Again this is a piece which has appeared previously – this time in IB2; I am reposting it now for the benefit of comrades who will shortly be discussing the strengths and the weakness of the proposals for our Disputes Committee reform. While I welcome the reform group’s findings, the relative absence of comment on our Central Committee should not be taken to accept a central problem with their proposals. It’s all very well saying that where we have hearings we will try to do them better than we did in 2012. But the central problem in 2010-2013 has not been the DC, rather it has been the Central Committee itself which has governed the procedure, decided whether or how far complaints could be heard, and led us further and further from the politics of women’s liberation. The DC reform report, welcome as it is, does nothing to separate the Central Committee from the determination of disputes complaints.
The report of the Disputes Committee Review Body is careful and well-considered. Generally, if there are problems with its proposals, those are more to do with the things which its authors did not think through, rather than those that they did. That said, there are still gaps in it.
The first two should be uncontroversial; they just take further ideas which are already in the report:
1) Exchange of information: Until 2013 our position was that a man accused of a sexual crime was told the case against them, but the person bringing the claim was told nothing about how it was opposed. That imbalance between the women making complaints and the men being investigated was indefensible and the Review Body are right to say that it should end.
The weakness of the Review Body’s proposals is that they suggest that when a person is accused of anything, including serious sexual misconduct, they are entitled to know the case against them, and they are only “invited” (i.e. asked, with no sanction if they refuse) to state in advance how they defend the case. This should be put on a more robust footing, when it comes to sexual allegations. If the case is defended, the person resisting it must state the basis of their defence a fixed time in advance (eg 6 weeks before the hearing), and if not it will be presumed that the complaint is well-founded and disciplinary action will be taken.
Only a strict rule of this kind will make the people who are subject to complaints disclose their position in good time, and therefore give complainants a fair opportunity to develop their case properly once they know how it is actually being resisted.
2) A proper decision: Until now our position has been that the person accused is told the outcome of the case against them, although the explanation is generally very brief, rarely amounting to more than a page of A4 paper. In the last 12 months, the party has grudgingly begun to send the complainants the outcome as well, although this was a reform conceded under protest, and the DC still usually provides explanations only in brief.
Not giving full reasons invites everybody to fill that gap with whatever explanation suits them. For example, during the first complaint about the National Secretary, it may be that the reason he was believed by the panel hearing the case was that he was very convincing in answers to their questions, or because he had documents which backed up his version of events. I am sceptical that there ever was such an explanation, but I concede that it is possible. If no-one in the party knows why he (or anyone else) was believed, how could we have a compelling explanation to account for the panel’s decision? How can we justify it to anyone else?
Whoever is believed, both parties are entitled to reasons: the person who is believed so that they can explain to other people why they were believed, and the person who is disbelieved, so that they can understand and see for themselves that a fair procedure was followed (if it was indeed fair).
The next two problems force us to think more deeply about the process itself:
3) Confidentiality: the party needs to work out what confidentiality is for, and whose reputation we are defending. For the last two years, the overriding impression is that we have fought far harder to protect the reputation of the men who are subject to complaints than of the women who bring them, and we have fought hardest of all to protect the reputation of people at the head of the organisation, whenever they were involved in a dispute. Everywhere else but in the SWP, people are allowed to know who is subject to the complaint and their outcome. In unions, in workplaces and in the courts, the rules may well extend to protecting privacy while a complaint is ongoing, but there is no automatic rule that once a complaint has been determined, its outcome and the reasons behind it must still be kept secret for ever.
If we maintain our present practice of “defendant’s confidentiality” and “CC secrecy”, we will look like we have something to hide. This is linked to providing the reason for decisions. No-one in the party has anything to fear from an allegation which is fairly investigated and disbelieved, and they have a plausible explanation for their vindication which they can give to the world.
What is killing our organisation is the culture that “no-one is allowed to know why we reached the decision we did, you just have to take it on trust that we did the best we could”. A dynamic which assumes we can all be ordered to trust the leadership in a matter of this seriousness, has produced a climate of generalised distrust throughout the party.
4) The discretion as to whether to investigate. The DC Review Body proposes an initial stage during which “the DC may consider the nature of the allegation or complaint to be serious enough that a formal hearing will be necessary”. We could have the best rules in the world, but there would be worth nothing if there remained in place the situation we have had for several years where the decision about whether to investigate and on what basis to investigate remained the prerogative of the leadership, or the DC, each of which has had an effective veto over an investigation.
We have seen this problem in a number of recent cases: in the first complaint against our National Secretary, where it was the CC who decided in 2010 not to refer the matter for proper investigation (i.e. it simply never went before the DC’s predecessor, the Control Commission), and in the most recent rape allegation which came to light this month in which (it is said) that the DC used the initial informal stage to discourage the complaint from proceeding and to prevent her complaint from proceeding. If it is true that the DC acted in this way, the practice is indefensible. It shames the entire party.
There needs to be a much simpler rule: if the complaint is made, and it is serious, then it will be investigated. We are revolutionaries and too much is at stake: no-one will stop us from trying to find out the truth.