Accused of being rape apologists

Regrets, they’ve had a few

Why has the SWP issued a public statement on its 2013 rape scandal? Paul Demarty looks at the record and searches for answers

Quite out of the blue, the Socialist Workers Party has issued a press release on its mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations in 2013.1

It is not clear what has led the SWP to make this move. Certainly the statement does not shed any light on the matter, though unspecified “accusations of ‘rape apologism’” are mentioned. The comrades are, of course, busy little bees at the moment, enthusiastically participating in the mass movement against the Gaza war, as well they might be. They are presumably recruiting this way. Perhaps prospective members are raising this as an obstacle to joining; but then, by retreading this territory, they risk giving it wider publicity, when one has rather got the impression over the years that they would prefer never again to speak of the whole sorry episode.

Publicly addressing this question at all is, thus, in some sense admirable. The SWP at least acknowledges that it screwed up, and offers some reasons to suppose that it will not do so again. Unfortunately, what it acknowledges is only a very partial list of the sins committed; and the reasons offered are not so reassuring on closer examination. In fact, these two points are connected.

What do they think happened?

The case involved a woman alleging rape by someone who was then a member of the elected leadership of the party. A second woman also came forward to allege sexual harassment by the same member of the leadership. The women making the allegations chose not to take them to the police … given the lack of seriousness with which the police treat such cases. Instead, they sought to pursue their allegations through the party’s ‘disputes committee’ [DC].

This leading member was Martin Smith, then national organiser and de facto top dog. This was a serious matter for the overall leadership. But “the process we had in place at that time was entirely inadequate and we handled the two cases badly”. The DC panel examining the case “contained people who had worked closely with the person accused”. It “sought to pass judgement on matters of fact about which it could not meaningfully establish the truth”. Furthermore,

Our 2013 procedures were also insufficiently mindful of or sensitive to the challenges women face when they bring forward serious accusations of sexual misconduct. They also did not do enough to acknowledge potential imbalances of power due to gender, seniority in an organisation and age differences.

That is more or less all the statement has to say about the actual events. We then move on to apologies:

We are sorry for failing the two women. We also apologise to all those in the wider movement who, like us, consider women’s oppression in general, and rape in particular, to be abhorrent, including former members of the SWP who supported the two women.

That reference to “former members of the SWP” is the only hint of the internal crisis that all this unleashed. It is the most spectacular omission in a very partial account, and we will get to that in a moment.

However, we need to start at the beginning. As we noted, Smith was briefly national organiser, effectively leading the SWP in day-to-day matters after the old leadership around John Rees and Lindsey German was sidelined (their supporters later broke away to form Counterfire). This all took place in 2007-09, and coincided with the outbreak of the global financial crisis, from which the SWP, like most far-left groups, expected to draw renewed energy and purpose, and balloon in size.

Swerp anon

The reality was stagnation, and within a couple of years it was Smith’s turn to be demoted. At around this time - 2009 or 2010 - allegations of sexual harassment were circulated anonymously against him, including to the Weekly Worker. We chose not to publish, having no way to verify the claims and supposing them to be part of the ‘knives out for Martin’ court politics then ongoing. Smith did, however, address them at an SWP conference in what witnesses described as an incomprehensible, elliptical speech, after which somebody in the crowd got up a “The workers united will never be defeated!” chant, and the whole affair was presumed to be put to bed.

It was late in 2012 when the whole thing started to unravel. The complainant had re-examined her own memories of her interactions with Smith, and come to the conclusion that she had been the victim of rape. The DC panel was convened and, exhibiting all the shortcomings the SWP now owns up to, dismissed the case against Smith. This immediately led to clandestine oppositions forming (there are, for practical purposes, no other kinds of oppositions in the SWP). Four members were expelled on the basis of leaked Facebook chat logs - which, of course, had the effect of drawing more attention to the matter.

At the SWP’s conference early in 2013, things came to a head in the vote on whether to accept the DC’s annual report, which covered the Smith case; the loyalists just edged to victory, but it was to prove extremely costly. The full transcript of the debate was anonymously leaked to the wider movement and rapidly published. One member in attendance, Tom Walker, used the pages of the Weekly Worker to give his scathing account of the goings on - as far as I am aware, the most widely read article we have published as long as I have been writing here. The bourgeois press then got hold of it, and the SWP’s usual disciplinary mechanisms simply ceased functioning. Hundreds went into open rebellion, with the full support of almost the whole of the wider movement.

The leadership had a choice at that point - between the olive branch and the truncheon. They chose the truncheon. All who courageously and rightly rebelled against this scandalous failure were denounced as wreckers, anarchists, liberals, agents of “creeping feminism”, and so forth. Two factions arose, one - more militant - around Richard Seymour, and including the ‘Facebook Four’; and another, more conciliatory outfit that included many long-standing and respected SWP loyalists and intellectuals, including Ian Birchall and Neil Davidson. The militants chose to resign early on, under very heavy manners and likely to be expelled en masse anyway. The ‘moderates’ fought on under the name, ‘In Defence of our Party’, attempting to split ordinary-Joe comrades from the ultra-hardliners in the leadership (who somebody drolly nicknamed ‘In defence of our Martin’). They, too, were defeated and driven out.

