The first complaint: what the SWP should have done



1. We should have encouraged the complainant to speak to the police

On learning in July 2010 that a member of the SWP believed that she had been made to have sex with our National Secretary, without her consent, the Central Committee of our party should have strongly encouraged the complainant to make her complaint directly to the police. You cannot compel someone to go the police and she might have refused. But it should have been explained to her that the police have the relevant expertise and the resources and it would be better for her, and the party, if the job of investigating it was given to them. One reason the complaint should have been investigated there is because of its seriousness. No-one would suggest that a union or an employer would be incapable of investigating if an employee was said to have done something criminal but minor (eg stealing £100 from the accounts). Unions and employers and political parties investigate that sort of lesser criminal behaviour all the time. But rape is a much more serious accusations. Where people are found guilty of rape, in court, the average sentence is 8 years. It is far too serious a matter investigate internally.

Another reason why the complaint should have been investigated externally is that police investigations generate large amounts of evidence which other people can then review. Had she gone to the police, it may well be that the complaint would not have been investigated properly, that the police would have done little more than take statements from her and the person who was subject to the complaint, collect all relevant emails and texts, and refuse to proceed. Or there might have been a trial which might have been inconclusive. It may well be that even after a trial, the complainant would have come to the party and asked for action to be taken against our former National Secretary. If she had, the investigating comrades would have been able to read all the material generated by the police investigation and would have much more material to from which to make a serious assessment than they had in this case.

Where a political party investigates its own members, there will always be a suggestion that we are dealing with them more leniently than an outside investigator would. When we collect evidence of a crime, but do not pass it on the police, our members commit a series of crimes for which they, ultimately, could face serious punishment. No-one could have predicted even a year ago how the crisis would continue to debilitate the SWP; but everyone with the least sense of reality knew that it would eventually become public knowledge, and that it would make the party look contemptible before the rest of the left.

2. We should not have tried to negotiate between the parties

After a member of the Central Committee had met the rape complainant in summer 2010, the party put in process the negotiations between her and our National Secretary which resulted in his stepping down as our National Secretary several months later. This was inadequate. Every employer and every union with a written complaints procedure recognises a distinction between the sorts of complaints than can be resolved by an informal conversation between the two people and the sorts of complaints that require proper investigation.

Negotiations are not necessarily the wrong approach; they can work for example if someone has done something wrong, and they acknowledge it, and the only remaining discussion is about what they should do to apologise.  But negotiations without an agreement about what happened are always likely to break down, as they did in 2010-2011. As far as our National Secretary was concerned he had done nothing wrong, so why should he be punished?

If you try to get the parties to negotiate before there has been a proper investigation, the process will not work. One party will say that something serious has happened, the other will admit to only the most trivial wrongdoing. If anyone comes in from the outside and tried to put pressure on the parties to settle, they will have no way of telling which of the two sides is being unreasonable. The tendency therefore is to put pressure on an arbitrary basis, on the person who seems weaker in negotiations rather than the person who has been wronged. In sexual investigations in particular, where domestic or sexual violence is alleged but disputed, putting pressure on both sides to settle means in practice putting pressure on the woman to accept that less happened than she said.

3. We should have reconsidered our processes before or during, not after, the complaint

The people who sat on the original Disputes Committee were, by any independent standard an inexperienced group of people without relevant skills. Two out of nine were long-standing trade unionists who may have sat in on workplace disciplinary cases, which albeit probably not of a sexual nature, would at least have given them some inkling of what an unfair process involves. There is no suggestion that any had had an experience of dispute resolution beyond watching employers internal procedures. One had sat on the Disputes Committee for many years. The remainder were members of the party’s Central Committee without any relevant experience and every apparent reason to support their fellow CC member with whom they had worked over many years. One  was an academic who researches asylum seekers. Another was there only because she was a former CC member.

In a party with several dozen lawyers, and perhaps several hundred other trade union members more experienced than these comrades, this was a remarkably weak panel to burden with such a responsible job. The politest thing that could be said about the questions asked by Maxine Bowler and Amy Leather is that they reflect this inexperience rather than (as they suggest, on the face of things) the wilful sexism of people determined to defeat an unwelcome complaint.

One member of the DC (its chair) did grasp that a sexual complaint against a CC member is a complaint out of all proportion to anything that the DC had dealt with before, and attempted to improvise rules appropriate to it – eg taking questions through him, to reduce sense that the complainant was being “cross-examined”. But there were all sorts of other rules which the DC had adopted over the years which were stacked in one direction only: eg refusing to let the complainant know the CC member’s defence but letting him know the charge against him; not allowing the complainant or their representative to be present or ask questions during the CC members’ evidence; and a complete confusion about what standard of proof applied.

The DC would have done better to reflect on each of these flaws, and change them before the hearing, rather than maintain the main parts of a flawed procedure.

4. We should have provided proper reasons

After the first complaint, the DC issued a two word judgment “Not proven”; it was followed (after lengthy protests) with a one-side decision which said as little as the members of the disputes committee could get away with. This was another mistake. An ordinary, competent decision maker (a judge, a manager at a grievance hearing, a trade unionist investigating a complaint about a fellow member of the union) will be happy to explain why they reached the decision they did. It is a matter of professional pride to them that their decision bears a close relationship to what they were told about the case. If two witnesses disagreed on something important, they will explain which one they found more truthful or more persuasive.

