Left unity: Safe spaces are not liberating

Mike Macnair puts forward an alternative to Left Unity’s draft ‘safe spaces’ policy

Speak no evil

The draft ‘safe spaces’ policy was referred back by the founding conference of Left Unity, but references to it (as an appendix) were left in the constitution. A new version was circulated in print at the March policy conference and made available on Left Unity’s website.1 It is intended to be discussed at the next LU conference.

I believe that the basic approach of adopting a ‘safe spaces’ policy is mistaken, for three reasons.

In the first place, it rolls into one long document several issues which should be discussed and decided upon separately. On the one hand, a ‘code of conduct’ for LU members, clearly indicating behaviour that may attract internal disciplinary charges, and a ‘disputes procedure’, outlining how to deal with complaints and charges, should be in the constitution (mainly as appendixes). On the other hand, an ‘equalities policy for LU internal procedures’ is subject to resource constraints, which mean that in many cases only recommendations are practically possible, and therefore should be separate from the constitution.

Secondly, the actual proposals for disputes procedures contained in the proposed ‘safe spaces’ policy, and in the clauses of the constitution which refer to it, are bureaucratic and untransparent. Indeed, they contain a Tory policy: for compulsory mediation before the formal disputes procedure is used.

Thirdly, ‘safe spaces’ as a political concept should be rejected. It is both illusory and tends to poison discussion.

I am therefore putting forward a counter-proposal to the ‘safe spaces’ policy, which I hope the Communist Platform will adopt. My counterproposal consists of several parts:

1. Some constitutional amendments to eliminate references to the ‘safe spaces’ policy in the Left Unity constitution and substitute, where appropriate, references to a code of conduct or disputes procedure (and to modify the current disputes procedure);

2. A draft code of conduct for members of LU;

3. A draft disputes procedure;

4. A draft ‘Equalities policy for LU internal procedures’.

The first point - that the several issues involved should be dealt with separately - does not need much justification. It should be simple common sense. It will lead to a clearer discussion and clearer decisions than rolling them all together, as the ‘safe spaces’ policy document does.

The second point is also a short one. Left Unity’s disciplinary, or disputes, procedure should be fair, transparent and practicable. The procedures proposed in the draft ‘safe spaces’ document are over-elaborate and, as a necessary result, will be non-transparent, dilatory and impracticable. Non-transparent procedures are more likely to be abused in the way that the Socialist Workers Party’s disciplinary procedures have been abused. (Not just in the ‘Delta’ case for the benefit of a leadership member, but for years and years.)

In particular, compulsory mediation, which is proposed in the draft ‘safe spaces’ document procedures, has been studied in its application in the real world. The finding of such studies is that it tends to give the advantage to the higher-status individual.2 This is why the Tories have introduced compulsory mediation as a required gateway to an industrial tribunal.3 Left Unity should not imitate the Tories on this.

The third point is that the general concept of ‘safe spaces’ is illusory and poisonous. It is illusory because as a general concept it ignores the recalcitrance of the material world and is infantilising: you can kill yourself falling downstairs and, while we may put up stair-gates to protect toddlers, the rest of us just have to take care.

In fact, in politics this sort of approach tends to “breed short-beaked pigeons”.4 Inadequate exposure of children to germs produces auto-immune diseases; if you never took the child-gate down, the child would never learn how to negotiate stairs. A party which was much more controlling about PC language, etc than the surrounding society would leave people unable to engage with the general cut and thrust of political argument in the workplace, the media, etc.

The ‘safe spaces’ concept is actually a renaming of what was in the 1970s-80s called “liberated zones” by some American ‘soft Maoists’. This approach was totally unsuccessful both for the Maoists and for the movements of the oppressed which were influenced by their ideas.5 More recently, similar ideas have been called ‘prefigurative politics’: that is, that our political decision-making must prefigure the free society of the future.6

It is true that our politics must be to some extent prefigurative. For example, we do not allow people to pay for extra speaking time or to employ professional lobbyists to change party policy. But what is being ‘prefigured’ in the ‘safe spaces’ concept is an illusion. Hunter-gatherer societies where there is no class or the oppression of women are not without disputes, anger and hurtful words said. There is therefore not the slightest reason to suppose that the future free society will be without them.

The result of this illusory character is that advocates of ‘safe spaces’ are all too often themselves inclined to troll-like interventions using threatening, abusive or insulting words. They tend to legitimise their own anger and delegitimise anyone else’s. This is the other side of the coin: the policy is, as I have said, not merely illusory, but also poisonous, because it leads to witch-hunting. There are plenty of examples from 1970s-80s US Maoism and from the 1980s movements influenced by US Maoism.

Further, this approach legitimates witch-hunting by the right wing of the broader workers’ movement. For example, see the Unison bureaucracy’s attack on Socialist Party supporters, alleging that their use of the old three monkeys, ‘Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ graphic was ‘racist’.7 Equally, Islamists argue that segregation and the hijab create ‘safe spaces’ for women, though it is clear that their real aim is controlling women.

For all these reasons the ‘safe spaces’ idea should be rejected, not just the current document.

