UNISON women, the SWP, and the vote to support rape victims
Posted on February 22, 2013
There’s been some discussion online about last Saturday’s debate at UNISON’s National Women’s Conference on Motion 30: Support Rape Victims not Rape Deniers, so as the original mover of the motion at #unwc13 I thought perhaps it might be time for me to give my take on it all.
* * *
First though, some personal background.
The Socialist Workers Party was the first political party I ever got involved with.
It was back in the early 80’s when I was 13/14 years old and just starting to get interested in politics. I’d written off to the Anti-Nazi League, whose address I’d found printed on the inside sleeve of the latest Tom Robinson Band album, and someone from the ANL who lived locally had contacted me and invited me to meet up with him. And so I had, not knowing at the time (and not realising until many years later in fact) that the ANL and the SWP were inextricably linked.
I was 14, he was 24, but before too long we were ‘an item’; although to give A his due he behaved impeccably, and in light of some of the stuff that’s now coming out about the SWP and its history with young women it seems I was one of the lucky ones.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I have many fond memories of Saturday mornings spent selling the paper, of the hours spent in A’s kitchen churning out indecipherable leaflets on the old hand-cranked printer, and of being in awe of, and desperate to learn from, this small group of adult men who called each other comrade and talked openly of a need for revolution.
I’m not sure how long it all lasted, but eventually I moved on and got involved with the Young Socialists instead, and while there have been a couple of occasions over the years where I’ve come close to rejoining the party, most recently at the start of the Iraq war, to be frank I’m just not a party animal: I can’t and I won’t do unswerving or unquestioning loyalty to any so-called ‘leadership’, and sadly that’s what the SWP has always demanded.
I have though supported plenty of SWP events over the years and, as the old cliché goes, some of my best friends are Swappies….
* * *
Background to the Motion
In September last year the NUS passed a motion condemning George Galloway for his comments on rape and denying him a platform at future NUS events. Rather than retract his remarks, Galloway’s response to this was to threaten to sue them.
The deadline for submission of motions to this year’s UNISON’s Women’s Conference was 18th October. At this point Galloway was still making threats, so in solidarity with the NUS position my Regional Women’s Committee submitted a similar but slightly toned down version of their motion.
Our motion was accepted onto the conference agenda, and as chair of the committee and as the Eastern Region Delegate it then became my job to move it.
* * *
In January this year it was revealed that the SWP had held an internal Disputes Committee hearing into rape allegations against a senior SWP activist and long-standing member of its Central Committee. The case against Comrade Delta – who it now turns out was in his late forties when the alleged rape took place while the young woman concerned was still a teenager – was found not proven.
Furthermore, as the published transcript of the Disputes Committee Report to SWP Conference makes clear, the young woman concerned, Comrade W, who made the allegations against Comrade Delta, was asked entirely inappropriate and victim blaming questions during the Disputes Committee hearing – questions about previous sexual history and so on – while the Disputes Committee itself was comprised in large part of Comrade Delta’s friends and allies.
All in all a pretty shameful state of affairs then, and one that’s been written about extensively in the weeks since it all came out.
* * *
I was made aware during conference that some SWP activists were planning to speak against the Galloway motion.
Word had somehow got out to them that there was a risk the party would be getting a dishonourable mention in my moving speech. I am after all one of the union activists who recently signed the open letter to the SWP Central Committee asking them to reconsider their stance, so the SWP had held a meeting and, egged on from the back of the conference hall by a full-time SWP employee, were preparing to justify the Kangaroo Court tactics Comrade W had been subjected to, and to defend the indefensible.
I was baffled by this decision, especially given the party’s now much publicised record on handling rape and sexual violence within its own ranks. But on the Saturday morning the motion was due to be heard, after I’d seen that at least one of the SWP women involved had signed the now notorious 500 signature shit list, and after this leaflet had been handed to me on my way into the conference venue, I was also bloody angry.
So in anticipation of the things I suspected they’d be saying in their opposition speeches, I sat down and wrote my right of reply.
* * *
The first half of my opening speech was pretty much a rip-off of a piece I’ve published on this blog already – Assange, and feminism’s so-called male allies. That’s one of the joys of being a writer, you can plagiarise yourself to your heart’s content.
So I talked about Assange and Galloway and Pilger, and about my disappointment with those leftie men who are prepared to sell women out for the sake of other leftie men.
