The age gap, and why it matters

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?”


Filed under Left Politics

29 responses to “The age gap, and why it matters

  1. ruth

    i agree that the age gap is important, but I seek clarification on one point. When I read Anna Chen’s post I thought it meant that, while she was 17 when they met, she was 19 when the alleged incidents occurred. If this is correct and if it is correct, as I read elsewhere that they took place during an affair that lasted 6 months, it therefore follows that she could not have been 17 when her sexual relationship with X began .She must have just known him on a platonic basis before. I am not saying that it is ok for a man in his late 40s to have an affair with a girl of 19, quite the contrary, but I think most people will agree that it is much less bad than having an affair with a 17 year old.

  2. harpymarx

    Good piece comrade! There’s a general comment to be made about the revolutionary left, I was part of this political milieu, from the age of 16… but at the same time didn’t feel confident, and as intelligent or equal to the men who were much older and had more power than me (and usually part of the leadership). And there was always this so-called “right on” attitude towards sex, which in itself is coercive and puts you under pressure. I do see a comparison between religious sects and revolutionary organisations such as the male leaders who want to screw as many young women because of their powerful position. It’s not liberation! Many see the group as their own personal harem. My own personal regret is that I got involved in the revolutionary left at such a young age.

  3. CW

    as a point of clarification, i was of the understanding that all of the alleged incidents took place when the complainant was 17 – but that the charge changed between age 17-19. whilst she was still 17 ‘Delta’ was removed from his position on the CC and bumped to a full time position in UAF. the allegations resurfaced after she questioned that process and the substance of the allegation also changed. Delta was no longer having a relationship with her of any kind age 19.

  4. i was of the understanding that all of the alleged incidents took place when the complainant was 17

    Oh dear Christ (a father of a 17-year-old writes).

    Can anyone confirm or preferably deny?

  5. Li

    Would you let your son join?

    • If a middle-aged party leader – be it a woman or a gay man – was in the habit of pursuing teenage boys in the branches, I think the same considerations would apply.

      • I was thinking more along the lines of teenage boys being conditioned into believing that power can be achieved through loyalty toleadership,
        and disregard for moral obligations to others. Being encouraged to be secretive.. and to believe they are above the law. What sort of people will now be interested in joining the SWP after the recent revelations?

  6. Mr Spartypants

    it gets creepier. one comrade (a teacher) at conference got up and proudly stated that she’d got her 15 year old daughter to sign the statement defending the dc. and the same 15 year-old has joined the cc 500.

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  8. Yes, you picked up on something important there.

    When the DC made the statement that age and relationship status were unimportant to their considerations, that belies a whole level of disregarding.

    When a younger woman sleeps with an older man – she is generally labelled a “gold-digger” or something of that ilk, as a recognition that young women tend to have less financial means, and older men more – which allows older men to get away with using their financial wealth to entrap vulnerable girls and then turn around the exploitative relationship, and paint themself as the victim when things go wrong. In this case it wasn’t money, but power, and I have no doubt that there would have been rumblings of “special privilages” that W was receiving.

    When a man in an established relationship has an affair, the mistress is generally referred to as a “home-wrecker”, as a recognition that affairs can frequently disrupt the harmony of the established relationship, which allows partnered men to get away with using their partnered status as an excuse to be emotionally abusive to their mistress, and then paint themself as the victim of a temptress when things go wrong. And I have no doubt that in some circles she was contrasted with the stoic wifely counterpart

    The “gold-digger” and the “homewrecker” narrative of young women who have affairs with older partnered men, by disregarding the age and relationship status of Martin Smith, the DC subtly gives nod to this “common sense” – *that* is the bourgoise morality of which they talk. They are not willing to outright address these, but leave them hanging “We are not going to speak of bourgoise morality (but we know that youse are infected with it, so come to your own conclusions about the power-digging, homewrecking liar).

    By taking a “morality-neutral” stance, they support the status quo, They do not examine how bullshit bourgoise morality is, they merely set themselves up as not endorsing it and pretend that they are radical by doing so.

    But they know damn fine that this is an issue, because in an allegation of rape, its not the relationship that is under question, but the consent to sexual intercourse. They knew the relationship was dodgy, they knew that there were unseen power structures working, they knew of the exploitation….

    I have to disagree with you on this tho

    “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.”

    Nope – fuck the party and its “reputation”.

    The proper thing to do would be to decide whether there was a risk to W or any other party members from Martin Smith and take appropriate action to mitigate that risk, including – at the very least – immediately making it widely known that there had been one complaint of rape and one complaint of sexual harrassment made about Smith and allowing other members to take whatever precautions they felt necessary to ensure their personal safety around him.

