Tag Archives: Charlie Kimber

We need to talk about secrecy

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I have been criticised for writing openly about the crisis in the SWP, the man who began it, and what happened afterwards. Wouldn’t it be better, my comrades have asked, if I had kept quiet? Isn’t silent what any responsible socialist keeps, when faced with a crisis in their own organisation? But the reason why the party’s name is mud is precisely because the leaders of the party have tried to keep hidden what they have known and what they have done.

When it comes to disputes, the party has adopted a culture in which secrecy is treated as an overwhelming priority. An example of this at work is the rape complaint, reported on the ISN website in October. According to the woman who wrote the article, on approaching the SWP Disputes Committee, the DC’s principal concern was not to investigate but to ensure that the complainant told no-one about the complaint.

The woman quoted correspondence from the DC in which she was accused of breaching confidentiality (and I understand that the DC does not dispute sending her those emails), and concluded:  “Throughout the whole of this process the need for confidentiality was constantly repeated to me. I, as someone who had been through something horrific, was being told that I could not talk to my friends and comrades”.

The same concern with secrecy has characterised our handling of the two original complaints.

There are I think three main explanations given for the weight that the SWP DC gives to keeping complaints secret.

First, the desire for secrecy comes from the complainants concerned. Not in the “ISN” case, clearly. And neither was this the pattern in the cases of X or W. Comrades have been told repeatedly that the complainants were asking us all to protect their anonymity and the secrecy was only there for their sake. But the first complainant attempted to address our January 2013 conference directly (she was stopped by the CC). Had she spoken, in public, she could not have kept her identity wholly secret thereafter. She wanted her accuser’s name to be identified and his crimes publicly known. The second complainant spoken at the same conference, and would have spoken again in March, if our former National Secretary’s supporters had not mobilised to prevent her attending conference.

Second, it has been suggested that the SWP’s emphasis on secrecy merely mirrors that of the courts. But the courts don’t work in secret at all. Our civil and our criminal trials are heard in public. Indeed hearing them in public is something to be defended. It operates as a shield to both parties. For the complainant, it means their case is properly heard; and (often enough) it is publicised in the press. Reporters will notice details such as that the woman complainant was in tears when giving her evidence.

Allowing the women to speak in court and, indirectly, through the reporting of the case, means that they cannot be defamed by the sorts of cold slanders which have been circulated through the SWP by Idoom supporters including some on the CC. It’s much easier to portray a woman as a police agent or a feminist who hates the SWP if you are talking about someone who’s name is not known and who no-one has seen setting out some basic facts about their own case with dignity.

The person subject to the complaint also has a degree of protection if their case is in public – because their explanation of what happened is also publicly available. And if they are cleared, they can tell the world what the court decided and why. They have an explanation for why the Jury or the Judge reached the decision they did. That explanation is more than our former National Secretary has ever had.

When lawyers get things wrong in court, because there are journalists present, the story reaches the world. If people are asked sexist questions, or their representatives make sexist arguments in court; the people making these arguments will be held accountable in public. The presence of journalists and the reporting of rape trials has been one dynamic tending to reduce a little the extraordinary institutional sexism that rape complainants have to endure.

If any rape trial in any court Britain had been handled as badly as our investigation, it would have been national news. If any other employer (and of course, in relation to the second complainant, the SWP was the employer) had handled a complaint of sexual harassment as badly and victimised a witness as wilfully as we did, that employer would be a public disgrace.

Third, there is an idea that by not telling the world what we have done wrong, we will be protected, because the information will never surface. The problem here is that it just doesn’t work. It is not a coincidence that Edward Snowden has just been voted the Guardian’s person of the year. We are in an age where information surfaces and those who try to curtail it look ridiculous.