1. Proposed amendments to Left Unity constitution

Clause 3, Membership, subhead (f): “abides by the principles and guidelines of behaviour set out in the safer spaces policy (appendix 1)” - Delete.

Why do I propose deleting this clause rather than amending it to refer to a proposed code of conduct? The draft ‘safe spaces’ policy itself does not propose that breaches of its principles and guidelines should automatically lead to expulsion. But by making compliance a condition of membership, that is what this clause does. An express power to expel members is not needed at this point in the constitution: this is currently in clause 18, Disputes committee; I propose that this should be in ‘Disputes procedure’.

Clause 10, Direct democratic participation ...,subhead (d): “All discussion and debate will be expected to be respectful and adhere to the standards of behaviour set out in the safer spaces policy (appendix 1)” - Delete.

Why do I propose deleting this clause rather than amending it to refer to a proposed code of conduct? “Respectful” is highly problematic terminology in this context of speech control. JQ Whitman showed in 2000 its Roman-elite, aristocratic and Nazi antecedents.8 One person’s ‘disrespect’ is another’s ‘legitimate anger’ or ‘robust criticism’. If anything is necessary, it is sufficient to identify trolling LU online forums as a disciplinary offence in the code of conduct.

Clauses 18, Disputes committee, and 19, Appeals committee:

Rewrite as follows:

(18-19) Disputes and appeals

A. Disputes committee

(i) A disputes committee shall be elected annually by national ballot. This committee will consist of seven people, but shall include no members of the national council. Its role will be to investigate disputes and complaints about the behaviour of individual party members in appropriate cases.

(ii) The disputes committee may form a sub-committee of at least three members to consider any one case.

(iii) The disputes committee shall adopt its own procedures and standing orders, subject to approval and amendment from time to time by national conference.

B. Appeals committee

(i) An appeals committee shall be elected annually by national ballot. This committee is the last stage in any disputes resolution procedure and its decisions are final.

(ii) The appeals committee will consist of seven people, but shall include no members of the national council or disputes committee. Its role will be to hear appeals from members against disciplinary action taken against them. The appeals committee may form a sub-committee of at least three members to consider any one case.

(iii) The appeals committee shall adopt its own procedures and standing orders, subject to approval and amendment from time to time by national conference.

C. Disputes and disciplinary action

(i) Individual members have the right to make complaint against other members, or LU officers or organisations, complaining of violations of this constitution or of the code of conduct (appendix 1).

(ii) The national council may refuse any applicant for membership or take disciplinary action against an individual member. The individual concerned has a right to appeal to the appeals committee. Such action must be explained in writing to the member or potential member concerned, and such explanation must include a statement that the member or applicant is entitled to appeal to the appeals committee.

(iii) Complaints should, subject to (iv) below, be dealt with at the most local possible level. Individual members’ complaints against other members of the same branch should be dealt with in that branch. Complaints between members of different branches within a region may be appropriately dealt with by the relevant regional committee. Complaints against national officers or LU organisations must be dealt with by the national council or the disputes committee.

(iv) A person complaining or complained against may request that the complaint is transferred from their branch to a regional committee or to the disputes committee. A branch or regional committee, or the national council, may refer any complaint or disciplinary action which is to be dealt with before them to the disputes committee if it appears to them that this is required by the seriousness of the matter or if it appears to them that circumstances within the referring body make fair handling of the complaint impossible.

(v) People aggrieved by a decision, disciplinary action, or refusal to act on a complaint, by a branch, regional committee, the national council or the disputes committee have the right to appeal to the appeals committee.

(vi) Bodies handling complaints must act in accordance with the disputes procedure (appendix 4).

Why do I propose substantial redrafting rather than merely eliminating the reference in the existing text to the ‘safe spaces’ policy and to compulsory ‘reconciliation’ procedures? This whole clause will need considerable rewriting either to bring it into conformity with the ‘safe spaces’ policy if passed or to make it fit any alternative approach to dispute procedure. This redraft makes the minimum necessary changes to move the current text in the direction of local handling as far as possible, which will maximise transparency.

I stress minimum changes: for example, we are in general opposed to postal ballots, which the Tories introduced to cripple strikes, but the postal/online balloting method is all through the LU constitution and I do not attempt to change it for just this one case.

2. Code of conduct

Preamble

Left Unity aims as far as possible within the deeply unequal society within which we live to combat all forms of oppression and discrimination, to develop all our members as leaders, and to develop a culture of free discussion accessible to all members. We recognise that this is most likely to be achieved by a political culture in which fully open debate, including accusations of sexism, racism, class prejudice, scabbing, etc, or saying that ‘the emperor has no clothes’, are possible; and in which members are free to communicate with each other and to organise themselves for common ends. This code of conduct therefore merely sets certain minimal limits which are necessary to LU’s ability to function and pursue these goals.

