LSE Students’ Union: the tyranny of the minority

The banning of LSE rugby club was puritanical – and quite possibly illegal.

Barbara Hewson

Topics Politics

The furore over the London School of Economics men’s rugby club leaflets, which referred to the ‘beast-like’ nature of female rugby players and advised members to avoid women who are ‘mingers’, rumbles on.

It all started on 3 October, when the LSE Students’ Union seized the offending leaflets, which were being distributed at a freshers’ fair. From the reactions of students, it seems that some saw the rugby club’s leaflet as moronic, and subjected it to criticism and ridicule. Given that students were able to make up their own minds, it’s not clear why the union set out to elevate this into a major incident in which, it claimed, students ‘suffered’.

A few days after the seizure, the union’s new general secretary issued a press release stating that there would be a ‘thorough’ investigation. Having encouraged press attention, both the Daily Mail and the Guardian covered the story early last week.

Despite the club offering an immediate apology, and acknowledging that the leaflet was ‘inexcusably offensive’, the union disbanded the club on Tuesday 7 October. The union’s general secretary issued a lengthy statement primly denouncing the club: ‘The booklets distributed by the rugby club are clearly sexist, and demonstrate a culture within a club that is unable to challenge misogyny, sexism and homophobia. This culture, and how leaders within the club have allowed it to prevail, has brought shame on to the club itself, the athletics’ union and the wider student community.

‘We have been so proud to stand together as a Union’, she continued, ‘and be able to discuss these issues and openly condemn acts of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and classism’. She then concluded somewhat illogically: ‘The hosting of women-only and LGBT-only spaces is indicative of a union of students that wants to work together to be an inclusive, positive community.’

A ban on men

So now, while the LSE’s athletics union offers rugby to female students, no rugby is available to male students, who are deprived of the opportunity to play competitively for the LSE in the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Rugby League Programme. Not surprisingly, the club is appealing.

But it seems that neither the LSE Students’ Union, whose investigation was conducted with indecent haste, nor the university, whose president issued a statement approving the ban on 8 October, have addressed their minds to the law on equal treatment. The Equality Act 2010 expressly prohibits less favourable treatment on grounds of sex (see sections 11, 13).

Suppose that Muslim students of the Wahhabi school had taken over the union’s ruling body. Suppose they decided that women’s participation in sports was un-Islamic, and summarily dissolved all the women’s sporting societies, citing women’s ‘immodest’ dress and behaviour. Imagine the outcry.

Yet what happened last week is not so far removed from such a scenario. For a start, it does not appear to have occurred to anyone at the LSE that to ban male students from accessing a sport available to female students is itself a form of sex discrimination. Sorry men, you can’t play competitive rugby, because we don’t like your laddish (that is, male) behaviour off the pitch. This sounds pretty sex-specific. Ironically, it seems that those who run the union are so dominated by an ideology of oppression politics that they cannot recognise the possibility that they acted unfairly.

Resorting to the media to issue public admonishment to students is also excessive. Such public shaming could be seen, should you be so inclined, as a form of bullying. Again, this does not appear to have occurred to the union, which seemed more preoccupied with its own spin-doctoring.

Mischief, whoredom, and whatnot

Tactless though the club’s leaflet was, this was as nothing compared to the cardinal sin of failing to tame its inner party animal. This is what has appalled the modern-day Puritans, who run the LSESU. The club’s real crime was taking the piss out of a prevailing culture of political correctness at the LSE, whose union’s general secretary was one of two students calling for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ to be banned last October, on the basis it promoted ‘rape culture’.

And what of the rugby club leaflet itself. It spoke of the Three Tuns Bar, which had some ‘tasty’ barmaids, and the Zoo Bar in Leicester Square where, provided members could cope with the ‘mingers’ (slang for ‘ugly people’), they could pull a ‘sloppy bird’. It called LSE women rugby players beasts – slang for ‘awesome’ (the motto of the women’s club being ‘play hard, party hard’). And it made some comments about not participating in ‘homosexual debauchery’.

This is mild, as some gibes between students of Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield suggest: ‘I’d rather be a poly than a cunt’; ‘I’d rather be a cunt than unemployed’.

The LSE Students’ Union later cited as further justification the fact that, over the years, the men’s rugby club had been guilty of hedonistic excess and bad-taste parties, running naked through the university, and having strippers at end-of–year events. It bemoaned the fact that it had tried to ‘rehabilitate’ the club, without success.

But an earlier incident in which the club had apparently caused substantial damage to university property sounds rather more serious than a silly leaflet. Why wasn’t a swift apology enough this time? And to what extent is it legitimate, or even lawful, for student unions to police male students’ social lives and speech?

The primary aim of any sporting society is success on the field. There is no suggestion that the club had treated opponents outrageously during matches. If the union really wanted to improve take-up of the sport among the student body, it could have required the club to work with the BUCS to ensure that its recruitment practices were sufficiently inclusive. What the union really wanted to attack was the club’s après ski. In an unselfconscious throwback to seventeenth-century English Puritans, its real target was a form of student Saturnalia.

What is the union?

As with students’ unions up and down the United Kingdom, any student admitted to a university is automatically deemed to be a member of their local student union. The rule is ‘opt out’, not ‘opt in’. A student can terminate their membership by giving notice.

The result is that university union memberships consist of people who are co-opted automatically, without real consent. Unions are companies limited by guarantee, which operate a sophisticated set of constitutional rules, memoranda and articles of association, and by-laws. They can achieve registration as charities. But they can also become a vehicle for various forms of ‘issue advocacy’.

The underlying problem with these unions, then, is their undemocratic nature. The LSE is a good example: it has 9,500 full-time students, but on a union motion such as the ‘Blurred Lines’ ban last year, only 89 students voted: 40 against, 49 for. This is an infinitesimally small number, compared to the overall student body. In a very real sense, such actions by student unions represent the tyranny of an over-zealous minority over the majority.

Barbara Hewson is a barrister. Her views here are personal. She will be speaking at the debate Victims’ law: therapeutic justice or moral crusade? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

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Topics Politics


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