Not the way to tackle sexism in the labour movement

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2013 - 8:45

In an online article the Socialist Party’s Hannah Sell tries to convince activists not to sign the statement initiated by Unison activists Marsha-Jane Thompson and Cath Elliot (“Our movement must be a safe place for women”).

“Safe Place for Women” is an unarguable appeal to the left and labour movement to stand in solidarity with women who are victims of male violence, especially when an incident takes place within our own movement.

Sell cannot directly contradict that sentiment so she takes the line “context is everything”. She says the statement will be used by the right-wing in the labour movement, and society, to witch hunt the left. It will distract from fighting capitalism and women's oppression.

Readers who are familiar with the Socialist Party (SP) will recognise two of their techniques here.

First, using the line “You can’t say that against the left/the SP/the union because the right wing will use it” as a way of shutting down debate.

Second, the “sledgehammer and nut” approach. A tediously long exposition of how capitalism perpetuates women’s oppression precedes the “dangerous distraction” argument.

But what of the details of Sell’s right-wing backlash?

Sell says the Savile scandal has created a febrile atmosphere which will make an attack on the left more likely. That’s possible but, as Sell herself says, far, far better that such scandals are out in the open and discussed.

Second, Unison’s right-wing leaders and their friends in the Labour Party will seize upon this statement to attack the left... because that is what they do. But if it wasn’t this issue, it would be something else, surely?

Third, the Daily Mail etc. will seize on anti-left criticisms because of “a correct fear by sections of the ruling class that, given the profound crisis of capitalism, the socialist movement will be able to become a mass force in the coming years.” I hope that is true. But more likely this Marxist “prediction” is randomly inserted here to boost the argument.

The logical conclusion is that the left should never attempt difficult self-criticism for fear of Daily Mail hack polemic.

So far so much the usual Socialist Party nonsense. But Sell does not want to say “Shut up women! Stop making a fuss about sexism in the labour movement” so she stumbles through other arguments about “context” — the opinions of Cath Elliot and the exact wording of “Safe Place for Women”.

Sell says Cath Elliot cannot be trusted. It was Elliot who moved a motion at Unison women’s conference on “no platform” for rape deniers and used her speech to attack the SWP.

There were problems with Elliot’s motion — her use of the term “no platform” and its application to “rape deniers”. What Elliot had in mind was stopping George Galloway from being invited to speak at Unison events, as a sort of punishment for trivialising rape when defending Julian Assange. It’s more a policy of “non-invitation” than “no-platform”. That’s not wrong in principle, but it depends... yes, on the context.

Was Elliot’s motivation right wing? Judging by this blog post Elliot was angry at the SWP’s attempts at the conference to rationalise their abuse of power. She does not argue for no-platforming SWP members, which would be right-wing and wrong.

In any case none of that has any bearing on “Safe Place for Women” — no ban on SWPers is proposed in the text!

Sell then says that the real problem with the statement is she does not agree with the wording: “…in saying ‘...when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade unions and political organisations should start from a position of believing women’ the statement bends the stick too far, effectively arguing that the workers’ movement begins by concluding the man is guilty, regardless of the evidence, or lack of it.”

Sell spectacularly, perhaps deliberately, misses the point. “Start from a position of believing women” is not a proposal to drop due process or natural justice. It is a proposal to “correct” how women get chewed up by the process of making a complaint about sexual assault.

In the bourgeois criminal justice victims often have to prove the integrity and veracity of their complaint.

And “objective” evidence is nearly always supplemented by subjective assessments about a victim’s sexual history, use of alcohol, drugs, etc. Though the system has improved such subjective judgements are still used and much more regularly than in other types of crime.

Elliot and Thompson want to stop the left and labour movement from mirroring this sexism in its own investigative processes, as happened in the SWP's “investigation”.

Putting “belief of women” at the heart of any investigation does not contradict establishing objective facts. That is a tricky process and requires special skills. There is a lesson to be learnt there, too, from the SWP experience.

The rest of Sell’s article is about defending the right of her organisation to investigate accusations of sexual assault. These points are apropos of absolutely nothing.

So what do the Socialist Party want? Do they want the left to always desist from public self-criticism? Or do they only want to suppress this statement, because they disagree with it? They can’t have it both ways.

We need to have public political debate about the state of our movement. Women who have been the victims of a range of sexist behaviour and assault need it. And with much more reason, truthfulness and humility than that displayed by Hannah Sell. Shamefully setting yourself against a reasonable attempt to help clean up the left is entirely wrong.

A footnote

Sell’s sledge hammer approach may indicate unstated motivations for the article. Precisely what these are we do not know.

We know that an accusation of domestic violence made against former Socialist Party (SP) member and RMT Assistant General Secretary Steve Hedley was part of the background to “Safe place for women” (along with the SWP’s appalling handling of a rape allegation). After Caroline Leneghan made her complaint about Hedley to the RMT he resigned from the SP.

The union has now said it plans to take no further action; Caroline intends to appeal that decision and the case is far from over (see here for background).

The SP has backed Hedley and welcomed the union’s decision.

We also know that SP member Sara Mayo has resigned stating that her complaint of a sexual assault was badly handled by the party. In response the SP has made public an internal document with details of the case.

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