There are a lot of things that could be said about the current SWP crisis, but it seems appropriate for the moment to return to the main issue, the trigger for the explosion. Because if we’re to remain human, the one thing we need to keep reminding ourselves of is that there’s a vulnerable young woman at the centre of the storm, and whatever other issues may be relevant, it’s outrage over how she was treated that is fuelling the rebellion.
The most important development is that Comrade W’s age has now become known. And this is important. It’s perhaps the most disturbing detail so far to emerge that she was 17 when her relationship with Delta began. That’s seventeen years old. At the time when the incidents (plural) of rape are alleged to have occurred, she was still only 19. Most people, possessed of a functioning sense of morality, will instantly see what was wrong here. But perhaps it’s worth explaining.
Actually, the transcript of the Disputes Committee session at conference does touch on this issue. Here is a cryptic comment from Candy Udwin:
We also however thought it was important to be clear that the disputes committee doesn’t exist to police moral, er, bourgeois morality, so we agreed that issues that weren’t relevant to us were whether the comrade was monogamous, whether they were having an affair, whether the age differences in their relationship, because as revolutionaries we didn’t consider that should be our remit to consider issues such as those.
The very fact that Candy feels the need to say that the age difference is of no importance actually demonstrates that it is terribly important. But for the hard of thinking, let’s go over it again.
Although we’re living in a feminist age where young women are supposed to have agency and autonomy and all that stuff, the fact remains that a 17-year-old is in many ways still a child. Kids that age are very often naïve and impressionable, and, despite the age of consent being 16, the likelihood of a 17-year-old being emotionally equipped to make responsible decisions about sex is not great. It’s by no means uncommon for a girl of that age to embark on a relationship and then, two or three years later, think, “Hold on, I’ve been going to bed with this guy and I really didn’t want to.” That’s why, if we assume it’s inevitable that teenagers are going to make mistakes, it’s better they make mistakes with other teenagers. Teenage boys can be rough enough without throwing adults with a jailbait fetish into the mix.
There’s also a good reason why, although the age of consent in mainland Britain stands at 16, as per the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 it’s 18 in cases involving particular categories of responsible adult, notably teachers. It’s because power relationships come into play as well. A teenage girl is less likely than, say, a woman in her thirties to be able to tell a man to fuck off, particularly if that man is in a position of authority over her.
Students know this instinctively. That’s why SWSS is almost entirely in opposition to the party leadership. It could easily have been one of them; no, in fact, it was one of them. I also have a sneaking suspicion, though this may be just cynicism talking, that this was a factor in Comrade W not being allowed to speak to conference. Enough delegates were stunned by the DC report as it was, so much so that over a fifth of delegates didn’t even register a vote in that session; how much greater would the shock have been if they’d been able to see for themselves how young she was?
The most important thing right now, before any factionalism comes into play, is that Comrade W is getting all the emotional and practical support she needs – the support that she thought she could count on from the party leadership. Any attempt to guilt-trip her, to suggest that the party is collapsing and it’s all her fault, would be unconscionable. In fact the crisis is the fault of the apparatchiks who treated her appallingly.
Now, there is a further aspect to this. Let’s leave aside for the moment the absurdity of the Disputes Committee acting as if it’s a revolutionary court in Cuba, or the pretence that the SWP’s internal tribunals are inherently superior to a proper legal process. It makes more sense to view the party’s disciplinary procedures as analogous to those of a professional body – say, those tribunals that exist to strike off dodgy doctors or lawyers – and the corollary of that, which I think only Pat Stack grasped on the DC, is that it makes sense to apply a civil rather than a criminal standard. That is, determining that something is probable rather than that it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.
So, even if the DC feels it can’t establish rape – which, as we’ve discussed, is a crime even the state’s criminal justice system finds difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt – that shouldn’t close the case. The proper thing for the DC to adjudicate is whether or not a party member has behaved in a way that would bring the party into disrepute. And common sense dictates that party leaders should be held to a higher standard than the rank and file, though in the SWP it often seems like it’s the other way around.
We therefore have not only the question of whether sexual behaviour was consensual – we also have the question, rather easier to answer, of whether it was appropriate, and this should take into account the prestige surrounding the leadership in an extremely hierarchical and status-conscious organisation. To my mind, a party leader treating the party as his personal harem is just as inappropriate as a party treasurer embezzling the funds. For a party leader pushing fifty – and not a well-preserved fifty either – to be conducting a sexual relationship with a teenage girl in the ranks is not appropriate for a party leader. Given the extreme age gap and the power relations involved, it’s definitely sleazy and it certainly seems predatory. Even on the most benign interpretation, we’re talking about a Monica Lewinsky scenario here. And let’s not forget that Monica Lewinsky, whose only crime was to be young, silly and infatuated, ended up being smeared by the Clinton people as a stalker and fantasist, and cold-shouldered by feminists who thought that defending the Clinton administration trumped all other considerations.
This shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp. There are lots of teachers in the SWP. They know that conducting a sexual relationship with a student could cost them their jobs and lead to them being blacklisted from the profession, and they know why these rules are in place. They also know that if you are unable to resist the temptation to try it on with the students, you should be in another profession entirely.
Nor should we forget the allegation of sexual harassment brought by Comrade X, another young woman, against Delta. For raising these concerns, she was effectively demoted. Any trade union rep – of whom there are many in the party – knows you don’t deal with a harassment claim by punishing the complainant. In fact, most businesses, public sector bodies and unions have well-developed harassment policies. It seems to be only the revolutionary left that maintains a 1970s office culture that would make Gene Hunt blush. And experienced comrades will know that this culture goes well beyond what has been made public so far.
Considering the range of knowledge of these issues in the SWP ranks – and frankly, if this sort of thing was going on in a capitalist company, SWP stewards would be calling the workers out on strike until it was sorted out – it really is extraordinary that the CC is willing to drive the party onto the rocks to protect one man who has comprehensively revealed himself to be a sleazy old pervert. The question of why the CC is protecting Delta is a fascinating subject in itself that will require further examination. But it’s thoroughly depressing that so many party members are willing to go along with this.
Scrolling down the List of Shame and checking off those signatories who are familiar to me, there are a lot of people in their forties and fifties on that list – actually, that’s the majority age profile. There’s a very simple question that can and should be posed to them: “Would you let your daughter join the SWP?”