Delusions of denialism
The exoneration of Paul Blackledge at the high court raises serious questions over the Kimber-Leather leadership, writes Paul Demarty
A couple of weeks ago, a defamation claim was settled at the high court.
Paul Blackledge, a former Leeds-based professor of politics and University and College Union activist, was accused by an anonymous blogger of rape last year. The accusations in fact dated back to 2016. They were, so far as we know, never investigated by the police, but were by Leeds Beckett University (where Blackledge worked) and by the UCU. The former dropped the matter; the latter barred him from official positions under a broadly-written rule effectively against ‘bringing the union into disrepute’. A legal appeal to the trade union certification officer was rejected.
The blog’s ostensible aim was to bring the #MeToo movement to the UCU, but clearly discernible in its posts was an animus towards the Socialist Workers Party, of which Blackledge had been a member for decades. The SWP is a major force in the UCU left, and is politically vulnerable on such questions (not that there has been a hint or a squeak about any of this in the pages of Socialist Worker). In fact, outside the very narrow circles of the far left, the campaign does not really seem to have taken off, and Blackledge’s fate remained his own. Job done, well as far as the SWP leadership was concerned … till now that is.
The high court judgment is pretty damning for everyone involved, apart from Blackledge himself. On the factual basis for the allegations against him, the honourable Mr Justice Saini concludes:
I am satisfied on the evidence that [Blackledge] has never committed any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. I also accept that he was devastated by these false allegations and finds the very idea of sexual violence abhorrent.
The blogger, who remains anonymous and did not defend him or herself, “cynically used the #MeToo debate as part of their strategy”. Blackledge was awarded £70,000 in damages plus costs - “this substantial sum is intended to reflect and signal the total falsity of the allegations” - along with a court order for Google to remove the offending blog. But it is not clear how he will collect that money, when all he has to go on is a Proton email address.1 Another blog, containing (anonymous) statements from purported survivors, remains up. It is likely that the reputational damage he has suffered is irreversible. (Here, we should note, that we wrote on this affair last year in terms that could be taken to imply that the allegations against Blackledge were sincere and could, if necessary, be testified to in court, which was clearly a mistake on our part.2)
There is some interest from the strictly legal point of view, in that this is the first time an order has been served against Google, under section 13 of the Defamation Act. “Unfortunately, the general legislative steer under the act shifts liability away from intermediaries,” lamented a certain Iain Wilson, a defamation lawyer, to the Law Gazette. Perhaps Blackledge’s case will form part of the tissue of precedents for a clampdown on ‘online abuse’, as demanded after many recent moral panics on the theme. Coverage of the case in the rightwing press has tended to highlight the defendant’s anonymity.
It is regrettable, of course, when socialists resort to the courts to settle disputes in the labour movement, which is clearly part of what was going on here (the use of allegations against Blackledge to witch-hunt the SWP). It is even more so when the laws in question are the monstrous provisions in this country against libel and defamation. It is difficult to see where else comrade Blackledge could have gone, however. The procedures under which he was disciplined by the UCU were laughable. The confidentiality around the case, coupled with the denial of the possibility of his confronting his accusers, saw to that.
This is not a view likely to be shared widely on the left, which has generally adopted a feminist position that one should prima facie believe accusers in this sort of case - a good idea - but then taken it to override all considerations of procedural fairness and natural justice - a very, very bad idea. The gravity of the accusations have nothing to do with it - it would not matter if Blackledge were accused of stealing sweets or participating in the Rwandan genocide; if we do not support his right to contest allegations against him, then we essentially reproduce the ‘morality’ of the tabloids as regards those accused of sex crimes. And, just as the ‘bring back hanging’ headlines offer dubious comfort to the bereaved relatives of the victims of terrible crimes, but serve instead as a means of manipulation of their readers, so an absolute commitment to ‘believe the survivors’ merely renders us pliable and credulous, with no obvious benefit to survivors in general.
In this case, the net effect was to allow (for a time) the UCU bureaucracy to ‘make the problem go away’ to their own benefit. Even Blackledge’s subsequent legal challenges leave the union substantially unscathed.
Of course, the UCU was not the only organisation acting with a view to making things go away. If Blackledge was poorly treated by the union in which he was an activist, how much more so the organisation to which he dedicated his adult life?
The story necessarily begins three years before any allegations were made. In 2013, the SWP was smashed to pieces by another series of rape allegations, against former national organiser Martin Smith. The group’s disputes committee (DC), instead of recommending the reporting of these serious criminal allegations to the police, opted to engage in Law and order: special victims unit-type cosplay. Insanely, this group - consisting entirely of senior SWPers who were long-time acquaintances and comrades of Smith, and presumably barely aware of the young woman in Birmingham who accused him - thought itself better equipped to adjudicate on this matter than the bourgeois state, however poor the latter’s record. The whole affair was handled confidentially (of course), but details leaked out, and at the SWP conference in January 2013 the DC’s annual report was put to a vote. It was the first time many hundreds of members had heard of the matter in any detail. Though the DC report was approved - narrowly - a transcript of the debate was leaked to two publications (one of them being this paper). A year and two special conferences later, there had been two damaging splits.
The split was between immediate and open rebels, ‘softer’ oppositionists and fanatical Smith loyalists. The core leadership of the group decided to support the latter, and set up the other two for inevitable walkouts. The more ‘radical’ oppositionists travelled more or less directly to identity politics and split into atoms; the softer elements still exist, more or less, as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (but they are not relevant to our story).
