Do we want the BNP in our schools?

Arguments over whether or not Adam Walker’s comments were “racist” obscure the real issue.

A BNP activist and former teacher has been cleared of racism by the General Teaching Council. Adam Walker, 41, used a school laptop to post comments online describing immigrants as "savage animals" while working at Houghton Kepier Sports College, in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham. He also claimed Britain was a "dumping ground for the filth of the third world".

Despite declaring itself "troubled" by Walker's views, the GTC decided that while Walker's postings demonstrated an attitude that might be considered racist, the specific references to immigrants were not necessarily "suggestive of any particular views on race".

The ruling has been criticised by teaching unions, including the NUT, whose leader, Christine Blower, described the decision as "perverse".

The decision in March by the then schools secretary, Ed Balls, not to ban teachers from joining the BNP outright means that the debate has now descended into an argument over semantics. (The GTC, in effect, is saying it's not racist to describe immigrants in general as "filth", because immigrants are an ethnically diverse group -- a line of argument not unlike that of a comedian who makes jokes about black people saying "I'm not racist, I hate everyone . . .") But this threatens to obscure a more fundamental question: should BNP members have any involvement in our schools at all?

The education system plays a crucial role in the far-right party's quest for respectabililty. It has made a determined effort to get its members elected to school governing bodies. (This has been made easier in recent years by a shortage of ordinary people willing to take up governors' posts.)

In Stoke-on-Trent last year, for example, three BNP councillors attempted to join the board of governors of Edensor Technology College, a school where 80 per cent of the pupils are Asian.

Speaking outside the GTC hearing in Birmingham, Walker and his party chairman, Nick Griffin, presented the case as a free speech issue. But there is a clear difference between expressing privately held views and being a member of a political organisation that is committed to dividing British society along ethnic lines -- the party's 2009 county council manifesto, for example, declared that mixing white and non-white children was "destroying perfectly good local secondary schools".

Furthermore, Walker plays an active role in the BNP. He stood as a parliamentary candidate in May and, as the NS revealed in April, during the BNP's election campaign he was frequently pictured by Nick Griffin's side, wearing army fatigues. Here is how we reported it at the time:

On Saturday [Walker] was parading in front of news cameras gathered in Barking to cover the BNP's campaign launch. Asked if he was a real soldier, he admitted he wasn't. "I'm wearing this uniform in solidarity with our boys in Afghanistan," Walker said.

David Cameron has already said that he sees membership of the BNP as "incompatible" with the role of a teacher. It remains to be seen whether his government will take a fresh look at the matter.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.