By the end of 2013, the SWP was in such terrible shape that it was almost possible to imagine it just winking out of existence - as indeed its former sister party, the US International Socialist Organization, would a few years later. The SWP had lost more or less half of its active membership, including something like 95% of its student membership. Its reputation in the wider movement - always a little uneven - was completely shredded. It was banned from several student unions as a ‘threat to women’, and attempts were made to do the same in trade unions as well. On more than one occasion, SWP literature was ritually burned by angry students.


Is this what the SWP is apologising to its former members for? We have little doubt that the leadership now regrets the course it took in 2013 to some extent: how could it not, given the calamitous consequences of that choice? Yet in the context of this document, it seems otherwise.

The organisation owns up to having had inadequate disputes procedures, but not to the fanaticism with which its leadership set out to drive out all who saw those procedures as inadequate at the time. It self-criticises for being blind to the power differential between a leading member and a young recruit, in the manner of a liberal ‘age-gap discourse’ think-piece, but, so far as we can tell, the ultra-centralist ‘command and control’ structure, which amplifies that differential, remains in place. If members were found considering their options for protesting a new Martin Smith-type case that was mishandled, it is quite certain that they would be expelled all over again.

Unsurprisingly then, according to the SWP’s account of what it learned from this episode, it was more or less entirely procedural. In today’s SWP, we are told,

anyone accused of rape or harassment is suspended from SWP membership, while an investigation is taking place. If a member of the SWP’s elected leadership body is subject to an accusation that needs to be investigated, no member of that same leadership body - or former member of the leadership who worked with them - will be on the panel looking into the case. It will also be ensured that the person bringing the allegation is happy with the nature and membership of the panel overseeing the case before it begins.

Our new procedures also reaffirm that those bringing such accusations should be supported, whether they decide to go to the SWP’s disputes committee, the elected body that handles such matters, or to seek to use legal avenues, such as the police and courts. We should always proactively take measures to protect women who come forward with accusations.

When holding hearings over cases of sexual misconduct, we now, in common with many other organisations on the left, seek to apply the guidelines drawn up by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Much of this is reasonable, and indeed addresses some of the more glaring injustices in the Martin Smith case. It is telling, however, that the reader is referred to the EHRC guidance on such matters, drawn up to help employers deal with workplace disputes of this nature.

I use the phrase, ‘to help employers’, deliberately. As with the common run of such guidance, the target audience is human-resources people, whose fundamental job is to protect the employer from reputational damage and expensive litigation. It is well known, for example, that the ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ training industry - which is so much the occasion of rightwing culture warlordism today, especially in the United States - has the perverse bottom-line effect of making it harder for aggrieved employees to pursue legal remedies from their bosses for discrimination. The company lawyers can tell the courts: ‘We make everyone take a class in how not to be racist - what more can we do?’

The EHRC guidance, specifically, mandates confidentiality in formal proceedings.2 This is just great for a bureaucratic corporation, since it ensures that everything has to go through ‘official channels’; The HR department are the only people who even know who is involved. It is spectacularly unsuited to a small left group with an politically homogenous leadership caste, because - no matter how much effort is to be expended - the ‘HR department’ will always be colleagues of the accused leader. The general effect even in corporate life, however, is that the top people get away with it, with only the lower-level creeps facing the music. For the masses, sunlight is the best disinfectant. It was only by exposing the scandal, after all, that the SWP rebels managed to impose any consequences on the SWP leadership.

In the thick

Eleven years ago, in the thick of the crisis, I wrote an article on it with the headline, ‘Rape is not the problem’,3 which led to a flurry of angry letters in response.4 I think I might today put some things in it less flippantly, but in substance the point remains. We live in a sexist society that, in spite of very real gains by the left and women’s movement over the decades, continues to put women in danger of sexual predation by men, from wolf-whistles up to rape. We cannot suppose that any organisation of any size that contains both sexes will be wholly free from such things. The question is whether we will be doomed to mishandle such cases, or not; whether their exposure will lead to meaningful internal correction, or not.

The SWP’s feminist critics had always proposed that the basic problem was that the SWP was not feminist enough - that is, not enough women in leadership, lack of women’s caucuses (and perhaps of consciousness-raising among men, although that was always controversial), etc. It was always a slightly odd take on the Smith case - after all, the DC panel was majority-female, and the two dissenting voices from it were both men; later in the crisis, the most gung-ho defender of Smith was generally thought to be Amy Leather. Instead, it was arguably an object lesson in how the ‘representation’ politics of bourgeois feminism is utterly useless to ordinary women.

The final demonstration of this is surely the lessons the SWP has chosen to learn: that the answer to what is essentially a political failing - an incorrect conception of the party that reduces ordinary members to obedient little soldiers for the leadership and full-timers - is a few pieces of feminist virtue-signalling (the statement comes with a trigger warning, for heaven’s sake) and a few borrowings from HR best practices.

We expect it will get them no credit from those who call them rape apologists; but what is their alternative, really?

  1. socialistworker.co.uk/press-releases/statement-2013.↩︎

  2. www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/2021/sexual-harassment-and-harassment-at-work.pdf.↩︎

  3. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/953/swp-and-feminism-rape-is-not-the-problem.↩︎

  4. See Weekly Worker March 21 and March 28 2013.↩︎