Thousands of people on the left in Britain and internationally now know at least some of the worst facts about our rape investigation: the failure to investigate in 2010, despite what the woman told our CC her complaint involved; the sexist questions that were asked in 2012; the refusal to allow comrades to seek reform of the DC at our conference in January 2013; the attempts by the chair  at the January conference to restrict speakers from raising any of the detail of what had happened during the investigation; the CC’s failure at that conference to allow any open discussion of the future role in the SWP of our former National Secretary; the CC’s attempt in January and February to restrict any DC reform to the sole question of increasing secrecy; the attempts after March to frustrate the hearing of the second complaint …

The person subject to the complaint has an obvious interest in secrecy; the current CC also thinks it has an interest in keeping its handling of the dispute as quiet as possible – both from the members of the SWP and from the rest of the left, including all the people who are usually our audience.

But you can’t sustain an organisation by constantly pretending to its members that you haven’t mucked up the most important decision of your political life – when you have and everyone can see it. You can’t pretend to be Rosa Luxemburg or Noam Chomsky or Bert Ramelson or whoever our  leaders fancy themselves to be if you look in the mirror of public opinion, and find David Brent staring back at you.

Even now, I don’t believe that Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber grasp the enormity of the harm they have done, to their own reputations, to the SWP’s reputation, and to the cause of the left.

The government recently introduced secret courts for certain National Security cases. Socialist Worker‘s report was brief and to the point: “Secret courts deny justice”. Yes, of course they do.

We haven’t had secret courts in Britain on any scale since the defeat of King Charles in the revolution of the 1640s. They were removed not only because there was a tremendous popular movement against them (although, there was a struggle). They died also because even the powerful grasped that they do their side no favours. People who are not told the full truth assume that everything they hear is a lie.

And they assume that there are further embarrassing details, which are also being kept hidden from them.

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Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber and the investigation of rape

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Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber’s piece in new issue of International Socialism sets out, amongst other things, the SWP Central Committee’s justification for how its members acted during the complaint of rape against our National Secretary Martin Smith. The problem with publishing an account like theirs is that there will be people out there who do not accept the veracity of it. And I am one of them. What am I supposed to do: keep silent, while others present a narrative which I believe is substantially untrue?

Like all of us, I have lived with the crisis for a year, and done everything in my power to find out as much as I could about what happened. My duty to the comrades I know and love – inside the SWP and out – is to explain what, to the best of my knowledge, happened. I make no claims to omniscience. If it turns out that I am wrong when I describe what happened in detail, I will say so. But the party is in crisis; our reputation has been wrecked. Unless we start telling the whole truth and explain properly to others and to ourselves the mistakes the party has made, no-one will ever trust us again.

Callinicos and Kimber write: “The SWP Central Committee responded to the complaint by referring it immediately to the DC” (i.e. the SWP’s Disputes Committee)

Callinicos and Kimber imply that the Central Committee (CC) were barely actors in the dispute, and that all important decisions were made by other people (in particular our Disputes Committee). But this is not true; since the case began, the DC has been involved only when asked. The question of whether and when to involve the Disputes Committee and what kinds of decision it was allowed to make were all made by our Central Committee before the DC was convened.

Starting from the beginning: the Central Committee was made aware of the complaint for the first time in July 2010. They were told that a woman had made serious, sexual allegations against Smith, although she was not in London at that time to put her case to anyone directly. After Marxism, two members of the Central Committee, travelled to the city where the complainant lived in order to speak to her.

On their return to London, the CC agreed its strategy of dealing with the complaint, which was to ignore the then “Control Commission” (i.e. the forerunner of our present Disputes Committee), which played no part at all in the 2010 complaint. All decisions in 2010-2011 were taken by the Central Committee, not the DC.

Alex Callinicos and the other members of the CC encouraged Smith and the woman to “negotiate”, i.e. if the woman could be persuaded to keep the detail of the complaint out of the public eye, Smith would in turn agree to his voluntary demotion. During the course of the negotiations, he was able to bargain his proposed sanction down, from the original punishment (that he would stand down from all paid work for the SWP) to the end result that he would remain not just on the party’s payroll but even on our Central Committee.