  9. Sweet Jesus, I didn’t realize how young she was. It just gets worse and worse, more and more disgusting

  10. Enfield Red

    Quite how this comrade is a f**king mind-reader and knows the emotions and thoughts of the accuser is beyond me. If I had told my female friends and relatives when I was 19 to refrain from sex with older men, they would have told me to get a life. I have a son not a daughter and do not have the direct experience of lecturing teenage girls about older men. As far as I am concerned whatever is my personal emotional response to sexual acts of adults should remain my own business. If adults choose to do butt sex, BDSM, sex roleplay or do age gap relationships, it is their own affair. I know this is not the standard hypocritical attitude of bourgeois prudery but then again Russian bourgeois society was also driven to a high pitch of indignation when it became clear (half truths, innuendo and outright lies) that the Bolsheviks were in the pay of Germany. That St. Bartholemew’s day tidal wave of disgust towards Lenin’s party was orchestrated by the spooks in the Russian Interior Ministry. The political forces that launched this hue and cry are located in the Bakuninite trend within your SWP. Wotcha gonna do wit UR traitors?

    • Thank you for that outstanding bit of whataboutery. May I take it that you think it’s acceptable for leaders of a socialist organisation to behave in a predatory manner towards young recruits? Or is it only Bakuninite traitors and state agents that might have a problem with this?

  11. Enfield Red

    Let ur sovereign decide…………sovereign body is the delegate conference? No? So young adults above 16 yrs old can not choose to date who they want. Is your tweed jacket amateur therapists’ cttee going to direct their personal lives. R u in SWP?
    you sound like a paternalistic prat with an ax to grind.
    Sorry goon boy but the youth did stop listening to their parents back in the 60’s and any attempts by you to put some more dead bolts on the front door are woeful. I am against abuse, but for freedom. You are for sexual repression and internet slander.

  12. better title would have been.. ‘Would you be happy if your son, or daughter joined the SWP.’ My answer would be, No. Reason? Because a mature man in a position of power has been accused of raping a teenager. And this mans friends all aquitted him in their own version of Law and Order.
    The issue with age? Everyone has thier own opinion, some would say….’Get in, nice one mate.’ (They are the type most likely to join SWP after these revelations.) Some would see the man as more of a monster (American Beauty). I am surprised because I thought that it was universally accepted that rape is wrong, and should be heard by the courts and the people. A jury.
    All I see is self interest and a body of brainwashed historians that need the SWP more than I need a fag. I’ve given up. I don’t smoke anymore.


  14. Red Snapper

    Can someone tell me exactly what is an “acceptable age gap”?
    Not an empty question for two reasons.
    Firstly, I would like to know for future reference, so that if I was dating a younger woman or man, what was the chances of me being ridiculed by this blog and its supporters for having an age gap that you find wrong?
    Secondly, and more importantly, what do we tell the students? We must let them know that we take a dim view them of having unacceptable relationships with older men or women. A 20 year old female SWP member might think it perfectly acceptable to have sex with a 45 year old (non SWP) man but what do you think? And if that woman was to tell you to go and having a flying one saying her sex life has nothing to do with you, and that she finds you prying into her personal life creepy and salacious, what would you do?
    So, how old is acceptable, exactly?

    • Surely the abuse of power is relevant here, is it not?

    • When a middle-aged man in a position of power has been accused of raping a 17-year-old girl, and when the overwhelming reaction of student affiliates has been to demand that the case is reopened, I think it takes a certain amount of brass neck to start bleating about people imposing arbitrary standards of acceptability on the liberated yoof. I think that ship’s sailed.

      But yeah, sure, whatever. Bourgeois morality innit. If a 45-year-old man wants to get his end away with a 20-year-old student, who’s to tell him… oops, sorry… who’s to tell the student she’s wrong?

      (For a rule of thumb, I think “half your age plus 7” works pretty well. I know I find that anyone much younger than that looks, well, like a kid.)

  15. It seems to me that some of you think that as long as one decides for themselves that they can do what they want with their private lives then that is their business, and by extension that this absolves any older adults of any responsibility in the matter. Haven’t I as a 47 yr old some responsibility towards a 17 teen year old irrespective of what that 17 teen year old feels or thinks they feel. It has nothing to do with “bourgeois morality”. I suppose Red Snapper that if a 17 year old decides that she can have sex with her entire family, extended family, friends and neighbours etc then that is perfectly fine, or do you not think that there may be some line that needs to be drawn. Then where is that line might I ask? Personally I believe that the line exists somewhere between a cultural and a personal acknowledgment of social responsibility towards others. If you can’t define that line for yourself or if you can’t see a necessity for that line then I think that psychologically speaking, we have an issue.

  16. You wrote at the end of your post, ‘There’s a very simple question that can and should be posed to them: “Would you let your daughter join the SWP?”’ – which pretty much invited some of the objections to the whole post in the responses.
    I have twin daughters now aged 31. When they were 17 the amount of attention they paid to my fatherly advice on their sexual, political, etc, choices was exactly zero. I will not say “and so it should be” but the reality is certainly “that’s how it is”.
    On the other hand, I have now been teaching in HE for 30 years and have seen – in passing and at a distance – a good deal of crap arising from academics having sexual relationships with students: pretty much invariably a bad idea, and not (primarily) because of age gaps but because of authority gaps: recent graduates could have problems too. ‘The History Man’ was not just a rightist fantasy.
    It’s the authority gap, not the age gap, which makes the ‘Delta’ case disturbing even apart from the allegation of rape. But the authority gap is itself the product of what the LCR leadership in 2003 called the SWP’s “verticalist” concept of organisation.

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