Combating violence against women: A socialist perspective on fighting women’s oppression
Hannah Sell, on behalf of the Socialist Party Executive Committee
A statement, ‘Our movement must be a safe place for women’, by two UNISON activists, Marsha-Jane Thompson and Cath Elliot, has been posted online and has received the support of trade union activists, including leading figures.
This is no surprise. The statement outlines a number of general points that all good trade union activists should support.
It makes it clear that male violence against women is never acceptable. And it argues that the trade union and labour movement has a particular responsibility to confront and challenge male violence against women within our movement.
The Socialist Party supports these and other points in the resolution, but, as we will go on to explain, we are not in favour of trade unionists signing this statement as it stands.
The positive aspects of the statement are combined with political proposals which will be used a means to attack the left.
This statement has been written against the background of a heightened mood in society against the violence, threats of violence and sexual harassment that women in particular frequently face in capitalist society.
The Savile paedophilia scandal, followed by various other revelations, has led to a generalised outpouring of anger on these issues.
A whole number of people have come forward to talk about the abuse they have faced during their lives, sometimes as children.
This is positive and is likely to have beneficial consequences, making victims of sexual violence more likely to speak out and demand justice in the future.
However, the deep-rooted anger at the Savile scandal is not just due to the terrible behaviour of individuals, but has been caused by the systematic cover up of that behaviour by different capitalist institutions over a period of decades.
All the attempts of individuals, including individual police officers, to take action against Savile were blocked because he was an ‘important’ person close to the Royal family and Margaret Thatcher.
Like the MPs’ expenses scandal, this has further fuelled the feeling that the rich and powerful can get away with anything, while the majority are used and abused.
In the weeks and months following the Savile scandal there has been an attempt by the representatives of capitalism to divert this mood into concentrating on dealing with individual predators like Savile, while arguing that they are rare aberrations.
Unfortunately, while the scale of Savile’s abuse may have been exceptional, it reflects a deep-rooted problem in capitalist society.
One UK study, by Child & Women Abuse Studies, estimated that one in twenty women and one in fifty men have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Capitalist commentators have had no choice but to recognise the all-pervasive character of sexual harassment of women at the time when Savile’s abuse began.
However, it has been suggested that this is a historical problem, no longer relevant today. The facts, and women’s experience, do not bear this out.
An estimated one in four women experience domestic violence in the course of their lives, while one in five suffer sexual assault.
Women’s growing confidence to speak out against abuse is positive, but by diverting attention away from the role of capitalist institutions to solely identifying individual perpetrators, the capitalists have created a negative aspect to the post-Savile mood.
As the false accusation of the Tory Lord McAlpine illustrated, this febrile atmosphere will also inevitably lead to witch-hunts with cases of mistaken identity and false accusations lumped together with those that are guilty of sexual crimes.
As events have already demonstrated, the capitalist class can attempt to use this as a means to witch-hunt the left.
The role of the workers’ movement
The workers’ movement is not exempt from general processes in society. As we will go on to explain, the statement, ‘Our movement must be a safe place for women’, correctly reflects the positive aspects of the current mood, but it also is in danger of reflecting its negative aspects.
If this is not corrected, regardless of the authors’ intentions, the statement can be used as a tool by the right-wing of the trade union movement, to try and deflect attention from their own failure to effectively oppose capitalist austerity and to fight for a socialist alternative to this rotten exploitative system which condemns women to second-class status.
For socialists the approach workers’ organisations take to issues relating to sexism is not secondary, but is, in a sense, the most important aspect of the struggle against sexual oppression, because the working class is the agent capable of overthrowing capitalism and thereby opening the door to building a society with real equality for all, including between the sexes.
In arguing that the working class is the only force capable of fundamentally changing society, we are not in any way blind to the prejudices, including racism, sexism and homophobia, which are widespread among all classes including the working class, and which we have a proud record of combating.
The oppression which women experience today has not always existed but is rooted in the rise of societies based on private property and divided into classes.
Male dominance, both in its origin and in its current form, is intrinsically linked to the structures and inequalities of class society.