Anyone who thinks it is appropriate to compromise a sexual complaint before investigating whether it is true or not should recall the immense criticism the police received in 2009, once it became known that in certain cases they had accepted cautions as a way of resolving rape complaints. Socialist Worker would have known where to stand on that one; the politics are made no better when it is the leadership of a revolutionary party that deals with a rape complaint by trying to negotiate it away.

Callinicos and Kimber write: “there had been controversy between the parties to the case from 2010 onwards, although the issues raised then were not the same as in 2012.”

I compare the account which appears in a resignation letter written by G-, who was until this year a member of the editorial board of the International Socialism Journal and a regular contributor to that journal, and before that, a member of the central committee of the SWP’s sister party in Germany. He had been a member of the SWP and its sister parties for more than 20 years before he left this year:

“[Women] who were present, and involved in these discussions, insist that though W may not have wished it to go forward to the DC, she was evidently in tremendous distress, was making a serious complaint, and was demanding that something urgently be done. Women comrades who heard W’s story back in 2010 judged that what had taken place was rape – even though she, back then, did not use that word.”

G- says, in effect, that he spoke to the women who were there when the complainant met the CC, and the women who had brought her complaint to the CC’s attention, and a common picture emerged. Every woman he spoke to recalled the complainant saying that Smith had forced her to have sex with him against her will. She did not use the word “rape”, but in every conversation she conveyed that she had not consented to have sex with him but had had sex with him.

If G- is right, and he, unlike Alex Callinicos or Charlie Kimber, does not have a position to protect and has no motive to make things up, then their claim that she raised different allegations (“issues”) about Smith in 2010 and 2012 is simply untrue.

Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber’s piece makes no mention of anything that took place between 2010 when the complaint was made and 2012 when the woman asked to have it properly investigated

At the party’s 2011 conference, it was announced that Smith had decided to stand down as National Secretary. Alex Callinicos introduced the session. He explained that a complaint had been brought to the Central Committee’s attention, and resolved. He declined to say what the complaint was although he hinted that it involved a woman and was sexual.

Others have already given their accounts of Callinicos’ speech.

One of the members of the SWP in the audience, R-, on hearing this, said aloud “It’s because Smith jilted her!” I do not criticise him for saying it: it was exactly the impression that Alex Callinicos actually communicated to the delegates.

Smith spoke next. He said that he was no angel but he would not admit to doing anything wrong. He said that he was hurt by the things that had been written about him on the internet, but he was a fighter. Normally at party conferences, speakers are allowed no more than 3 minutes. Smith spoke for 10 minutes, twice telling the chair he would carry on even when asked to stop.

I wonder which CC members it was who had planned who would speak after Alex Callinicos, and who within our leadership approved the idea of Smith going first? We are a very centralist organisation; our party conference and our summer event Marxism are controlled through “speakers’ slips” requiring anyone wishing to speak from the floor to indicate first, after which their proposed speech can be approved before they are allowed to the microphone. Decisions as to who to speak in a debate of this importance are not made without planning in advance.

Our leadership behaved as if they wanted the session to follow a particular script: that is, for Smith’s behaviour to be minimised and for him to be “vindicated”.

Between them, Smith and Alex Callinicos set the tone for the session. Smith told the delegates that sectarians had considered publishing the story of the accusations against him online, but had not. The reason they didn’t publish the story, he said was that there was simply nothing to it. If people knew the very worst he was accused of, they would gasp at how empty the story was.

After Smith, a number of long-standing comrades rose and spoke in his support. A leading woman comrade told conference that everyone had skeletons in their closets.

Another leading woman comrade J-  also defended Smith. When one comrade later asked J- why she had spoken up for someone accused of a serious sexual crime, she said, “I wanted to know whether it was true or not, so I asked Smith. I said, the thing you are accused of how bad is it from 1 to 10? And Smith told me, ‘it’s not even 1’.”

In response to every signal from the people who had planned the session that the misconduct was of the mildest character possible, the delegates chanted “the workers united will never be defeated” and gave Smith a standing ovation.

