First Gerry Healy, then Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway and now Martin Smith. Why are so many men who obtain leadership positions within socialist organisations so ignorant of women’s rights that they sexually abuse women, excuse sexual violence and participate in sexual exploitation?
Most readers of this blog will be too young to remember the scandal that was the Workers Revolutionary Party. Led by Gerry Healy – a celebrated international trotskyist, it imploded in 1985 after Aileen Jennings, Healy’s longtime secretary, sent a letter to the Political Committee of the party claiming that the Party’s headquarters and Healy’s nearby residence were being used for “opportunistic sexual liaisons . Or in less delicate language, that Healy was systematically raping female members of the party, using a combination of intimidation and outright threats of violence to ensure their silence. Twenty six women came forward to state that they had been raped by Healy, one beaten so badly that she was left disabled. The WRP imploded.
More recently, the Scottish Socialist Party collapsed after it came to light that its poster boy, Tommy Sheridan, had been visiting sex clubs. A doomed attempt by Sheridan to sue the News of the World failed after the majority of the leadership refused to lie under oath as he attempted to cover up his dodgy sexual dealings by appeal to a bourgeois narrative of a “committed family man”. A successful defamation action was quickly followed by a perjury trial and further stories of his involvement with shadowy gangland figures involved in the sex industry followed. Although the leadership distanced itself from Sheridan, the damage was done.
Last year, George Galloway publicly stated that under some circumstances, rape was merely bad manners. When Selma Yacoob distanced herself from this, Galloway went on the offensive and within the month, the only left-wing party to be headed up by a woman had lost its leader as party members made her position untenable preferring to back a celebrity misogynist to a prominent Black woman.
And now Martin Smith. Rumours of sexual abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence being covered up within the SWP have circulated for years. And several of them pointed directly at the National Secretary, Martin Smith. The splits which lead to both Counterfire and the International Socialist Group were in no small part prompted by the cover-up of these allegations and a refusal on the part of the leadership to properly investigate them. Yet neither explicitly mentioned them in their statements on why they were forming a new organisation. The genie is however now out of the bottle. The recent SWP conference saw two declared factions and rumours of a third emerge as people close to the SWP spoke of* a signed statement circulated from women in the party confirming that Martin Smith was indeed a sexual predator The most prominent signatory on that list has now been edged out, as the SWP moves to try to contain the damage.
The question must be asked.
Why do misogynists rise to such positions of prominence on the left?
Firstly, there is simply the issue that lots of men are misogynist cunts. Its really not that uncommon. Consequently it is unsurprising that a number of them find their way to left-wing organisations. We should not be taken aback that at least some of them emerge within left wing organisations, we should expect it. From rape culture to raunch culture, misogyny is everywhere. One in twenty men have raped at least one person, each one committing an average of six rapes. And consequently we should look at ways that we can limit the opportunities for misogyny, and in particular sexual violence, to manifest within our organisations.
Where men hold power within an organisation, power can be conferred to women through engaging in sexual relationships with them. When a prominent activist starts a relationship with a lesser known female activist, responsibilities and political favours can flow as a consequence. This leads to a consolidation of power, whereby indirect control is exercised over areas of work through the relationship, situating her activism within his own power base. This can be used as a lever to continue a relationship that woman wishes to leave. The end of the relationship mean the end of the female activist’s prominence as their former lover seeks to marginalise them within the organisation, while resentment at the perceived or real favours which have been granted lead people to overlook their political work.
Within such an environment, the lovers of senior male members become promoted as the womens representatives of the organisation. Any suggestion of male domination is countered by pointing to such female activists. Yet the access that senior male party member have to their time through their relationship can be utilised to ensure that they do not challenge that male domination. Personal and political loyalties become entwined, and with both it is always the men who hold the upper hand.
Men – as a group – gain power from other men’s sexual violence. Women are trained to fear sexual violence, consequently are less likely to participate in late night meetings, leaving to get public transport for safety reasons rather than walk home. Despite men also being victims, they do not systematically fear that violence in the same way. So meeting, or corresponding, with a male political acquaintance does not have the same implications for a man as it does for a woman. Men can arrange meetings in environments hostile to women, then shrug when no women turn up. Women self-police their behaviour to avoid any implication of “leading someone on” or “giving someone the wrong impression”, systematically limiting their involvement in organisations where much of the power is held by men.
The backlash that women face when alleging sexual violence is a further factor. An attitude of “police or it didn’t happen“, silences women within an environment where the police are recognised as a force of state control with an appalling record on handling rape cases, particularly where the perpetrator is known to the victim. Most women who experience sexual violence do not go to the police – for very good reasons – yet whatever decision is made, it is likely to be the woman who loses. Only approximately 5% of rape allegations ever result in conviction. To go to the police with an allegation against a prominent member of a left wing party brings in accusations of “grassing” and with a 95% chance of no conviction resulting, the ongoing narrative is likely to be one of exoneration of the perpetrator and demonisation of the victim – making subsequent victims less likely to come forward.
Yet attempts to manage sexual violence within the organisation do not have a good track record, particularly where the perpetrator holds a position of power. To take action against a perpetrator while maintaining the desired level of confidentiality for the victim is to navigate a minefield of allegations of faction-fighting and power struggles. Some of these are not unfounded as power hungry men within political parties seek to capitalise on the wrong doings of prominent members to advance their own position. Loyalty to those who already hold power is rewarded as cover-ups ensue, while other men seek to use the power vaccuum which emerges in the event of a sexual scandal to build a power base. And quite often the fundamental issue that women are being systematically excluded and denied collective power because of male sexual violence gets lost.
Within such organisations, where male power is not challenged, women are used as pawns, and sexual violence goes unremarked, misogynists will find their behaviour glossed over and covered up – leading to the incredible arrogance that they are not only above their female counterparts but above the law itself. They rely on their identification with the organisation and the damage that such revelations would do to the party as a whole to keep allegations at bay, while corroboration with other abusers and misogynists fearful of similar exposure conspire to continue the male domination.
For Saville as with Smith, this silence cannot be endured any longer. Where previously women were isolated, facing a monolith of consolidated power, there are now far more opportunities for women to speak with other women about their experiences of misogyny and violence and to actively and effectively challenge it.
The left is the home of feminism and it is time that we started kicking the misogynists out the door.
Edited 9/1/13 – to clarify that the information signed statement regarding Martin Smith was based on discussions from outwith the conference.