The struggle for women’s liberation is at root therefore part of the class struggle, in which the struggles by women against their own specific oppression dovetail with those of the working class in general for a fundamental restructuring of society to end all inequality and oppression.
We disagree with bourgeois and petit-bourgeois feminism because it does not take a class approach to the struggle for women’s liberation.
To put it simply, working-class women have more in common with working-class men than they do with Margaret Thatcher or Teresa May.
This does not of course mean that only working class women are oppressed. Women from all sections of society suffer oppression as a result of their sex, including domestic violence and sexual harassment.
However, at root, to win real sexual equality for women, including women from the elite of society, a complete overturn of the existing order is necessary in every sphere: economic, social, family and domestic.
The necessary starting point for such an overturn is ending capitalism and bringing the major companies into public ownership in order to allow the development of a democratic socialist plan of production.
Working class women are ‘doubly-oppressed’, both for their class and gender, notwithstanding the claims of the ‘post-feminists’ that women’s equality is imminent.
Without doubt gains have been made, partly driven by workers’ struggles such as the Ford strike for equal pay immortalised in ‘Made in Dagenham’.
However, the right-wing trade union leaders failed to follow through on this and other heroic struggles, leaving change primarily at a legal level.
Legal change – formal equality – is of course welcome, but it requires far more deep-seated changes to win real equality.
The Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, explained how the revolution of 1917 was immediately able to give women political and legal equality but that actual equality in social relations required a far more “deep-going plough” capable of firstly providing real economic equality and lifting the domestic burden from women, and secondly transforming social attitudes ingrained over millennia.
The degeneration of the young Russian workers’ state, as a result of its poverty and isolation, meant that real equality was never achieved.
Nonetheless, the legal changes made were many decades ahead of the capitalist countries and included suffrage, civil marriage and divorce when requested by either partner, equal pay, paid maternity leave and the legalisation of homosexuality.
In addition the free childcare, communal restaurants and public laundries, while never fully implemented, gave a glimpse of how the domestic burden could be lifted.
The steps to legal equality won in Britain and other economically-advanced capitalist countries, more than half a century after the Russian revolution, have not led to economic or social equality for the majority of women.
In 2011 the World Bank reported that women globally still earn 10 – 30% less than men, and the gap is no smaller in richer countries than in poor ones.
Progress, they conclude, is “glacial” because of the “multiple barriers that exist.” The capitalist crisis and government austerity is now reversing many gains previously made.
It is only a narrow stratum of women that have enjoyed significant improvements. A recent survey by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) declared that feminism has ‘failed working class women’ in Britain (Independent 31 March, 2013).
The survey describes the “decoy” effect of a tiny minority of high-achieving, high-profile women who give the impression that the “glass ceiling” has been shattered.
For the majority of women, however, the story the IPPR gives is very different. Professional women earn 198% more than unskilled women, compared to a much smaller gap of 45% between professional and unskilled men.
Women today make up a majority of the workforce. One Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report pointed out that 78% of the growth in the wealth of low and middle-income families from 1968 to 2011 came from women, largely as a result of the far greater numbers of them that now work.
Today most families can only make ends meet if both parents earn a wage. Increased participation in the workforce is the biggest factor in women’s increased confidence and unwillingness to accept sexual discrimination.
Nonetheless, despite improvements, women in general still shoulder the majority of the burden of domestic chores and caring for children.
Upper class, and to some extent middle class, families can largely avoid this by paying for usually female domestic help, but working class families, mainly women, have to carry the whole burden themselves.
Some feminists argue that individual men are the main beneficiaries of the uneven division of labour between the sexes, but while many men may get a few more hours leisure time, this is nothing in comparison with the enormous economic benefits for the capitalist class.
The current government’s savage public sector cuts aim to increase the capitalists’ profits, partly by putting more of the burden of caring for society onto women.
It is not a coincidence that support for the Tories is dramatically lower among women compared to men, a reversal of the historic position.
One recent opinion poll showed Labour having a seven-point overall lead over the Tories, but a 26-point lead among women.
However, women will be very disappointed by a future Labour government, which has not committed to reversing a single Con-Dem cut, including the 31% cut in domestic violence services that have already taken place.