Keeping reasons secret does not give a decision extra authority; instead it enables everyone’s worst supposition to fill the gap. The most critical people tell themselves, “Obviously they found for Smith; they were Smith’s mates.” The most loyalist tell you, “It was just an affair that went wrong.” Those who have thought hardest about the decision (whatever else we disagree on) can see its central incongruity. The members of the DC have said repeatedly that they believed the two women complainants. In Dave Sherry’s words, “we never felt anyone was lying”. But the first complainant said she had been raped and her corroborative witness that she had been sexually harassed. The panel found that our National Secretary’s behaviour was not inappropriate of someone in his position. But how can two woman be simultaneously both “believed” and “not believed”? Clearly there might be all sorts of explanations for this contradiction, but until it is explained, the party is left with a decision that just makes no sense. And it is natural to go on to think that we’re not being told the whole truth.

Some of this would have been averted if the panelists had had the experience, and the politics, to grasp that they needed to properly explain their decision.

5. All the documents of the investigation should have been published

The complaint has brought to centre stage the defensiveness of the organisation, meaning not just of the leadership (which always concentrates on protecting itself) but more troublingly of the large number of comrades who see it as their job to protect the party even (especially?) when it has got something wrong.

One of the many problems with this instinct is that it can be spectacularly self-defeating. Every step the leadership has taken to keep the story secret, every partial admission they have made which has then been shown to be more than half false has accentuated the impression of a group of people desperate to hide from the truth. For a year we have been the living expression of the proverb, “What a tangled web you weave, when first you try to deceive.”

If people were trying to defend the party politically, rather than administratively, they would take the opposite approach, putting everything in the public domain. It might be that this or that small decision would be criticised. But if it became clear that everything was public, that there were no more secrets waiting to come out, the story would soon die. It is the CC’s ongoing refusal to publish all the documents or to the let the party or anyone else know what really happened which keeps alive the memory of our National Secretary and the way that the structures of the party were mobilised to protect him.

6. The CC should have been kept out of the process from the start

The central “design flaw” with the SWP is that ever since the mid-1970s the organisation has developed (not all in one go but incrementally) a form of political practice in which all significant decisions are centralised, all initiative flows from the centre, and the role of the members in local branches is reduced to that of a passive transmission belt: i.e. handing out leaflets (produced at the centre) for a meeting (at which a person from the centre speaks), in support of a campaign (which was dreamed up by someone working full-time at the centre) and at which newspapers (produced by the centre) are distributed in order to be sold, and with them a leaflet handed out, inviting people to the next meeting…

The members of the SWP have a thousand different skills, we include novelists, musicians, artists, runners, boxers, nurses and doctors; if we were actually asked, we have so much frustrated creativity waiting to be expressed. And yet, rather than give us a chance to speak freely and shape our party, the organisation faces us constantly with the stern face of a classroom teacher (Mr Chips, or thereabouts) whose lecture (“Be Quiet!”) has been interrupted by his unruly class.

The dispute shows the same disease of control from the centre: with CC members keeping the DC out of  the original decision in 2010, and then shaping the DC verdict of 2012, making all the decisions about whether, when and on what basis the second complaint would be heard.

The CC, in general, likes to keep out of the public eye. But the decisions they have taken in 2010-3 have shown them to be unprincipled, indifferent to the politics of women’s liberation, and concerned essentially with the survival of their own positions at the head of the organisation.

If the members of the SWP were serious about learning from the dispute and making sure it couldn’t happen again, one of the first things we would be tackling is the culture of institutional deference to the leadership. We would constrain them, keep them out of our disputes procedure, and leave it people with the freedom to listen to a complaint genuinely, on its merits.

7. Don’t hide from the risk of institutional sexism – but confront it head on

The idea of institutional discrimination was developed many years ago to explain how an organisation could simultaneously believe at an official, “corporate” level that it did not discriminate, but actually in its behaviour treat people in a discriminatory fashion.

It is not much an analysis as a description of how groups of people can take decisions which point in a particular and discriminatory direction, precisely because they are focussing on considerations which seem to be gender-neutral.

In this case, no one with their eyes open would deny that a series of people in the SWP have been motivated by an overwhelming desire to protect a popular, and in his own mind “charismatic”, leader of our party, who had just guided us through a messy and unpleasant split.

Without some sense that – the CC, his friends, the DC panelists and much of the party’s rank and file membership – had all hoped that Smith would be vindicated, it is impossible to understand why for example the punishment chosen in 2010 had been so inadequate, why there was a standing ovation in his support in 2011, why the women complainants were asked such hostile questions in 2012, why in January and February 2013 the CC attempted to mobilise the disciplinary structures of the SWP around the pretence that Smith had been vindicated by our conference, and so on.

Under class society, everyone is shaped by what Marx called the muck of ages: subtle habits of stereotyping are absolutely general (along of course with ideas which point in favour of human equality). Anyone is capable of acting in a discriminatory fashion. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Bukharin, whoever you like could be raided for moments when their ideas pointed against human equality. Their failures do not invalidate them; they are part of what it means to be human. The only shield against discrimination is the very recognition of its possibility.

This is why those comrades who are writing that they “believe any charge that the party is a sexist organisation or has abandoned its tradition of fighting women’s oppression has no basis” are so misguided. They are simply repeating the method that has already led us so far from principle. You don’t make sexist behaviour go away by simply wishing it hadn’t happened.

You don’t equip people to fight sexism by saying that as a revolutionary party we could never be sexist.

You only defeat it by thinking hard about its possibility, and adopting a new mind-set which says, “it’s a risk, so to make sure that we avoid it, we will confront that danger, and never make these mistakes again.” And to do that, you have to start admitting what the mistakes were.

Two minutes to midnight comrades? By my reckoning the last second is already sounding.


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