The first people to leave the SWP over the complaint resigned then – in response to an episode which subjects to the harshest test Alex Callinicos and Charlie Kimber’s claim that “we [the Socialist Workers Party] are a revolutionary socialist organisation that has prided itself in its principled opposition to all the different forms of oppression that capitalist society maintains”. In reality, we are a party which has to be judged, like any other, not on what we say but on what we do.

Horrific as the scene appears in retrospect (a socialist party, applauding out of the room a man accused of rape?), I do not blame the delegates who clapped and chanted in his support. Several of them have spoken out since against the leadership cover-up. The fault lies with our Central Committee.

Smith was our party’s National Secretary, our leader. Just a few months before he had gone on trial for assaulting a police officer, a prosecution which was presented inside the SWP as a challenge to the entire left. He was only under attack, he had said at his trial, because of his politics. The memory of his trial hung over conference.

Alex Callinicos and our whole CC gave delegates the false impression that the complaint against Smith was minimal. On the information that Alex Callinicos had allowed the delegates to hear; who could blame them for clapping?

Callinicos and Kimber write: when the woman complained a second time in 2012 there was a “serious investigation”

The flaws of the investigation are now well known – the choice for the DC investigation of a panel on which a majority were or had been on the Central Committee of the SWP, the refusal to allow the complainant to know the basis on which he defended her case (while making sure that the details of her case had been provided to him), the confusion as to what burden of proof applied, the failure to provide the complainant or her witnesses or even the party as a whole with any explanation which could join the two things we were told about the complaint: “the woman was believed” and “her complaint was not upheld”.

I could go through any of these in detail, but I will focus here on just one particular problem, the questions asked of the woman and of her corroborative witness.

Of the two worst questions asked of the witness, one was asked directly by a present member of our Central Committee. Trying to rebut the second woman’s evidence that Smith had plied her with drink before repeatedly sexually harassing her, Amy Leather asked the woman, “Don’t you think Smith is generous? Whenever I go out for a coffee with Smith, he always buys me coffee.”

A former CC member Maxine Bowler then asked the second woman “Is it true that you like a drink?” She then followed it up with another version of the same question, “Are you someone who likes to have a party?”

Just in terms of the ordinary competence you might expect if a complaint was being investigated by people with any experience of questioning (managers in a workplace, trade unionists or whoever else), these were hopeless questions. Whether a woman drinks never, occasionally, or often makes no difference when it comes to deciding whether, on that occasion, the man had harassed her.

The politics that informed the question was specific. Its logic was simple: a woman who goes drinking regularly or parties is by definition a woman who is asking for sex. If a man abuses her, the woman – and not the man – is to blame.

You cannot call an investigation serious when it is informed by a prior logic of disbelief in sexual complaints, and an automatic, institutional belief in the necessity of protecting the man who is the subject of the complaint.

Callinicos and Kimber’s piece never explains properly that there has been a second complaint against Martin Smith

Their piece writes out of history the second woman who complained about Smith. But she is human: she lives, she breathes and she has suffered. And there can be no honest account of what happened which ignores her story.

Her complaint was submitted at the end of February of this year. For three months, the Disputes Committee, supported by the Central Committee prevaricated and refused to say directly whether it would allow her complaint to be heard.

After three months of hesitation, on 14 May 2013, the DC with the approval of Alex Callinicos and our whole Central Committee, wrote to the woman again, telling her that they refused to hear her complaint. This position was then maintained in a series of further letters through the remainder of May and June.

There then followed a battle within the party before eventually the CC – not the DC, which made none of the important decisions in the case – finally, in July, admitted defeat and agreed to allow the case to be heard.

We know what happened next – Smith resigned from the SWP and declined to co-operate with the subsequent Disputes Committee investigation.

At exactly the same time that Smith resigned from the SWP, the Central Committee decided that the Disputes Committee which investigated the second complaint would not be allowed to determine the truth or otherwise of the allegations, but only whether he had a “case to answer”. This decision was taken long before the people were chosen who would eventually sit on the DC.

