Freedom of discussion is the safest place

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Open letter from Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists to Marshajane Thompson and Cath Elliott, withdrawing support for the ‘Women in the labour movement’ online statement (www.womeninthelabourmovement.wordpress.com)

Dear Comrades Marshajane and Cath,

Please remove my name from the list of signatories to the ‘Women in the labour movement’ statement which you launched on March 12. I signed the statement because of its good intentions, but I have come to the conclusion that its effect will be counterproductive, empowering the labour bureaucracy rather than the rank and file; further restricting freedom of discussion in our movement – the real key to making it a safer place; and unintentionally feeding the current media witch-hunt against the left.

The statement was launched within days of the 2013 Unison Women’s Conference, which carried resolution No30 “Support rape victims not rape deniers”, moved by Cath Elliott, one of the initiators of this statement. Resolution No30 calls on Unison bodies to use the ‘no platform’ tactic against George Galloway and “any speakers who are rape deniers”. Whatever the intentions of the movers, this unfortunate policy will serve to prevent the clarification of differences through open discussion, and facilitate the arbitrary banning of speakers at the whim of the union bureaucracy. Some supporters of resolution No30 have already put the Socialist Workers Party into the ‘rape denier’ category.

The statement was launched in the context of what has been rightly called ‘the revenge of the pro-war left’. Whether intentionally or not, it cannot but lend credibility to the rightwing media witch-hunt being conducted against the whole of the anti-war left by the likes of Nick Cohen (who still excuses the 2003 invasion of Iraq) and the hypocritical Daily Mail, using the SWP’s mishandling of the Delta rape case to falsely smear the SWP and all left political organisations as inherently sexist and unsafe places for women. The truth is that our labour movement organisations, especially the left and including the SWP, are already safer places than society at large.

I signed the statement because I agree that our labour movement organisations should strive to set an example to the rest of society, to be better than the existing capitalist society of exploitation, inequality and oppression in which we live, and which we are striving to change. And I agree that our trade unions and political organisations should start from a position of believing women who complain of male violence – which, of course, does not mean the accused is presumed guilty.

However, the real way to make our trade unions and political organisations safer places is to thoroughly democratise them, to break the stranglehold of the bureaucratic caste which dominates and politically suffocates our movement. The bureaucracy must be made into the servants, not the masters, of our movement. For example, trade union officials should be elected from below, not appointed from above, and paid the average wage of those they represent. Achieving that will require open debate, not political correctness, not labelling, and not blanket ‘no platforming’ of those with backward or wrong ideas.

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2 thoughts on “Freedom of discussion is the safest place

  • April 1, 2013 at 10:36 am
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    I think the politics of “believing the accuser” is well brought out in the LRC discussion in which Stuart King takes the correct position:

    Jon says: “a victim-centred approach which starts from a position of belief is not synonymous with a presumption of guilt as the end point of an investigation.” No, but it is synonymous with bias.

    School student A complains to the Head that teacher B assaulted them when they were on their own, with no witnesses. If the Head starts by saying “I believe you” surely that student will be right to presume the head believes the teacher assaulted them? For someone in a quasi judicial position, a Headteacher, this would be a very dangerous starting point. And surely any
    trade union rep like Jon, would say this is unacceptable practice.

    We have to make a distinction between, say, a rape crisis worker or domestic violence worker, who has every right to start from an “I believe you” position, and people or organisations who have a quasi-judicial role. In this case “a victim centred approach” has to start from taking allegations seriously, supporting the accuser and carrying out a rigorous investigation, not making the starting point an “I believe you” position.

    For the individual the problem is that what used to be said around a kitchen table, or confidentially, about believing this or that accusation (often without knowing much about the evidence) is now plastered all over the internet, turned into campaigns and effective witch-hunts – the McAlpine case for example. We need to recognise this danger and stand against it.

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