Violence against women
One in four women in Britain will suffer domestic violence in the course of their lives. Violence against women exists across every class, and flows from the deeply ingrained idea that women ‘belong’ to men, that women need to be loyal and obedient to their partners, and that men have the right to use violence and coercion to try and enforce this.
These ideas have been embedded in society over centuries. It was only in 1991 that marital rape was made illegal in Britain.
The Socialist Party (previously Militant Labour) has always campaigned for the trade union movement to take a clear, principled stand on these issues.
We launched the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) in the early 1990s, which campaigned for domestic violence to be considered a trade union and workplace issue.
This position was not generally accepted at that time. Unfortunately, even some on the left, including the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), initially reacted by arguing that raising male violence against women in the trade unions was divisive.
This flowed from their mistaken theoretical position on how the workers’ movement should deal with women’s oppression.
In his book ‘Class struggle & Women’s Liberation’ Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP, argued that the women’s liberation movement was wrong to focus “consistently on areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the important struggles in which women are more likely to win the support of men: strikes, opposition to welfare cuts, equal pay, unionisation, abortion”.
We countered this narrow approach. Of course it is vital for the workers’ movement to take up economic issues such as opposition to welfare cuts and equal pay.
In fact these issues are also central to a campaign against domestic violence. CADV campaigned, as the Socialist Party does today, in opposition to all cuts in sexual and domestic violence services, for a huge expansion in the number of women’s refuges, and for a mass council house building programme in order to make it possible for women to leave violent partners.
But we fight for the maximum unity of the working class, not by trying to brush issues relating to the specific oppression of women under the carpet, but by campaigning to convince the whole workers’ movement it is necessary to take these issues seriously.
CADV played a vital role in convincing every major trade union in Britain to adopt a national policy against domestic violence.
This demonstrates, contrary to Cliff’s views, that the big majority of working class men can be won to a position of opposition to domestic violence.
Of course, the passing of good policy, and even effective campaigning, cannot eliminate violence against women within the labour movement.
As long as capitalism exists every organisation, even those like the Socialist Party that are fighting for capitalism to be overthrown, cannot fail to be affected by the sexism in society.
The organisations of the working class therefore have a duty to take up incidents of sexual assault and harassment whenever they occur within the labour movement.
‘Our movement must be a safe place for women’
Unfortunately, we do not think that the ‘Our movement must be a safe place for women’ statement as it stands will take the struggle to prevent violence against women forward, whatever the good intentions of the authors.
On the contrary, although its movers stand on the left of UNISON this motion is likely to be taken up by the right in an attempt to divert attention from the central issues facing UNISON members.
It is not insignificant that Heather Wakefield, head of UNISON local government, has signed it, one of those responsible for accepting a major assault on women UNISON members’ pension rights, including accepting that UNISON members in the future will have to work until they are 68 or even older. This will have a particular impact on women.
The dangers were demonstrated at this year’s UNISON women’s conference. A motion written by one of the authors, Cath Elliott, arguing for a ‘no platform’ position for ‘rape deniers’, was overwhelmingly backed by the women’s conference, including the right wing.
The author had originally written the resolution in response to George Galloway’s offensive comments on rape, but had then also used the conference speech to attack the SWP for their handling of an allegation of rape against a leading member.
As the author of the resolution explained, she was moving the motion “in solidarity with NUS [National Union of Students]” after they had passed a motion “denying [George Galloway] a platform at future NUS events”.
Unfortunately, this was bringing the worst aspects of the student movement into the trade unions. The phrase ‘no platform’ originates in the student movement, during the battle against the neo-fascist National Front in Britain in the 1970s.
It is correct to argue that fascist organisations should not be allowed to organise without opposition by the labour movement because they aim to destroy all the elements of democracy that exist under capitalism – the right to vote, to join a trade union, to strike and so on.
However, in practise, even with fascists it is a tactical issue, not a principle, whether or not you debate with them.
We argue against neo-fascist grouplets like the BNP being invited, for example onto Question Time, but for trade unionists to refuse to debate with them when they have been is self-defeating.
