Another fine mess
Once again the SWP is embroiled in scandal over historic sexual misconduct, reports Paul Demarty
A few weeks ago we had cause to raise an eyebrow at the Socialist Workers Party’s coverage of the conviction of Harvey Weinstein.1
The comrades were in raptures at the outcome, as they were always likely to be: as soon as the #MeToo movement kicked into gear, SWP instincts to tail any movement whatever in the hopes of recruiting a few members necessarily dragged it along in the wake of Weinstein’s victims. As more and more spheres of social life had their unsavoury sexual economies exposed, Socialist Worker could be relied on to denounce ‘rich sexist scum’ and the like from its tiny bully-pulpit.
There was, of course, just one small problem: the SWP was infamous for cataclysmic failings on the same issue. In 2011-13, serious allegations, including rape, against a leading member (Martin Smith, perhaps better known in anonymised form as Comrade Delta) were dismissed by an ill-conceived internal investigation, and the hundreds of members who rightly objected were driven out for ‘factionalism’. Against such a background, the strident #MeToo-ism of Socialist Worker in the last couple of years has always had an uncomfortable silence lurking under the sound and fury.
It so happens, however, that yet another scandal was already tightening its grip on the organisation when Weinstein got sent down. In February, an anonymous blog post exposed a sexual assault scandal in the Universities and Colleges Union in 2016.2 The allegations were made against Paul Blackledge, a UCU official who was also a leading SWP intellectual for many years. The blog post claimed that, after complaints were made by several women (whom it calls Survivor A, B, C and so on), the union relieved Blackledge of his membership card, under its rule 13, which mandates the NEC to “establish a procedure to censure or bar a member from holding any office for a specified period ... or expel a member from membership if it finds their conduct to be in breach of the rules or is deemed to be a matter of significant detriment to the interest of the union”.3
Blackledge then appealed the decision, but a dispute over the date of his appeal led the union to carry it out in absentia. He then further appealed to the trade union certification officer, on the basis that this amounted to a denial of natural justice (among many other things). The certification officer dismissed the case.4
Subsequently, a blog purporting to be written by survivors A and B popped up, to support the original whistleblower’s account of things, though their practical conclusions differ somewhat. Specifically, the whistleblower’s main conclusion is that the SWP should essentially become a proscribed organisation, given its lamentable record in dealing with sexual violence and misconduct. The survivors focus more on structural change in the union relating to the way these cases are dealt with. Specifically, they object to the confidentiality of the process put in place by the UCU executive to satisfy rule 13, which has resulted in the effective gagging of all involved for many years.5
In response to all this, the SWP maintained public silence. It is true that, so far, this affair has not made it to the mainstream media (which is rather busy with other matters just at the moment); and there is little enough enthusiasm at the best of times for operational transparency at SWP leadership level. But then another crisis broke out. A sizeable chunk of the Tyneside branch publicly resigned, with a barrage of complaints about “a bullying, misogynistic and sexist culture”;6 among these comrades was one Yunus Bakhsh, a very long-standing SWP union militant, turned labour lawyer, who was witch-hunted in Unison in a celebrated case that dragged on for years.
The SWP did now break its silence to respond to the Tyneside resignation in a press release, which claimed that the real cause of the crisis was the fact that comrade Bakhsh had been suspended - for representing Blackledge before the certification officer, which risked bringing the party into disrepute. About the other allegations raised by Bakhsh et al, the SWP is silent, except to say that it is investigating and it would not be “appropriate” to comment.7 This is at least a slight dodge, since some of the allegations date back to 2018 and involve disputes that have been - at least formally - resolved, but with lingering complaints about the handling of them. Bakhsh’s suspension seems to have divided the branch in a quite vicious fashion, however, and it is difficult to shake off the impression that the SWP press office is not doing too much violence to the truth when it claims that this is indeed the central point of dispute.
The other eye-catching feature of the SWP response is the timeline. It claims that Blackledge was suspended from the SWP in 2015, which would put him out of the party for a year or so by the time the ‘rule 13’ affair began, and three years before Bakhsh’s legal defence of him. The beginning of the period is slap-bang in the middle of the roughest era in the SWP’s recent history, when it was under relentless pressure as a result of the Comrade Delta fiasco, with repeated banning orders on university campuses and witch-hunting in the wider labour movement. Allegations of this nature against Blackledge - a long-time member of the International Socialism editorial board - could not have come at a worse time. There would, you would have thought, have been uproar internally. Except that there was not. A year into his suspension, Blackledge could (according to the whistleblower blog) count on the support of several SWP UCU activists, and others in the UCU left too. That means one of two things: either the SWP’s UCU fraction had gone rogue, or the SWP leadership sat on the affair to save face.
