Chris Williamson: Debating Society caught in furore over invite to former MP

Niamh Smith reports on Debating Society's invitation of Chris Williamson MP and the resulting furore.

Royal Holloway Debating Society have been widely criticised for inviting the former Labour MP Chris Williamson to give a talk as part of their guest speaker series. The Student’s Union stepped in to ensure that the controversial event, due to run on the evening of 5th October, was cancelled after the society received backlash for inviting an openly anti-Semitic speaker. 

Williamson, the former Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government, was suspended from the Labour Party last year, after a series of comments which underplayed and dismissed anti-Semitism within the party. Formerly the MP for Derby North, the 64-year-old politician described Labour as being ‘too apologetic’ over reported incidents within Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition. 

He also attracted ire for admitting to singing ‘Celebration’ by Kool and the Gang after Joan Ryan, a fellow MP, defected to the Independent Group due to what she described as ‘a culture of anti-Semitism’. In addition, Williamson has regularly expressed support for numerous Labour politicians and activists who have made anti-Semitic comments, including Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and Scott Nelson. 

Due to its incompatibility with the Guest Speaker Policy – introduced following the No Platform for Hate Speech referendum last year – the event was cancelled. RHSU President Kate Roberts commented that the Student’s Union has ‘a zero-tolerance approach to any form of hate speech […] I am extremely disappointed in Debating Society for their actions and decisions that led to them circumventing the policy and advertising an unapproved guest speaker event.’

Before the cancellation, Royal Holloway Labour Society condemned Debating Society’s decision, stating on Facebook that ‘[we] firmly [stand] against the invitation of Chris Williamson from RHUL Debate Society. Williamson was removed from the Labour Party due to his anti-Semitic views and we will therefore not support his invitation in any way’. In an open letter, co-written with Runnymede and Weybridge Labour Party and Egham Hythe Councillor, Robert A. King, the society’s president Izzi Vaughan called upon Debating Society to ‘immediately rescind your invitation to Mr Williamson to speak to your society and the wider Royal Holloway community’.

Others who expressed similar views included Left Forum, who set up a petition which garnered signatures from twelve student groups. Neil Lavie-Driver, president of JSoc and one of the petition signatories, commented that:

‘Chris Williamson’s anti-Semitism is hardly a matter of debate – he was, and still is, suspended by the Labour Party for it […] I would invite the Debate Society to consider whether inviting somebody suspended from one of the top two parties in the country for anti-Semitism, as if discrimination towards us is a matter that individuals should be invited to attempt to justify and debate in front of impressionable students, secures that. The answer should be clear’

Shortly before the cancellation announcement, Debating Society’s president, Vaanee Sarihyan, declared in a letter on the Overheard Facebook group that she planned to tender ‘[her] resignation as President of the Society should the committee continue to advocate for his presence in a Debating Society event’. Describing Mr Williamson’s actions as ‘unacceptable actions of severe anti-Semitism’, designed to cause ‘great harm to the Jewish community’, Sarihyan claimed that the invitation to the former MP was ‘not a unanimous decision on the part of the committee’ and that the society had previously seen a ‘misuse of power under the former leadership’. Last year, Debating Society notably invited the contentious public figure Katie Hopkins to give a keynote talk, which triggered the No-Platforming referendum and subsequent Guest Speaker Policy.