A year in limbo
On June 11 2014 Laurie McCauley was suspended from Manchester Left Unity for publicly criticising other members of the branch, but his case has still not been heard. He spoke to the Weekly Worker
What, concretely, is your status now in LU?
I have been suspended from the Manchester branch for nearly a year now, after the majority at a meeting of our small branch passed a resolution to that effect, proposed by Ian Parker of Socialist Resistance. This action breached the constitution of LU in more ways than one: something the previous disputes committee and national council did not appear to consider relevant. I remain a member of Left Unity nationally and have attended the last two conferences.
Could you explain the nature of the charges against you?
Once unsupportable accusations about my and others’ “bullying behaviour” fell by the wayside, the motion passed by the branch focused exclusively on the fact that I had written an article which blew the lid on the witch-hunting and attempted censure of another comrade in the branch, Dawud Islam.
The roots of that first dispute lie in the crisis which rocked the Socialist Workers Party a couple of years ago, when a shameful attempt to bury accusations of sexual assault against a member of the central committee resulted in a series of damaging splits. The reality of the SWP is that you have an entrenched leadership who feel they can get away with anything, whether politically or, it seems, otherwise. But one of those splinters, the International Socialist Network, together with SR, took the line that the SWP is inadequately ‘feminist’, and seem compelled to prove how much better they - and by extension Left Unity - are on women’s issues.
It was this which drove them to launch a petition calling for RMT top and Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate Stephen Hedley to be kicked out of the labour movement. Why? Because a former partner had made an accusation of assault; yet both the police and an internal RMT inquiry found no case against him. As always seems to happen these days, all the documents of the inquiry were leaked, and confirm that the situation was not nearly as clear-cut as some on the left might have liked.
This petition was posted on our internal email list by Ian. Comrade Islam questioned the campaign against a fellow RMT comrade who had not been found guilty of anything. I then chipped in, reminding comrades that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ had been something of a progressive win for, oh, a few centuries now.
Are there real differences between LU comrades on the women’s question, which it might be illuminating for all to see debated? Yes. But the Hedley petition was indefensible on all levels, and the comrades knew it. So instead of attempting to justify it, they whipped up as much moral outrage as they could and channelled it into the isolation and exclusion of comrades whose views they find a challenge. At this point, an “ad-hoc committee” formed by Ian decided that the topic was “no longer suitable for discussion” and shut down the branch email list. At the next meeting, Ian put forward a motion of censure against the comrade, dissociating the branch from his remarks on our internal mailing list.
This had a hugely alienating effect on the branch’s periphery; the ‘trial of Dawud’ failed to attract the masses, surprisingly enough. In the end Ian withdrew his motion after a pseudo-apology from the accused. After all the mud flung at him on the email list, including aspersions about his faith, the possibilities for collective work or simply having a base level of trust between comrades had been totally destroyed. The whole sorry story needed to be exposed, which I duly did by writing about it in the Weekly Worker.1
At the next meeting the motion to exclude me was passed. Not all of the independents are so insecure about their politics on women’s liberation as the ISN and SR, but were won on the basis that reporting what people said at a political meeting was some sort of horrendous breach of privacy. Readers can look up my reports for details.
I would like to add something about the breathtaking cynicism displayed by some members of LU at this meeting. A supposed independent turned up for the first time ever, to explain that she would never attend a meeting at which her comments may be reported (I’ll let readers pick that one apart themselves!). Branch chair Chris Strafford, who has played a really shameful role in both disputes, claimed that an ex-member of Workers Power had planned to attend the meeting, but was too terrified at the thought of being in the same room as myself. Are either of those people attending branch meetings now, I wonder?
Anyone who reads the Weekly Worker, which has published many reports of LU meetings at the local, national and leadership level, knows that we are not in the business of attacking the young, the inexperienced or the plain ignorant. But if you go around demanding comrades be kicked out of the movement or censored for their comments, you had better be prepared to defend that position.
Being offended occasionally is simply part of politics - the rhetoric of ‘safe spaces’ is being used here, as often ends up the case, to silence inconvenient voices. If comrades really cannot tolerate a critical article in the Weekly Worker, lord help us if Left Unity ever makes it big and the Mail, Telegraph, etc start to take an interest.
How have the official disciplinary structures of LU dealt with this?
Terribly. The disputes committee elected in 2014 insisted on confidentiality as a basis for proceeding with the dispute. This is extremely problematic, as you could be stitched up behind closed doors and no-one would be any the wiser. Secrecy only benefits those with power or connections. And if claiming to be offended is enough for the DC to accept a complaint as legitimate ... well, you can imagine the possibilities. What earthly body can possibly arbitrate on that? And what is our position on whistleblowers again?