The problem was with the people left behind. By the end of all this, another allegation had surfaced against Smith. He was put out to pasture ... and was never to be mentioned again. The reality had dawned that the ‘party’ was in deep trouble, and that its conduct in relation to the Smith case was obviously inexcusable outside the epistemic closure of SWP loyalism. If the core leadership faction had thought they could just tough it out, they now knew they could not get away with it. Petitions to exclude SWP fractions from campuses and trade unions became common. Before 2013, their enemies in the movement considered them an irritant, while softer-left elements tolerated their eccentricities within reason. Now their name was mud.
For all that, they did not break with the pro-Smith crew. Amy Leather, their leading light, became joint-national organiser. (Blackledge, a supporter of Smith and Leather in 2013, was one of a handful of serious party intellectuals who stuck with the group.) Its politics became ever more sterile and reduced to a shrill echo of identity politics (ironically, considering the leadership’s habit of accusing the 2013 oppositions of ‘giving up on the working class’).
When Blackledge was first accused of sexual misconduct then, the SWP discreetly suspended him and kept quiet. When he decided to launch his appeal to the certification officer, he tapped his old Newcastle SWP comrade, Yunus Bakhsh - himself once the victim of a sustained victimisation campaign in Unison, but by then a barrister and something of a legal expert in the area.
Things simmered for a while until the anonymous blog appeared last year. Alerted to Bakhsh’s involvement, the SWP abruptly suspended him; but before he could even appeal against the suspension, Amy Leather descended on Newcastle for a two-hour struggle session. Bakhsh was not present, but his close comrades and indeed his partner was; they were subjected to tirades about how unforgivable Yunus’s betrayal was, riddled with factual errors (Leather and other SWP tops claim that Blackledge was expelled in 2015, when he had not officially ceased being a member until 2018, for example; and also that Bakhsh must have known about his ‘expulsion’, even though it neither happened nor would have been advertised even if it had, given that all this stuff is - naturally! - confidential).
As a result, and in the context of (what else?) accusations of sexism and bullying in the branch, 12 members resigned, including Bakhsh. Others who did not do so submitted a protest to that year’s internal Pre-Conference Bulletins, which the leadership mysteriously chose not to publish. Bad feelings persist, and with this judgment one member, Gary Duke, is circulating an email he wrote to Amy Leather and Charlie Kimber, calling for their resignations.
The high court judgment leaves the SWP looking in very bad disrepute indeed. It failed to oppose a ridiculous disciplinary procedure against one of its own members, to avoid embarrassment, and also to avoid embarrassment hushed up all mention of it within the organisation. This led another prominent member - Bakhsh - to defend Blackledge, thereby re-entangling the SWP in the case, and making it inevitable that Bakhsh would be thrown to the wolves at a later date (besides further entrenching the SWP’s reputation for dishonesty). As Duke puts it to Kimber and Leather:
The SWP leadership including both of you, decided to jettison any commitment to defending the absolute right of individuals to a fair hearing, and to the concept of the provision of, and to the hearing of evidence, as the basis for natural justice. The party and you both instead decided that reliance on hearsay and anonymous and defamatory allegations and damaging smears were sufficient.3
They had jettisoned any such ‘commitments’ long ago - comrade Duke ought to revisit the sordid history of the 2013-14 chaos. But in truth any number of summary expulsions dating back decades will testify to that. What has been jettisoned more recently - in spite of the bullish pretences of central committee perspectives documents - has been the SWP’s old arrogance, its instinctive understanding that the only thing standing between it and the revolution was the willingness of ordinary members to obey orders unquestioningly, to sell enough papers and give out enough placards on anti-racist demonstrations. Whether they admit it or not, the SWP leadership has now been disabused of that illusion - it knows that the patience of ordinary members has definite limits. The master-slave dialectic has reached its climax.
Whatever else can be said, comrade Duke is right about one thing at least: Kimber and Leather - and the whole lot of them - should resign their posts. In truth, they should have done that after the far worse failings of 2013-14, which destroyed their group’s reputation, such as it was, and turned half or more of its active membership into vicious enemies. An army officer who did that to his regiment would count himself lucky to be court-martialled, since at least that way he would not be fragged. At this point - after eight years of crisis and steep decline, in which the group has been a useless bystander in the key political struggles in the Labour Party and a bag-carrier for bourgeois anti-racists - a total leadership overhaul is comically overdue. The only problem is: who is there to replace the likes of Charlie Kimber and Amy Leather, except dead-eyed clones?
If the SWP is likely to learn nothing as usual, what is there for the rest of us to pick up? The lesson widely drawn from the Smith affair was that sexism and misogyny needed to be taken much more seriously, and indeed in some respects they were, and are. But in this precise connection it is off the point. The SWP was always happy to tail feminist causes in its usual indelicate style, and has happily repeated the #MeToo slogans of the day since the Smith case. It nonetheless fails repeatedly in these kinds of ‘crises of decision’.
In truth, the connection between its errors in 2013 and the Blackledge affair is precisely the question of transparency. The SWP and UCU alike chose to impose broad confidentiality on proceedings, and in both cases miscarried justice. And in the end that is not surprising - confidentiality is a kind of property right, which devolves to those ‘in the know’: the bureaucracy (or the SWP leadership). A truly democratic movement is incompatible with such secretive mechanisms, whether done in the name of defending the joint-national secretaries or ‘believing survivors’. Though bourgeois justice really is a sham, the one element unambiguously worth preserving - and radically extending - is the commitment to procedural fairness, and to procedures being seen to be fair.
See ‘Another fine mess’ Weekly Worker April 30 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1297/another-fine-mess.↩︎