It seems very likely to be the latter. Bakhsh claims he had no clue that Blackledge was suspended from the SWP until two years later, and then he was given a Delphic answer by SWP joint-national secretary Charlie Kimber. Bakhsh’s suspension seems to have been a knee-jerk attempt to plug the next crisis; CC members seem to have briefed that he must have known, and did not tell them. He does not deny Kimber’s assertion that the first he learned of Bakhsh’s involvement in the case was when he read the court documents linked in the blog posts. (Although he notes that some SWP leadership statements about him would imply that they had known earlier, he seems to think that these statements are straightforward lies.)8
So, it seems undeniable that this is yet another self-inflicted injury by the SWP. The leadership’s first response to the Delta scandal was to shoot the messenger; its subsequent rubric for dealing with these matters seems to have been on the same trajectory. Where, in 2013, it was tough on messengers, by 2015 it was tough on the causes of messengers. Bakhsh notes in passing that, “since the Delta case”, disputes committee reports to conference “have been anonymised and no details given”. He wants to know how he, and the two other comrades suspended over involvement in Blackledge’s case could be expected to cordon themselves off from him, if the whole case was kept under wraps. Whatever their personal errors, it seems that the SWP’s UCU fraction was set up to fail by a leadership that has never yet made it out of ‘Keep your head down and it’ll go away’ mode.
The suspensions of Bakhsh et al would thereby be properly diagnosed as panic; but the failure of that mode of dealing with sexual misconduct incidents in Bakhsh’s own branch (his bitter feelings are no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the complainant in several matters is his partner) led to a subsequent crisis, which in turn meant that the SWP had to admit to its entanglement in Blackledge’s affairs, in a manner which lays bare its non-transparency and therefore untrustworthiness.
At this point, one almost despairs to talk of lessons to be learned - there is surely little more one can offer to the SWP than ‘We wouldn’t start from here if we were you’. But the comrades are where they are; their leadership clique remains basically unchanged, which is basically problem number one. The villain of the piece, so far as Bakhsh is concerned, is Amy Leather - alongside Charlie Kimber, joint-national secretary - who led the wing of the SWP most defensive of Martin Smith and most hysterical in its demands for a reckoning for the opposition.
Problem number two is the political outlook imposed by that leadership, which is so sterile as to offer basically no critique at all to the identity politics movements in which it seeks to swim. Problem number three is that the aforementioned approach does not work - the SWP is intrinsically vulnerable to accusations of bullying and abuse, since its instrumental and centralised political culture, and its habit of keeping disputes out of view of the ordinary members until they cannot be ignored, generates the very power dynamics whose outworkings - in our sexist society - will probably be to the misfortune of a woman comrade sooner or later. Therefore, there is no possibility of burying sexual crimes and misdemeanours under a mountain of ‘Rich sexist scum’ headlines (what the far right today calls ‘virtue signalling’). People have memories; and, if they do not, they have the internet to make up for it.
Insofar as this case reflects badly on the UCU or its broad left, the lessons are essentially the same. Nobody imposed a gag order protocol on the UCU executive, which now faces embarrassment with calls for a new conference at the earliest possible occasion. In the end, the pervasive commitment to confidentiality in proceedings - shared inter alia by Bakhsh, even as it comes back to bite him - speak to a commonality to all organisations of the labour bureaucracy, be they tiny, like the SWP central committee, or smallish, like UCU officialdom. There is a pseudo-class interest in artificial information scarcity that allows cliques within this layer to ‘punch above their weight’ by controlling access. It is not in the end in the interests of the general membership, still less of the working class as a whole.
Also not in those interests is the proscription of the SWP tout court. Even if we were to take male violence against women as our pre-eminent interest in political choices, the fundamental basis for that is social hierarchy in general - and, however hopeless a revolutionary organisation it is, the SWP aspires in its self-understanding to overcome that. Blackledge assured Bakhsh that the leakers were on the right of the UCU, and the extremely SWP-focused content, combined with the timing of the leak shortly before elections, suggests it may be more than self-justification on his part. The existence of a left in the unions indicates the possibility of standing up to the incursions of our enemies - in a UCU context, to the financialisation of education and its reduction of all but the elite among academics to increasingly precarious circumstances, in which resistance to the sexual domineering of bosses becomes all the harder.
That is not a reason to hold off from criticising the SWP, of course: it is merely a reason to doubt that the SWP is at the root of sexism in the UCU, never mind on campuses generally, and that its exclusion from the scene will improve things.
. ‘Still in denial’ Weekly Worker March 5.↩︎
. The decision is a public document, available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761736/D.31-37-18-19.pdf.↩︎
. survivorsrule13metooucu.law.blog/2020/02/11/ucu-rule-13-case-2016. The whistleblower blog further notes that proceedings at Blackledge’s then employer, Leeds Beckett University, were similarly laden with gag clauses.↩︎