In the student movement, but up until now not in the trade union movement, the idea of ‘no-platforming’ was also applied to non-fascists – including those putting forward racist and sexist ideas.
It was never viable to implement this policy seriously, it would have meant ‘no platforming’ representatives of mass political parties including the Tory Party.
Nor is such a policy an effective means to counter racism and sexism. It is far better to defeat such ideas in debate than to attempt to ‘ban’ them.
Moreover, in practise the policy has been repeatedly used by leaders of NUS to avoid debate on serious issues.
This was the case at this year’s NUS conference. Outrageously Labour Students voted against support for restoration of EMA for FE students, whilst at the same time trying to whip up opposition to the left by organising walk-outs against the SWP.
Unfortunately, the SWP have not always been above these kinds of undemocratic methods themselves, including shouting down political opponents and excluding them from platforms.
The potential for the UNISON leadership to behave similarly to Labour Students using the resolution passed at UNISON women’s conference is clear.
The resolution explicitly agrees: “To liaise with the NEC, Labour Link, and other UNISON bodies to try and ensure that UNISON never offers a platform to any speakers who are rape deniers, and who blame and undermine rape victims, and that it never officially supports any event that does.” Labour Link were called on to act against ‘rape deniers’ yet Labour in government invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting, as in all wars, in the rape of thousands of women.
Today Labour councils are carrying out savage cuts in domestic violence and rape support services – surely this is, at the very least, ‘undermining’ rape victims?
Yet it was clear from the speeches at the women’s conference that is was specifically Galloway and the SWP who were to be denied a platform.
It is correct, as we do, to argue against mistaken ideas put forward by Galloway or the SWP, but to ‘no platform’ them means to take away their right to speak on all issues, and is a gift to the right wing leadership of the union to potentially prevent hundreds of left activists taking part in the union’s democratic debates.
After all UNISON’s leadership have a clear record on this, in the way they tried and failed to use false accusations of racism to witch-hunt the Socialist Party UNISON Four.
The leadership of UNISON was prepared to spend over £100,000 of members’ money and spend five and a half years, longer than the First World War, unsuccessfully pursuing a false charge of racism against left activists, who in fact had a long history of fighting racism.
That is not to imply the authors of the motion have the same motives, both of whom have opposed the witch-hunt.
Nonetheless, it is likely that the UNISON leadership will use this new statement, ‘Our movement must be a safe place for women’, in a similar way at the national UNISON conference.
If we agreed with the wording of the new statement, we would support it regardless of how the right wing might attempt to use it.
However, in saying “We therefore believe that, when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade unions and political organisations should start from a position of believing women” the statement bends the stick too far, effectively arguing that the workers’ movement begins by concluding the man is guilty, regardless of the evidence, or lack of it.
Instead the statement should say that trade unions and political organisations should start from a position of taking all claims of violence made by women very seriously, and carrying out a thorough investigation, in a way that is sympathetic to the woman making the accusation.
We understand the reasons that the statement is put in the terms it is. Millions of women hesitate to come forward and complain about violence against them because of pressure not to do so, and an unfortunately often justified fear that they will not be believed.
It is estimated that only 15% of rapes are reported to the police. And of those only 7% result in conviction – much lower than the average for crime in general.
It is therefore vital that the labour movement makes it clear that it will take all accusations of violence against women seriously.
Nonetheless, we can’t start from the premise that all aspects of a woman’s allegation are automatically right.
Some feminists argue that false accusations of male violence against women never take place, or are so infrequent that they can be discounted.
There is no doubt that the oppression of women under capitalism is reflected in an ingrained tendency by capitalist institutions to dismiss women’s claims.
It is much, much more common for women to not report incidents of violence against them than it is for false accusations to be made.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recently published a survey looking at data on false accusation over seventeen months in 2011 and 2012.
In the period of the survey there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence in England and Wales.
By comparison, over the same timespan, there were only 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape, six for false allegations of domestic violence and three that involved false allegations of both rape and domestic violence.
These figures are limited to prosecutions rather than including the larger number of allegations which do not result in any prosecution, but they give some indication of how rare false accusations are.
