of them or deem them 'virtually irrelevant.' I for one will be sticking to No Platform and hope others will do likewise.
Comment 15 | From: Jason Hunter | Date: 9 January 2013, 14:29
No one is saying the far right are not prone to violence. Indeed Nick Lowles predicted in a long article in September 2012 the political defeat of the BNP might lead to a rise in violence as individuals shift from the polical front to the streets. However, what is clear is this not some master strategy, gearing up their plan to take over Britain, but a consequence of their abject failure on the political front. The overwhelming majority of voters that the BNP target disapprove strongly of street violence. So do many of those who vote specifically to stop the BNP. especially women voters. Far right violence, and its exposure, has partly helped us to achieve this political defeat. The key point is that whatever strategy is needed to tackle or restrict such street violence, the issue of no-platform isnt really the point. Instead of arguing over the right of the BNP or EDL to march, we need to ensure that what they stand for is challenged before, if and after they do or dont. I was in Bolton when the EDL came to town. 3000 UAF supporters confronted 3000 EDLers in an enclosed town square away from public view. The only thing most Boltoners got from this was on the media which mainly emphasised anti-fascist arrests. Yet 10% of the 3000 anti-fascists could have leafleted all of Bolton in 2 hours. But that was not why most came. They came to say we dont like you EDL, not to convince Bolton people to take that position. Fortunately Hope not Hate did adopt direct public work in Bradford and Leicester where it really could have kicked off.It should be added that the EDL strategy was not to dominate the streets of Bolton, let alone Bradford or Leicester, which could not have been done in such areas, but to provoke a major Muslim backlash, similar to that provoked by the BNP in Oldham in 2001, which would convince many people that Muslim youth are violent hooligans, a strategy that gave the BNP much mileage in the last decade. It is to reignite their failed political strategy that they turned to the streets, not because they have a sustainable way of changing Britain by that. More specifically, to put it as clear as can be, if you see the BNP canvassing or leafletting an area, you dont pile into peoples gardens and attack or scream at them, you get a copy of the leaflet and get a big contingent to counter their lies by better leasflets and direct conversations. It rarely fails if done sufficiently.
Comment 16 | From: Marcus | Date: 11 January 2013, 23:40
One thing that needs to be said about Phil Dickens, is that (as comprehensively documented on Indymedia) he lied through his teeth about what we shall euphemistically refer to as certain events in Liverpool (politically and physically endangering the entire anti-fascist movement as a result) The "No Platform" issue is a red herring. Everyone is entitled to speak their mind, but this right has never extended to allowing a "right" to the slander and defamation that is in fact Fascism's stock-in-trade. Yes Fascists have a right to express their views, but also, at the same time, opposing Fascist mobilisations is an issue of our right to self-defence, which, in these situations, over-rides more trivial concerns. From a militant anti-fascist point of view, if no-one on the far-right was allowed to speak out, then Fascists would ALWAYS operate covertly or using pseudonyms, so it would be much harder to work out who the Fascists are and to thereby oppose them. And, just as Nick Griffin has for instance the right to refuse me permission to use his house as a platform for delivering my speeches espousing my views, equally everyone has the right to choose whether or not they wish to allow people with offensive views to use their premises or media to promote those opinions. We need to steer this debate in the direction of discussing the rights and responsibilities of organisations which host and broadcast events, and their right to refuse to be exploited by people who would use their premises etc to promote vile opinions. Yes people have a right to speak their minds, but they only have a right to speak their minds in their own space and time, not in other people's
Comment 17 | From: John | Date: 13 January 2013, 01:01
While it's true that 'no platform' is difficult to enforce online, does this really mean we should throw our hands up and stop trying to enforce it elsewhere? Ideas presented to the general public face to face, or through the mainstream media, are afforded a degree of 'real life' respectability denied to the frenzied world of the blogosphere. Ideas communicated openly and in a publicly witnessable way are more likely to take a hold among the general public than those read on a computer screen in the middle of the night. The difficulties of 'policing the internet' are well documented, but surely 'no platform' still has a role in preventing the translation of fascist propaganda from the virtual to the real world?
Comment 18 | From: Aromatherapist | Date: 20 March 2014, 16:45
It's been tough picking my way through the chaotic grammar of this piece, but it suggests to me that 'no platform' always meant the same thing: the idea that it's OK to use unilateral strong-arm muscle to quash people's freedom to speak (albeit falsely, as all political people do). I fear that this principle is now well-accepted by all and is about to be used by astroturf campaigners against far milder politicians than the loonies of yesteryear.
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