It took around nine months before the DC figured out it needed to ask the NC for “a steer on confidentiality vs transparency”. Given that the whole case resolves around an article some comrades didn’t like, they should perhaps have done so when the whole damn thing began. The NC has not been much better than the DC when it comes to taking the initiative. Concerns about democracy and impartiality have been put forward as reasons for the inability of these bodies to intervene decisively. But, without a leadership willing to do so, it makes no sense to talk about democracy. The issue of confidentiality also makes a mockery of LU’s aspiration to “do politics differently”: ie, in an open, transparent and democratic way. How can DC members be held to account, how can LU members decide who should stay and who should be replaced on that body, if all its deliberation and decisions take place in private?
What does it say about the culture of the organisation in general?
Sadly the Manchester debacle is symptomatic of a deeper malaise; the DC has been snowed under with work since its formation, out of all proportion to what you would expect for such a small organisation. The reason is that members are using, or trying to use, the DC to win political battles in their branch, or to take their side in petty personality clashes. The Leeds branch has split along left/right lines, and some comrades in Sheffield simply walked when they found themselves in a minority on some questions.
The political opportunism of the left, the constant reluctance to talk about Marxism publicly has bred a sort of activist who actually feels embarrassed, even ashamed, about their own deeply held beliefs. The CPGB talks about Marxism openly and acknowledges there are differences within it - and that is a threat to these people, who think LU should stick with lowest-common-denominator demands we can all agree on. The opportunist method is founded on the fallacy that we can never, ever build a mass Marxist party. Only a vanguard organisation, with the secret recipe for revolution, which will prod a working class - seen as essentially static and empty - until it is angry enough to launch that vanguard into power. Herd animals like that will only be confused if you present conflicting ideas to them.
That’s not my idea of a conscious, majority (ie, socialist) revolution. It leads to a deeply patronising, manipulative view of the working class, and repeated attempts to make it big by repressing the expression of differences and appealing directly to ‘the masses’. The latest conference of Nick Wrack’s Independent Socialist Network has banned members of existing groups from attending: they only want virgins! Well, good luck with that, comrades. Of course, politics inevitably reappears, as those precious ordinary people are not actually empty vessels waiting to be filled, but thinking human beings like everybody else, who hopefully are made more critical through their engagement with Marxist politics.
The ‘shut the hell up’ method was and still is prevalent in Left Unity. As far as the Manchester branch goes, I am not optimistic; from what I have gathered about their current activities, the comrades seem resolute only in their determination that the branch not do anything which might cause it to grow beyond a manageable circle of co-thinkers. But I think the present political situation, the toll all these disputes have taken on morale and the shrinking of the organised left as a whole are making some look about and realise that actually we’re all comrades here, and something has to change.
What should the national council do now?
The disputes committee is not supposed to be the arena for resolving political disagreements. My own case barely warrants even that description. Those bringing the complaint are simply embarrassed that their grubby campaign against Dawud was exposed. Maybe they lack the confidence to defend their positions publicly: well, that’s their problem, not mine. They have wasted, and are continuing to waste, everybody’s time with this.
If the NC allows this to rumble on, it will set a worrying precedent for anyone who may one day report on happenings in LU. If so, they should at least pass a motion to the effect that if any member of LU claims to be offended by something written by another member, the author should be immediately suspended until such time as the disputes committee can conduct an in-depth psychic investigation to determine the precise level of offence caused.
Seriously, the new NC should show some backbone and throw the thing out. I am not going to apologise for coming to the defence of a victimised comrade.
How has this particular manifestation of ‘doing politics differently’ impacted on you as an individual comrade?
I would be lying if I said it hadn’t bothered me. This sort of thing is never pleasant. Even when it is obvious to anyone not blinded by sectarianism that what lies behind my exclusion is the political insecurities of some comrades, and not anything to do me with me on either a personal or political level. In some ways I find it ironic.
My first personal experience of this sort of thing was when, as a young member of the SWP, I raised criticisms of our role in the Respect project ... including the silence on women’s liberation. Once I started to express these views, my devaluation from valued comrade to evil sectarian came quick and hard. That sort of monolithic culture, where we keep schtum about our differences on pain of being gagged, harassed or excluded, is massively off-putting to most young people today.
Left Unity must break with this rotten culture if it hopes to live up to its own name.
1. ‘What ‘safe spaces’ lead to’ Weekly Worker May 15 2014.