And then I talked about the recent goings on in the SWP:
“Our comrades in the Socialist Workers’ Party haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory recently either over the issue of rape and sexual assault.
For those of you who haven’t heard, the SWP held an internal hearing into rape allegations against a senior member of its Central Committee, the membership of which was made up from all accounts of a majority of the alleged perpetrators close friends and allies. The alleged victim was then asked exactly the kinds of questions we would condemn if they were asked in any so-called bourgeois court of law.
Questions about the victim’s previous sexual history, victim blaming questions to try and show that if the alleged incident did take place the victim herself must have borne some responsibility for whatever went on.
Quite rightly the SWP have been roundly denounced for its Kangaroo Court tactics, and sadly but inevitably some of our own colleagues, comrades we would ordinarily be proud to stand alongside, have found themselves and their allegiances come under scrutiny.
Conference, declaring a man to be innocent of rape and other crimes of sexual violence, purely on the grounds that he’s been engaged in important work that many of us would like to see continued, while discounting women’s testimonies and women’s concerns in the process, is just the same old same old, men protecting men protecting men, and selling women out in the process.
Well we’re calling on UNISON to take a stand. We’re calling on UNISON to refuse to grant a platform to anyone who blames women for the crimes of sexual violence committed against them, and who perpetrates rape culture through the victim blaming attitudes they espouse.
Conference we know that no platforming is a controversial measure, and it’s not something we propose lightly. But at the same time we also know that every time a rape denier spouts their victim blaming poison another woman is silenced, and we refuse to play any part in that.
Conference please support the motion.”
And then the SWP got their chance to speak.
And they blew it.
I was apparently being “nasty” and making “serious allegations” against their party. I’d been reading too much of the right-wing press and I didn’t know what I was talking about. There had been five women at the Disputes Committee hearing, and it had all been conducted impeccably and the party was beyond reproach. The ‘process’ the SWP had used to determine the guilt or innocence of Comrade Delta had been fair. And so on and so forth…
We had a queue of women lined up to speak in support, but in the end the debate was closed down after conference had heard two more speakers for and two speakers against the motion.
Right up until the point when the SWP decided to make it personal I’d been looking at my hastily scribbled Right of Reply speech and wondering whether I should tone it down a bit. But after listening to the disgraceful attempts to justify the SWP’s recent behaviour, and after hearing myself practically being accused of being some kind of right wing stooge, I decided to go for it:
“Conference, as I said in my opening speech we do recognise that no platforming is a controversial measure.
However, to have the SWP come up here and pretend that their concerns are centred on some idea that we want to no platform anyone whose views differ from ours quite frankly takes the biscuit.
No, the SWP doesn’t care about sexism or about rape victims. The SWP’s only concerns are about the implications of this motion being passed for the 500 of its members, many of them UNISON activists, who yesterday signed a statement supporting the actions of its Central Committee. Their concerns are solely about what will happen now that 500 of them have outed themselves as misogynists and rape deniers.
In the leaflet that many of you would have been handed this morning outside the conference centre the SWP say: “We believe that the allegations made by the women in the Assange case should be taken seriously and investigated.” My question for the SWP would be – why then don’t you believe that allegations made by your own women members against your own activists should be taken equally seriously and investigated?
I know this is controversial conference, but please support the motion.”
The motion was passed overwhelmingly by UNISON Women’s Conference, with only five women voting against it and several hundred grassroots trade union women voting for it.
* * *
There are legitimate arguments to be had about no-platforming people, and I wish we could have heard those arguments at women’s conference. Unfortunately though the SWP picked the wrong fight on the conference floor, choosing instead to try and defend and justify the party’s recent despicable behaviour.
And now things have got even worse for them, with the party expelling activists for the simple crime of talking to each other on Facebook without the Central Committee’s permission or something. Meanwhile those swappies who have openly discussed the details of the case face no sanction whatsoever.
I’d be interested to hear whether those who got up and opposed UNISON’s right not to give Galloway a platform will feel a similar urge to get up and defend their own (now expelled) comrades’ rights to speak at the SWP’s hastily called Special Conference on March 10th. I won’t be holding my breath though….
Oh, and as for Galloway, he apparently has no problem with no-platforming anyone (h/t Sunny):