Felicity Dowling: the more she writes, the worse it gets

Safe spaces cotton wool

Tina Becker reports on the development of the Sheffield branch of Left Unity

Sheffield Left Unity now starts every branch meeting with a political opening. At its last gathering, we had a useful discussion on the proposed ‘safe spaces document’. Despite the quite varied political viewpoints of members present, everybody agreed with the assessment that this document might come from a well-meaning place, but that its execution is a shambles: the draft is overly long, overly complex and overly bureaucratic.

In my introduction on the subject, I expressed the view that this document is an attempt to deal with the fallout from the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party, but that the author, Felicity Dowling, and her supporters have unfortunately learnt completely the wrong lessons from it. Instead of recognising that one of the main reasons for the severity of the crisis is the SWP’s lack of transparency, democracy and the gagging of the membership, comrade Dowling’s proposals would actually lead to a curtailing of democracy and an increase in bureaucracy in Left Unity.

I pointed to some of the rather daft and patronising stipulations in the document: for instance, “it will be clarified at the start of each debate what hand signals will be used to indicate you want to speak” (p6); and “Tolerance of other habits and norms will be expected - for example, the youth and elders might make more noise” (p6). Every branch of 20 members is supposed to set up a “safe space committee”.

There are also plenty of examples of the proposed curtailing of debate: “Venom,” we read, “should be reserved as far as possible for those who would destroy our organisation and our political actions” (p7); Referring to online discussions, “sexist, racist, oppressive comments or comments otherwise inappropriate within the remit of the safe spaces policy may be deleted or edited, when necessary” (p10); “If a member of an oppressed group requests that you change your use of language, be respectful and change your use of language” (p7).

This not only divides us up into different groups of “oppressed”: it risks creating a hierarchy of oppression. The question, as always, is: who decides? Who has the final say on what is “venom”? Like most other such policies, this document would not empower rank and file members, but those running branches, appeals committees, the national organisation - in short, the bureaucracy. They are also an ideal instrument for witch-hunts against ‘troublemakers’.

Comrades in Sheffield agreed that safe spaces as a concept ignores material reality. The world is a tough place. If we wrap ourselves up in cotton wool, if we are more prissy about PC language than the surrounding society, we leave our comrades less able to engage with the general cut and thrust of political argument in the workplace and the media. We end up infantilising ourselves, rather than preparing ourselves to take on the bourgeoisie.

After the debate, the acting chair (a former Labour Party member) suggested that we write a letter to the Left Unity national council, requesting that the document be replaced with a much shorter code of conduct. This was unanimously agreed.