To grasp the significance of this decision, you need to understand that no employer, no union, no professional disputes body, no Tribunal and no court would have done the same. For all these bodies, it is entirely normal to have to deal with someone who does not want to attend a hearing – whether that is a worker who is accused of making off with the company funds, or a nurse being investigated for abusing her patients who says she is too ill to attend a hearing before the Nursing and Medical Council, or an older man accused of raping a woman thirty years his junior.

All of them, faced with a person subject to a serious complaint who refused to attend a hearing, would have determined the case in their absence, deciding whether the allegations were convincing or not. If the person was cleared in their absence, that would be the end of it. But none of them would leave the door forever open to an accused person, just in case they felt like clearing their name in the future at a time of their choosing. None of them would say that until the defendant has chosen to attend a hearing in person, no finding could be made against them.

There are two ways you could look at the second DC investigation. One would be to focus on the sanction it imposed. Smith has been excluded from membership of the SWP unless he applies to rejoin, and, should he apply, he would be required to be investigated by a further Disputes Committee panel. In so far as the panel has chosen to place this restriction on his membership of the SWP, it would appear that the original DC found that the complaint against him was probably true.

Their decision, it follows, has implications for the first complaint too. The essence of the first complaint was that he had pursued the complainant for sex, and made her have sex with him. And the essence of the second complaint was that he had repeatedly pursued the second complainant for sex, and harassed her, although they never had sex. Inevitably the findings of the second DC investigation case a long shadow over Smith’s supposed exoneration in the first complaint.

The other way to look at the second DC investigation would be to focus on its decision, not “conduct inappropriate of an SWP member”, but merely “a case to answer”.

The practical effect of instructing the DC that they could not make a finding about Smith but only determine whether he had a case to answer, was to protect the Central Committee from having to face what would otherwise inevitably be questions from the membership along these lines: “How can you justify driving 400 comrades out of the party in order to protect your account of Smith’s innocence, when you now accept he is guilty of similar behaviour with a second woman?”

The question can of course still be asked. But when it is asked, the CC now respond, “the DC never did find Smith guilty…”.

And the answer to that is: “You’re right, the DC, after a two day hearing, at which the complainant provided a detailed 33-page statement backed up by written documents, and had eight corroborative witnesses, and she and her witnesses were questioned by a panel, found no more than that there was ‘a case to answer’. The reason they stopped there and would not consider whether Martin Smith was probably guilty of the conduct giving rise to her complaint is that Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber and our whole Central Committee had decided in advance that the DC were not allowed to find any more than this.”

And then you have to ask: who came up with the proposal that the panel investigating Smith would not be allowed to adjudicate on the merits of the complaint, but restrict itself to a finding of “case to answer”? Was it Callinicos, Kimber; was it Smith himself?

Now is the time for the CC to start telling the truth. The Central Committee SWP is not infallible; the members of the party are not children. The party gains nothing by our leadership continuing to keep secrets from us.

I have no ill-will towards either of the authors of the ISJ article. I, like every member of the SWP, can remember each of them in better times. Alex Callinicos is the longest serving member of our Central Committee. Charlie Kimber was seen for years as a consensus figure in the party, someone who could avert situations of conflict with a smile and a kind word.

The strategy behind Callinicos and Kimber’s piece is to blame everyone but themselves for the crisis in the SWP: Michael Rosen, Lindsey German, John Rees, George Galloway, John McDonell, Jeremy Corbyn and many others get criticised by name for their failures of revolutionary nerve. But you cannot blame anyone outside the party for the way we handled the rape investigation.

Who was it who introduced the special session at the 2011 conference?

Who devised the strategy of labelling the party opposition as feminist or autonomist in order to distract from the leadership’s handling of the rape complaint?

And which CC member had the job of “co-ordinating” the relationship between the DC and CC during the rape investigation?

The answer to all these questions is Alex Callinicos