Nonetheless, they also indicate false accusations do happen, for any number of reasons.
Dealing with false allegations can be a difficult problem which comes up in different contexts. The teaching union NASUWT in Wales, for example, recently reported that a majority of allegations made against teachers were found to be “false, malicious or unfounded”.
Clearly the union movement has to support the protection of children in schools, but not at the expense of allowing witch-hunts against falsely accused teachers.
Capitalism distorts all human relations and this affects both sexes. To conclude that we live in a society where women and children are oppressed does not mean that you can conclude that individual women or children are never guilty of wrong-doing including making false accusations of violence against them.
How to deal with accusations of violence against women?
How should the workers’ movement respond when an accusation of violence against a woman within the movement is made? Clearly support and backing should be given to the woman if she wishes to go to the police and other relevant authorities.
However, given the ordeal that women often face when they go to the police, and the low level of successful prosecutions, it would be wrong to insist that a woman must go to the police.
Nor is it always sufficient for a workers’ organisation to take no other action because a woman has gone to the police.
Given the police’s record on dealing with such cases it would often be remiss of a workers’ organisation if did not also carry out an independent internal investigation, particularly when the woman has requested it.
Incidentally, this is also considered good practise in workplaces, where the Equal Opportunities commission specifically says to managers faced with an allegation of sexual assault which has also been reported to the police: “You should still conduct your own objective investigations without delay…The police may not press charges, for whatever reason. This does not necessarily mean that the alleged incident did not occur.”
Following recent events in the SWP, some, including many in the SWP opposition, have attempted to argue that it is wrong in principle for a workers’ organisation, particularly a party on the revolutionary left, to carry out such an investigation, especially if it relates to a serious crime.
We do not have sufficient information to be able to judge the specifics of the case inside the SWP, although it seems likely there were mistakes made in way its Disputes Committee functioned, particularly the inclusion of members of the Central Committee in the panel.
We have long criticised the top-down – ‘bureaucratic centralist’ – approach of the SWP (see Socialism and Left Unity: a critique of the SWP, Peter Taaffe 2008), and it is unsurprising that these were demonstrated again in the way they dealt with an investigation into a leading member accused of rape, and the splits in their party that have developed in its wake.
The Socialist Party’s approach bears no resemblance to the undemocratic methods of the SWP. As we have explained elsewhere, our party has a tradition of open discussion of political differences up to and including the right to form factions, not just for the three months in the run up to the Congress, but for as long as necessary.
Both the Socialist Party and the international to which we are affiliated, the Committee for a Workers’ International, has never resorted to expulsions for political differences but only for gross violations of our organisational norms, such as cases of, albeit rarely, of corruption, and of sexual harassment or assault.
However, we defend the right of any party to investigate charges made against members and, where necessary, propose disciplinary action.
If a party does not have that right it means it is limited to taking no action against a member who is accused of such behaviour unless a successful prosecution is brought by the police, or, alternatively, that a member against whom an accusation is made is automatically assumed to be guilty.
Clearly neither is acceptable. We have an Appeals Committee that can conduct such investigations. It is elected by the national congress and is made up of longstanding members of the party who are not full-time workers for the party or members of any of its leading bodies.
Over the years it has had to occasionally propose disciplinary action, including sometimes expulsion, of members for different offences, including domestic violence.
One of the objections that have been made to such a disciplinary procedure is that it is not always possible to form a certain judgement of what happened.
Of course, this is true, but the answer is not to refuse to investigate. It has to be within the remit of a working-class organisation to take a decision to carry out disciplinary action on the basis of the balance of probability, in order to protect the organisation and is members.
Incidentally this is also the advice given to employers by the Equal Opportunities Commission. This of course does not preclude the individual disciplined later having the disciplinary measure lifted if they are able to prove their innocence.
A socialist party exists within capitalism. It is not the model for a new society, but a tool to aid the struggle to create one.
This is not an excuse for avoiding dealing firmly with all cases of sexual harassment and abuse, but rather a recognition that such cases will sometimes occur.
It is utopian to imagine it is possible to create a model of a socialist society within capitalism. To some extent the Occupy camps were an attempt to create an alternative and better way of living within this society.
