One of the most disingenuous aspects of Chris Harman’s document about the crisis in Respect, is his discussion of alleged sexism in Tower Hamlets.
As Chris Harman writes:
One very disturbing feature of this meeting was the attitude of Galloway’s supporters towards women members of Respect. Rania Khan, at 25 the youngest councillor, recalls:
We had about 50 women that night and they had valid membership cards but they were not allowed to take part. It was raining and cold outside and they had small children with them, and someone who was close to the council group leaders said to one of the women queuing up outside, “My wife doesn’t come, why are you here?”
This was not the first time such attitudes had been displayed towards to Respect members, and particularly young women. Lufta Begum says that Respect council group leader Abjol Miah “shouted at me”. Paul McGarr says, “Some of the young Muslim women have been repeatedly insulted and bullied.” He adds that he does not see this as a particular characteristic of Muslim men—it was how women would have been treated by Labour officials in the mining village he grew up in 40 years ago. The point, however, is that the left have always sought to resist such behaviour.
Now there are a number of things that need to be said about this.
Firstly, the excellent observation from Louis Proyect about the use of “hearsay evidence” as atrocity stories. Who committed the alleged offence? “someone who was close to the council group leaders”. Who was the victim: “one of the women queuing up outside”. Forgive me if I am not totally convinced.
Secondly, let us look at this: “Lufta Begum says that Respect council group leader Abjol Miah “shouted at me”. Paul McGarr says, “Some of the young Muslim women have been repeatedly insulted and bullied.””
Harman says: “The point, however, is that the left have always sought to resist such behaviour.”
Let us look at what happened in Bristol two years ago. 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 an extremely well respected comrade 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 is 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. 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 takes a certain chutzpah from Chris Harman to bring the can-opener too close to that can of worms.
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.
A well respected woman member of the SWP wrote in the first SWP pre-conferecne Internal bulletin:
“The record of Tower Hamlets is far from perfect but it points to some success in encouraging women to take up leading roles. The male candidate who did go on to win the Shadwell by-election had Maggie Falsaw as his elections agent. The Respect councillors group appointed Eileen Short as their political advisor, In the last London Council election 18 of the 48 candidates were women, 38%. In neighbouring Newham, which the Central Committee describes as a model Respect organisation only 14 of the 61 candidates were women, 23%.
“If the comrades felt that the sexism at the July selection meeting was something more sinister than the usual discussions they should have not waited for months and then simply raised the situation at an internal SWP meeting. The elected officers in Tower Hamlets Respect could have brought the problem up at many different meetings, both local and national. We undermine our ability to influence the direction of Respect if we demonise members as rightwing, sexist or homophobic, or even communalist,, the same language as used by the Islamophobes.”
So the interesting thing, is that whatever they claim now, the SWP did not seek to argue against alleged sexism within Respect, until they could use this charge as a factional football.
There is a political reason for this. As Alex Callinicos wrote right at the beginning of the Respect adventure:
“Respect is a coalition—a federal organisation that individuals can join and to which organisations can affiliate while preserving their autonomy. The programme, while principled, is relatively minimal, meaning that Respect is a pluralistic organisation in which diverse viewpoints coexist. This structure is critical if the existing forces within Respect are to have the breathing space they need to work together, but even more so if others— particularly wider sections of the trade union movement—are to be drawn in.”
Now there is an inherent problem with this type of structure, because it potentially freezes the political character of each component, without any dynamic towards convergence. As the SWP preserves its own political and organisational autonomy, it symmetrically has to respect the organisational and political autonomy of everyone else. This is precisely the worst type of structure for debating through any tricky issues like personal sexism and seeking to hold people accountable.