Martin Smith, former National Secretary of the SWP, has been bumped off the Central Committee. After previously being forced to resign as National Secretary following allegations of him abusing his position of power to harass a woman SWP member in Birmingham. This was handled so poorly by the SWP that I understand the woman felt unable to continue in SWP membership, and when Martin Smith stepped down he was given a standing ovation at SWP conference, with delegates stamping their feet, and chanting support. This is quite extraordinary, and indicative of a culture which colludes in sexism in order to protect the institutional interests of the SWP.
In the Internet era it is much more difficult for those holding power within closed circles like the SWP to manage the information flows which protect their position, and I am pleased that Socialist Unity has played a role, however minor, in bringing this sexism into the public gaze.
Of course, worse allegations had been made about other leading members of the SWP, now deceased, and women were discouraged from complaining, and some women members of the central committee played a particularly shameful role, in excusing the inexcusable.
In 2007, I previously wrote about the culture of sexism in the SWP:
Let us look at what happened in Bristol [in 2005]. Three comrades resigned from the SWP, Ann Thomas, Paulette North and Richard Tucker over the gross sexism in Bristol District SWP, and the way the SWP at a national level refused to do anything about it.
Ann Thomas is a well respected activist in Bristol. A former left-wing Labour Party councillor, who resigned from Labour when they implemented the Poll Tax, and shortly after she joined the SWP, which she then worked to build for sixteen years. Paulette North was another long term SWP cadre, who was the lead candidate for Respect in the South West region in the 2004 Euro elections. Richard Tucker was also a long term SWP member.
The issue they left over was SWP leading member in Bristol, Pete W, repeatedly shouting, insulting and bullying the women members. Jo Benefield, who was herself being shouted at by Pete W confronted him about how such sexist behaviour is unacceptable in a socialist organisation.
Unbelievably, Pete W complained to the SWP’s internal disciplinary committee about Jo Benefield. Let Ann Thomas take up the story herself:
“Yes, I and Paulette left and so did Richard Tucker. We were all disgusted with the way the SWP handled Jo’s complaint – actually she tackled Pete directly about the way he treated women, particularly Paulette and me and Jo, and it was Pete who went to the party to complain about Jo criticising him!! Remarkable. Pete would always resent any political interference by me in the College where we both work. The party dragged it out for so long and punished Jo too! Pat Stack and Martin Smith chose to believe pete over Jo and me and Paulette. I left January 2006 while it was still going on because of their contempt for us.
“Just because an organisation says it’s against sexism doesn’t mean it doesn’t behave in a discriminatory way. It’s OK if you agree with everything the party says, then you can speak out, but if you want to disagree then you’re seen as ‘difficult’ or not really ‘one of us’. Consequently many of the women are tolerated, but the men always dominate the meetings in Bristol. Look at the way Jo was portrayed as ‘hysterical.’ The night of the coup [in Respect] the speakers were all men with the women as silent partners.”
Eventually a disciplinary hearing to discuss sexism involved only four men, who talked to Jo Benefield, and they sided with Pete W, for the good of unity within the SWP. Jo Benefield was not allowed to be accompanied to this kangaroo court.
Can you imagine any other labour movement organisation that would hold a hearing about complaints of sexism, with no women on panel? If an employer tried that, the union would have them for breakfast.
There are of course much worse examples of sexist behaviour from leading comrades in the SWP being tolerated, and it took a certain chutzpah or lack of self awareness from Chris Harman to himself bring the can-opener so close to that particular can of worms, in his 2007 attack on RESPECT for alleged sexism.
So within their own organisation there is actually firm evidence of sexist behaviour, shouting at bullying of women, and the SWP has colluded with the sexists and not backed the women.
Other comrades have spoken of the “fuck circuit” surrounding Central Committee members, who have favoured their sexual partners for promotion within the SWP, and who have marginalised women who refuse their advances. It is not clear to me whether these behaviours have been transferred over to the new Counterfire organisation.
Elsewhere, adding insult to injury, false accusations of sexual misconduct have been used by full timers to marginalise and demonise people perceived as “oppositionists” in the SWP.
So it is very good to see that a debate has opened up in this year’s SWP Internal Bulletins about whether the organisation is institutionally sexist. The wind may blow away a few cobwebs.