Today, Caroline Leneghan, who is a member of the RMT and assistant Branch Secretary of her RMT branch, posted onto the internet allegations that a senior elected official of the union had physically and mentally abused her while they were in a relationship. The individual she is accusing is also a member of the Socialist Party. [UPDATE: HE HAS SINCE RESIGNED FROM THE SOCIALIST PARTY]
It must be acknowledged that the accused man denies the allegations, and I understand that a few months ago posted on Facebook, that he would take action for defamation against anyone who repeated the allegations. Because of this possible threat of legal action, and because this website is not an appropriate forum to decide questions of fact, I don’t repeat the allegations: but instead I refer you to Caroline’s website .. You can then make your own mind up. I feel that there is a danger that this becoming a trial by Internet, but Caroline has already herself put this information into the public domain, and in the small world of the RMT officials and activists, there is no putting the Genie back in the bottle.
This of course raises a whole number of difficult issues about how allegations made on the Internet can gain currency without any proper process to judge what is true and what is not. These are difficult issues, because the Internet has also allowed people without voice to share their stories, and we don’t want to collude with silencing them. That is why it is important that there are proper processes for victims to gain justice through.
It has to be said that there are not only legal but also common sense problems in reporting accusations such as these. We have no way of knowing the truth, which is why the appropriate mechanisms are through the criminal justice system, and through properly constituted investigations by any interested organisations. However, there is a further danger that these considerations and our justifiable concerns about the reputations of accused men, can lead to a culture where women reporting abuse feel themselves surrounded by a suffocating scepticism, and because men are more likely to have positions of power in institutions, it can seem like barriers coming down to protect organisations. I don’t think it appropriate for us to discuss whether abuse happened or not, but it is reasonable to discuss how institutional biases make victims feel voiceless; and how societal pressure means that popular and successful men are more likely to be believed.
It is also worth recognising that while men (and women) who are violent often have mitigating circumstances, and may indeed also be victims, it does not make it either right, nor acceptable. Perhaps however we do need a more mature discussion about how violence arises in society, and how those who are violent in later life have often grown up in environments where violence is normal, and is seen as a value-neutral way of expressing anger. The problem of violence cannot be addressed simply by blaming perpetrators as individuals.
When it comes to dealing with accusations, we have to recognise that while there may be occasional instances of falsehood, generally women do not come forwards to report abuse lightly. The question of burden of proof is therefore an important one.
For criminal prosecutions guilt must be established beyond reasonable doubt, and there is a presumption of innocence.
For most civil cases, which would include investigations by trade unions and political groups, not only is the burden of proof only to establish what is more likely to have happened; but also there is no presumption of innocence, or indeed any presumption of guilt. In cases there there is an imbalance of power, and domestic violence allegations might arguably fall into this category, then given the societal pressure to silence victims it is reasonable and proportionate to presume that the alleged victim is telling the truth, and the burden of proof should lie upon on the accused. This would be a controversial presumption, that I offer here for discussion.
So even without knowing the truth about what happened in this case, we can see that she felt that the RMT’s investigation was inadequate. This is what Caroline has to say about what she saw as institutional biases within the RMT:
Additionally, as I am a member of the RMT I felt that it was important to raise my assault with the RMT. I believe that he will continue to perpetrate abuse and is a threat to female members. I want to continue my activism within the union but I do not feel safe to do so unless this matter is dealt with properly.
When I raised the assault with the union, I was subjected to what is known as as ‘victim blaming’. I was distressed and astonished at the questions I was asked and the investigating officer displayed a total lack of respect and sensitivity, and a lack of understanding of domestic violence. The investigator tried to make a link between my mental health and the assault and deemed it appropriate to inquire about my personal history, but has not deemed it necessary to look into [his], despite the fact that it is his behaviour that is being called into question and not mine. The investigator attempted to focus his attention on anything about me which could exonerate or mitigate [his] behaviour.
I was also shocked that the investigator asked to explain how someone of [his] build and proficient at boxing did not cause me more injuries. The investigator also accused me of causing the injuries myself. It is outrageous that when a woman reports an assault it would be considered feasible that she severely beat up her own face and further to also attempt to make a link with her mental health is collusion with the tactics of manipulation that abusers use to silence their victims. I felt degraded and that I had done something ‘wrong’ in reporting the attack.
Caroline is reporting her own perception and recollection of her experience. It is likely the investigator will recall this all very differently, and will have sought to carry out a professional and impartial investigation, and Caroline will not necessarily be aware of the full circumstances of the investigation, and her own recollection may be coloured by trauma. Caroline’s own view is that:
These actions contribute to a culture where perpetrators of violence are never punished for their behaviour. It is a well known fact that women do not come forward when they have faced abuse because they fear the treatment they will get. Since receiving help from Victim Support I have learnt that it is common for perpetrators of domestic abuse to deflect blame for their actions onto their victims and attempting to discredit their claims and to shame them into remaining silent.
I think it is important to say that I am a proud member of the RMT because I thought it was committed to fighting for justice and equality for all workers. I had hoped that it would take seriously a claim against a senior elected representative and treat me with respect when I have made such a serious allegation. I am shocked and saddened that instead I have had to undergo a character assassination. No aspect of my life has been spared from scrutiny, using any detail, no matter how sensitive, used in a horrible and insensitive manner to undermine my claim.
I am writing this because I feel it is imperative that all organisations on the left take a look at themselves and question whether they are doing all they can to support their female members and fight sexism and abuse, in all its guises. I believe that we need strong unions and organisations like the RMT to fight all forms of inequality in society. It cannot do this if it allows sexism to go unchallenged and it fails to investigate its elective representatives seriously.
Women do not have equality in the labour movement or the left. This is a struggle and a fight that goes on everyday at work/ in our unions/ at home/ in meetings, etc. To women; we are what militant trade unionists look like. The labour movement continues to heroise a macho, aggressive archetype of what a good trade unionist looks like.
Recently highlighted problems on the left (e.g. the SWP rape case handling) have demonstrated the need for radical change. A support group made up of women from the left and labour movement to support women and challenging abuse and sexism should be set up.
Caroline also explains why her experience of the police shows a lack of seriousness in dealing with domestic violence cases. (Again it is necessary to exhibit care here, as both the reputations of the accused and the alleged victim have been put into the balance. With regard to any criminality, the accused is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and the burden of proof would lie upon the prosecution to establish the facts beyond reasonable doubt ):
In the past week my case against him was dropped by the police due to falling foul of their timescale for submitting a complaint.
Caroline further says:
[He] has made an official statement to the RMT that the case was dropped and he was found innocent and exonerated.
It is important to recognise that where the CPS and police decide not to prosecute, then the person accused is innocent of any criminality; however that does not mean that the issue is necessarily closed. Proceedings under civil law could still be commenced, and in the case of a union official, then the union could investigate, and should they do so, then recognition of the prevalence of domestic violence, and how imbalances of power operate means that the woman making the accusation should be given the presumption that she is telling the truth.
Whatever happens in this case, Caroline Leneghan, clearly feels let down, and seemingly the RMT has failed her.