Gender quotas: The two souls of tokenism
The gender imbalance in left groups cannot be cured by bureaucratic means, argues Paul Demarty
In 1993, the Labour Party, under the leadership of John Smith, adopted the policy of all-women shortlists for parliamentary candidates.
The idea was to redress the absurd gender imbalance in parliament, where - at the time - less than 10% of MPs were women. By imposing this stricture on particular parliamentary constituencies, the Labour Party could attempt to correct this situation, at least on its own benches. While Smith introduced the mechanism, it came into full fruition only with his successor, Tony Blair.
All-women shortlists became yet another means for the Labour apparat to parachute desired candidates into place, particularly in constituencies likely to select leftwingers. After the 1997 election, the Labour benches were replete with Blairite hacks, a good number of whom were women selected this way - the ‘Blair babes’, as the press nicknamed them.
This is one model for the artificial promotion of women in a political organisation. There are others - a more well-meaning example would be the 1970s ‘libertarian’ left, whose organisations often ended up contorting themselves in a Byzantine arrangement of caucuses. One such group was Big Flame, whose internal documents are peppered with debates on whether men’s caucuses should be set up alongside women’s, and so forth.
Of course, many of our readers may ask themselves, ‘Who the hell are Big Flame?’ The question is legitimate, inasmuch as that organisation completely petered out in the early 1980s. It turned out that the impeccably intentioned policy of permanent women’s caucuses, with a de facto veto over policy on women’s liberation, was not an especially effective way of recruiting from the women’s liberation movement, or indeed for obtaining any level of political consistency.
These two examples - Blairism and Big Flame-style new left libertarianism - represent two distinct approaches to specific oppressed groups. One (the shortlists) is a purely technical, apolitical exercise; the other is, in its intentions at least, an attempt to bypass some of the barriers to getting into the political meat of the matter (white/male privilege, etc). You could call them the two souls of tokenism. Both exert a compelling influence on sections of the contemporary left; but both are, in the last instance, politically paralysing and anti-democratic.
The Blair-type model of bureaucratic fixes is visible in the new Left Unity initiative, being pushed by Andrew Burgin, Kate Hudson and Ken Loach. The current Left Unity game plan is to build up local groups with a view to a national conference in the medium term. Before then, there is to be an initial national meeting on May 11, which will receive two delegates from each local group. The interesting point for the purposes of this discussion is the accompanying caveat - at least one of the delegates from each group must be a woman.
This stipulation is marked out as a descendant of Smith’s and Blair’s all-women shortlists - ie, a purely bureaucratic and technical measure - by two things. The first is that there is no political justification offered for it. I, and others in this paper, have been sharply critical of bourgeois and ‘socialist’ feminism in the last few weeks; but they remain serious perspectives, from which gender quotas and other organisational provisions may be legitimately derived. Yet this is transparently not the case with the Left Unity initiative, whose political basis is vague to the point of non-existence. The comrades’ naive valorisation of post-1945 Labourism does not imply such quotas, as any competent social historian of gender politics will attest; and nothing else has been forthcoming. This quota can thus only be an administrative measure.
The second reason is a little more obscure, but no less pertinent. Left Unity is not a formally constituted organisation. The question thus arises: who has imposed this quota? The answer seems to be some kind of steering committee, which presumably consists of a self-appointed clique, since there has not yet been any opportunity to elect leaders. This clique now sees fit to present demands to the local groups as to the composition of their delegation, despite the fact that the local groups are supposedly sovereign at this stage.
The political make-up of the core clique is hardly encouraging in this respect. Comrade Hudson is a veteran of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, and in particular ran the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament effectively as a stitch-up, through which the CPB and the ex-Trotskyist Socialist Action could angle for influence in the broader anti-war movement.
Comrade Burgin’s most recent political activities primarily consist in being a ‘safe pair of hands’ in the Stop the War Coalition and Coalition of Resistance - in the former role, he has acted to keep reactionary Islamist types happy at the expense of campaigns like Hands Off the People of Iran, and overseen STWC’s transformation into a sleepy lobbying group and 2003 nostalgia society; in the latter, he has acted to keep things at a level acceptable to ‘left’ union bureaucrats of the Len McCluskey stripe. As for Ken Loach, it is not clear that his involvement goes deeper than acting as a celebrity figurehead - which is itself an anti-democratic move.
In the absence of serious politics, then, we can expect that the net effect of the bureaucratic gender quota will be the promotion of people on average less politically experienced and more prone to manipulation by a bureaucratic clique - exactly the mode of politics that comes easiest to the likes of Burgin and Hudson.
Caucuses and vetoes
On the Big Flame end of the scale, meanwhile, there is the International Socialist Network, recently formed out of the Socialist Workers Party’s democratic opposition. Having unfortunately, if understandably, chosen to throw in the towel after the gerrymandered SWP special conference in March, the hundred or so ISN comrades have now had their first national meeting, and thus had to confront for the first time the matter of what kind of organisation they are to be.
The minutes1 of the April 13 meeting are detailed and not uninteresting. There are many positive outcomes - the comrades have resolved to support Paris Thompson’s proposals on organisational structure, for a democratic and accountable leadership from the off (the other proposal was for a more provisional, administrative body, to be replaced at a later date). Many comrades (who are unfortunately not named at all) have argued that the ISN should, rather than throw itself into hyper-activism, take time out for theoretical reflection. Some level of engagement with other groups on the existing left also seems to be on the cards (although the only groups named in the minutes - Socialist Resistance and the Anti-Capitalist Initiative - do not swell the heart with confidence).