Members may not:

  • violate this constitution;
  • actively disrupt LU’s agreed common actions (eg, election campaigns);
  • persistently actively disrupt LU internal meetings;
  • intentionally assist Redwatch or similar far-right organisations which target leftists with violence and threats, employers’ blacklisting organisations or mass-media witch-hunts;
  • ‘troll’ LU online forums;
  • behave in a way which brings LU into disrepute: for example, by violence against other members, persistently oppressive conduct towards other members, or the exploitation of party office for private purposes.

LU recognises that we do not have the resources to properly investigate and handle complaints of serious crimes against other members: for example, rape or wounding/GBH; and that by attempting to do so we may contaminate evidence and thereby prevent justice being obtained.

3. Disputes procedure

A.Procedure

A body handling a complaint or disciplinary charges against a member must:

  • act as promptly as possible (having regard to the following points);
  • give the person complaining sufficient opportunity to formulate their complaint, and the person complained against sufficient notice of the nature of the complaint and sufficient opportunity to formulate their answer to it;
  • allow both the person complaining and the person complained against to have the unpaid assistance of another person;
  • where facts are disputed, allow both the person complaining and the person complained against to call witnesses and to ask questions of witnesses they have called and of witnesses called against them, and to offer other evidence (such as documents, emails, medical reports, etc);
  • conduct any hearing with fairness to both sides;
  • where the complaint is not dealt with in a branch, publish to the region (if dealt with in a regional committee) or to LU generally (if dealt with in the national council, disputes committee or appeals committee) a summary of the decision and the body’s findings and reasons.

These procedural obligations do not prohibit dealing with complaints by voluntary negotiation, mediation or reconciliation procedures, whether before or at any stage of formal complaints procedures.

B. Sanctions

Where a complaint is upheld or a disciplinary charge found proved, the sanctions imposed may range from censure of the member complained against, through other penalties, up to suspension or expulsion from membership of LU.

In deciding on sanctions, account should be taken of the seriousness of the complaint, the extent to which a persistent course of conduct is involved, and of the level of political experience of the person complained against.

A vote to expel a member does not take effect until ratified by the national council or disputes committee on the basis of a report from the body hearing the complaint.

4. Draft equalities policy for LU internal procedures

Left Unity recognises that we live in a society characterised by profound systematic inequality, not just on the basis of class, but also of the oppression of women, discrimination against members of ethnic and religious minority groups, and LGBT people and of age hierarchies, as well as both direct discrimination and the inherent bias of market society against people with disabilities.

We aim for a party in which all people can fully participate.

We also recognise, however, that there are serious limits on the extent to which the life of the party can overcome the inequalities of capitalist society or ‘prefigure’ the future, and the complete and disastrous failure of previous attempts to create party ‘liberated zones’ or ‘prefigurative politics’. In addition, a number of forms of discrimination and inequality, particularly around caring responsibilities and disabilities, immediately engage the questions of material resources and time; and the recent evolution of capitalism has been to reduce the resources in both space and time available to workers generally and to workers’ organisations. For instance, we may and should aim to meet in accessible rooms, but such rooms may simply be unavailable or not available at a price which small LU branches can afford.

What follows is therefore an incomplete list of recommendations for LU’s organisations for good practice in combating the effects of inequalities and discrimination on our decision-making. Most of these recommendations are hence subject to ‘as far as possible’ (generally, more will be possible for national meetings than for local meetings).

  • Meetings should be held in accessible spaces and with hearing loops, and so on.
  • Scheduling of meetings should take account of members’ or potential members’ caring responsibilities (for children, for people with disabilities, etc). Childcare arrangements should be provided. IT (streaming, Skype, etc) should be used to facilitate participation of those unable to attend.
  • Agendas and motions should be circulated well in advance.
  • Every effort should be made to avoid overcrowded agendas, which tend to cramp participation in discussions (and hence set up conflicts between open discussion of debated issues, on the one hand, and prioritising the contributions of oppressed groups, on the other).
  • Chairing should be sensitive to the need to draw in contributions from those who might not ‘normally’ speak, as well as to the need to clarify differences and allow full debate. On the other hand, some rotation of chairing is desirable to allow other comrades to gain experience of that duty.
  • Meetings of any length should include appropriate access breaks.
  • Left Unity needs to actively promote workers’ education and similar initiatives to empower those who have had less access to formal education. The party as a whole, and branches, need to develop party education for the same purpose.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. http://leftunity.org/safe-spaces-document.

2. Some references are cited in K Bollen, ‘Hybrid online mediation in hierarchical labor disputes’ The result could have been predicted from M Clanchy’s study of medieval equivalents, ‘Law and love in the middle ages’, in J Bossy (ed) Disputes and settlements Cambridge 1983.

3. See Dave Renton, 'Once more on compulsory reconciliation'.

4. Trotsky’s comment on Labourism in Britain.

5. S Smith, ‘Mistaken identity - or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?’ International Socialist Journal No62, spring 1994 collects several references. (This is not to endorse the political line of the article as a whole.)

6. See (among others) Sam Farber in International Socialist Review No92

7. See ‘The Unison monkey trialWeekly Worker September 10 2009.

8. ‘Enforcing civility and respect: three societies’ (2000) Yale Law Journal 1279-1398