The camps’ anti-capitalist slogans inspired millions and brought anti-capitalist ideas to a new layer.
However, like all previous experiments of this kind, they showed that it is not possible to create an impermeable barrier between a new model and the surrounding society.
As Paul Mason, who is sympathetic to Occupy and has counterposed it to allegedly ‘hierarchal’ socialist parties, reports in his book, ‘Why it’s still kicking off everywhere’, rapes and sexual assaults took place in a whole number of Occupy camps.
The men and women who join the Socialist Party are among the most thinking class-conscious elements of the working class, but they are nonetheless products of capitalism with all of the distortions of the human personality that creates.
Our aim is to raise the understanding of members on all issues over time – including the oppression of women.
We do not tolerate any instances of sexual harassment and abuse. Sometimes dealing with this will require formal disciplinary action.
Whether this is the case, and how severe that action needs to be, depends on a whole range of factors: Primarily, of course the severity of the offence, but also the wishes of the victim, the perpetrator’s willingness to apologise and agree not to act in a similar way in the future, and other factors.
The balance of power in the situation is also an important consideration. An inappropriate remark from one new member to another of a similar age would often be considered less serious than a similar inappropriate remark made by a longstanding older member to a young, new member.
The capitalist press has attempted to use events in the SWP to discredit the whole of the revolutionary left.
The charge has been led by journalists and commentators who consider themselves on the left, but these have been followed by articles in the Mail and Sunday Times.
This is incredible hypocrisy from newspapers like the Mail, with its long history as a mouthpiece for reaction, most recently using the tragic death of six children for a front-page headline trying to whip up anger against ‘welfare scroungers’.
In fact, of course, a key aspect of the tragedy in Derby was not that the main perpetrator claimed benefits, but had a long history of violence against women.
It is no surprise that newspapers like the Mail have used events in the SWP to try and carry out a crude attempt to discredit the whole revolutionary left, masquerading as standing for women’s rights. This will not succeed.
This stems from a correct fear by sections of the ruling class that, given the profound crisis of capitalism, the socialist movement will be able to become a mass force in the coming years.
Seeing the way the right-wing press has used her attack on the SWP, left commentator Laurie Penny, unlike the likes of Nick Cohen, has attempted to draw back.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to answer the smear made by her and others that there is a link between attempting to build a revolutionary party and sexism.
Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman, said that, “there is a stubborn refusal to accept and deal with rape culture that is unique to the left and to progressives more broadly, by virtue of fighting for equality and justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.” Laurie goes on to quote Tom Walker, who has recently resigned from the SWP, saying: “The issues of democracy and sexism are not separate but inextricably linked.
“Lack of the first creates room for the second to grow, and makes it all the more difficult to root out when it does.”
Laurie concludes, “He is talking about the SWP, but he could be talking about any part of the left right now, in its struggle to divest itself of generations of misogynist baggage.”
We completely reject the assertion that our party is undemocratic or that we, or the left as a whole, has “generations of misogynist baggage”.
On the contrary, as Penny herself says, the left has generally been at the forefront of the struggle for equality and justice for women.
In Britain, Marxists played an important role in all the major struggles for women’s rights in the last century, including the fight for women’s suffrage, for safe and effective contraception, for the right to choose, and to combat violence against women.
But the Socialist Party has never concluded that we are therefore exempt from being personally accountable on issues of race, gender and sexual violence, and has always been prepared to take disciplinary actions on this issue when necessary.
Nor is the Socialist Party male dominated. Half of our Executive Committee is women, and we are probably the only political party in Britain able to claim this.
We strive to achieve the same, or better, at all levels of the party. However, this cannot be achieved artificially but requires putting conscious effort into developing the political confidence of women members.
We will intervene energetically in the debates that are likely to take place at this year’s trade union conferences on how the workers’ movement can most effectively oppose violence against women.
As we have always done, we will support all measures that will assist in developing a clear trade union campaign to oppose violence against women, but not those that are a tool, albeit unwittingly, for the right-wing trade union leaders to divide our movement and distract us from an effective struggle against capitalist austerity, inequality and prejudice.