There are also, however, less encouraging signs. That elected leadership is to have … a mandatory 50% quota of women. The day also saw a women’s caucus, which in addition to demanding the 50% quota on all committees, “intends to meet before every meeting, and will always report back … [and] does not intend just to focus on issues of women’s liberation, but be a body which helps to enable women to be active within the network, and encourage them to get involved in as wide a range of activity and theory as possible. It is also essential that issues of women’s liberation are not only discussed by the women’s caucus, but by the organisation as a whole.”
Finally, the caucus proposed that “the IS Network has a zero tolerance approach to sexism. If allegations of serious sexual violence or harassment are made, there must be instant suspension. In less serious cases the steering committee will follow advice from the women’s caucus. Complaints can be made either to the women’s caucus, which can then recommend action to the steering committee, or directly to the steering committee. The network will believe women when they make complaints of sexual or sexist violence and abuse. Those expelled by the SWP for sexism will not be allowed to join the network, as we are not in a position to reinvestigate” (emphasis added).
Taken together, this all adds up to a bit of a mess. Any serious socialist organisation should aspire to have a leadership whose composition, in terms of gender, ethnicity and so forth, adequately represents its membership; and a membership that accurately reflects the composition of the working class. Yet it is transparently the case that the far left as a whole is numerically male-dominated, which in fact reflects politics as a whole.
The ‘standard’ sexist story (shared, in inverted form, by certain trends in feminism) is that women are by nature less inclined to the adversarial practices of which politics is composed - politics, as we know, is war by other means, and war has long been stereotyped as male. This is obviously stupid; but there is something in the socialisation of gender which produces male dominance. A simple 50-50 quota, unless the ISN is radically different in its overall gender composition - especially if it is to apply to all bodies - leads, in the absence of a culture able to counteract the overall social tendency and develop women comrades into cadres, to corralling women into being makeweights on committees, regardless of their ability or willingness to lead, simply to meet the targets.
No better example exists, in fact, than the recent history of the SWP. The disputes committee verdict on comrade Delta’s alleged crimes was issued by a committee composed overwhelmingly of women. The only comrade to dissent from the judgment was the thoroughly male Pat Stack. The central committee that hounded the ISN comrades out of the SWP was just short of a 50-50 gender balance - after the resignation of Mark Bergfeld in February, there were five women to six men.
The ISN has taken the ‘women’s caucus’ approach to developing women comrades, so that such quotas are more than an empty gesture. Yet the status of its women’s caucus, on this evidence, remains pretty vague. The comrades’ agreed constitution states: “All members who self-identify in an oppressed group, have the right to organise as a caucus. Each caucus shall report to all national meetings and be represented on the committee.”2 It accords caucuses no more rights than that.
The ISN women’s caucus, meanwhile, stresses that its remit is not limited to ‘women’s issues’, and that the latter are not its private property. Yet it is not clear that the women’s question was discussed at the April 13 meeting at all, except in the context of the caucus’s report-back, and its suggestions were uniformly voted through, with no reports of dissenting voices. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than a de facto veto.
Those proposals are hardly unproblematic. The caucus has arrogated to itself certain disciplinary functions as regards sexist behaviour; worse still, it proposed to deny ISN membership to all expelled from the SWP for “sexism”, which in effect means ratifying the findings of innumerable SWP kangaroo courts of exactly the same type that provoked the ISN comrades to leave in the first place. “We are not in a position to reinvestigate,” they note, as if the SWP ‘investigated’ in any meaningful way in the first place.
What’s the use?
At the end of this road, as noted, lies complete paralysis. History furnishes us with examples. At the height of the liberation movements, for instance, comrades from the International Marxist Group arranged a gay liberation conference, which was to agree a statement. The conference was divided into a series of caucuses, all of which had a veto on the contents of the statement. The whole thing fell apart when the youth caucus insisted on vetoing anything that omitted the abolition of age-of-consent laws, and the lesbian mothers caucus vetoed anything that included the same demand.
Whether or not the ISN comrades travel all the way along this road remains to be seen; but, if they pull back, that will mean the women’s caucus submitting to the democratic will of an organisation composed of a majority of men; any black and ethnic minority or LGBT caucuses submitting to a majority white or cisgender heterosexual collective; and so on.
At this point, it is difficult to see what role an oppressed group caucus can actually play that is so important it needs to be constitutionally enshrined. It would be better to pose the matter more broadly - ie, there should be a right to horizontal communication among members and self-organisation within the parameters of party discipline, including factions and caucuses. The ISN is not at present an organisation with party discipline, which leads it to refuse to enshrine the rights of factions; but this, again, begs the question of what caucuses are for, if not to wield a veto.
There are no timeless recipes for socialist organisational norms; but there are fundamental principles: the right of the majority to impose discipline on the minority, the subordination of the part to the whole. These were principles deemed by Lenin and the Iskra-ites to be so significant that losing the participation of the Jewish Bund - a well-rooted mass organisation of Russian Jewish workers - in the embryonic Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was a small price to pay.
They were on to something. Politics is a mind-bogglingly complex field of activity, in which the correct way forward is hardly always immediately obvious, and controversy is inevitable. It is democracy which enables the members of a political organisation to accept as legitimate decisions with which they vehemently disagree - the sovereignty of the majority, with the possibility of minorities becoming the majority.
Caucuses of oppressed groups may, under defined historical circumstances, make the latter condition easier to fulfil; there should in any case be a right to form them. Viewing them as a virtue in themselves ends up, via a tortuous route, at the bureaucratic identity politics that so deforms leftwing thought and activity today.