The article in the Independent about the rape-crisis in the SWP probably requires some clarification. I am quoted as follows:
The highly detailed minutes, which run to 27 pages, were first published on Socialist Unity, a left wing blog run by Andy Newman, a Swindon-based Labour Party member. He told The Independent that SWP members contacted him anonymously because they were furious about the way the party had handled the rape allegations.
“I believe that the SWP think they’re outside the law,” he said. “It’s quite clear reading their account of what’s going on that they sort of see themselves as an alternative group in society that is not part of mainstream society. They think someone couldn’t or shouldn’t go to the police because it would damage the party.”
Mr Newman likened the SWP’s disciplinary hearing to an extrajudicial “sharia” system or the much criticised investigations by the Roman Catholic church into clerical abuse that bypassed reporting allegations to the authorities.
I had a reasonably long chat with Jerome Taylor, the Independent journalist, and he had a firm grasp of the issues involved, but inevitably in the course of writing a relatively short article for his paper, the complexity cannot be reflected. The quote about Sharia law was to a certain extent “put into my mouth” and I think reflects Jerome Taylor’s own views rather more than mine. Jerome struck me as a good journalist, and I don’t think he did anything wrong, it is just that he probably interpreted our conversation based upon different political assumptions from mine.
I have written on several occasions arguing against Islamophobic assumptions about Sharia Law, for example in defence of Dr Rowan Williams’ controversial speech that suggested a place for Sharia courts with civil jurisdiction in the UK. I also supported the arguments by Lord Philips, the Lord Chief Justice, which gave welcome clarification to Dr Williams’ argument that
“it might be possible to contemplate, … , a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters”. He suggested by way of example “aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution”.
So I have no problem with either Sharia law, nor its exercise by Sharia courts, relating to certain prescribed matters. The criminal law is however not an area where private jurisdictions should be able to exclude the remit of the state.
At the heart of the crisis in the SWP is the question of why they felt themselves competent to undertake quasi-judicial functions in a serious criminal matter. Let us look at what SWP members said, in their own words, during the debate about the Disputes Committee report:
“We’re not a law court. We are here to protect the interests of the party, and to make sure that any inappropriate behaviour of any kind by comrades is dealt with, and we do that according to the politics of a revolutionary party.”
“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.”
“We are unanimous that we came to this with no preconceived agenda, that we used the best methods of the revolutionary tradition.”
“Everybody who sat on this DC sat as revolutionary socialists but also with our world experience.”
And from one of the closest supporters of the woman making the complaint:
“Comrades, we have to welcome the fact that we have a disputes committee. We have no faith in the bourgeois court system to deliver justice. (inaudible) The contribution I’m about to make is in no way to undermine the fact that we have a disputes committee – that is the right way to go.”
Given that rape is a serious criminal offence that would, if proven in a proper court, lead to a prison sentence, let us look at the SWP’s concept of sanctions:
“If we had believed that he was guilty of any misconduct, then we would have either recommended his expulsion or his removal from the central committee, which would have been the two options available to us.”
A number of things leap out, firstly that in the shared perception of the group, being a “revolutionary” privileges them with a superior understanding of how to deal with accusations of rape, better than the established processes of the English legal system. Secondly, that consideration of the prestige and reputation of the organisation was a primary goal of the process; and finally that it would have been appropriate to simply expel someone, had they concluded they were a rapist. There seems to have been no consideration of how their investigation might taint a proper police investigation, or whether they had a duty to wider public safety to ensure a possible rapist was brought to justice.
The comparison with the past practices of the Catholic Church are clear. Let us reflect upon the Socialist Workers party’s own words about abuse in the Catholic Church:
The recent Murphy report (2009) outlines the role of the Irish church in covering up child abuse. It summarised the church’s motives as follows: “The maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. … …. …. to describe this simply as a “scandal” is to let all those involved off the hook. A criminal conspiracy might be a better description of what took place. “
Let us also remind ourselves of the SWP’s description of the attitude of the Catholic Church, when faced with sex scandals:
In a throwback to the era before widespread revelations emerged, they have attempted to dismiss the allegations … as “gossip”.
Their strategy has involved a number of other themes as well. One of these is to invoke charges of anti-Catholicism and try and portray themselves as the victims. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, an aide to the pope, set the tone, telling reporters, “This is a pretext for attacking the church… There is a well organised plan with a very clear aim.”
Compare this to the response of Charlie Kimber, National Secretary of the SWP to the publication of details of the current crisis in the SWP:
“It is … an assault on the SWP, its democracy, and our attempts to deal with this issue fairly.
Organisations that have to deal with personal cases and allegations of this sort deserve the right to privacy about the details of the proceedings. …
I do not believe you are motivated by any considerations apart from a desire to damage the individuals involved, and the SWP, and to achieve tawdry publicity.”
The sense of institutional entitlement of the Church obviously relates to their own perception of their relationship with God, and the historical legacy of Ecclesiastical Courts. Religions have codified social conventions and seek to align personal behaviour with expected social norms. Their sense of entitlement therefore reflects the past, but it also provides a referential set of values for their faith community, and aspirationally for the whole of society.
Whereas the Church sought to resist outside intrusion over child abuse by looking to the past; the SWP’s self-referential attitude is based upon the Messianic view of their organisations own future importance, vested as it is in the eyes of the believers, with a historically necessary role of a “revolution”, upon which lies the fate of humanity.
Many SWP members are well grounded individuals, who combine both their membership of the organisation with participation in trade unions, campaigns alongside other people, and normal social interaction. However, a large proportion of the most active SWP members live in a very self-referential world, and to a certain extent they create their own reality around the rituals and beliefs of their group. Particularly as the prestige and influence of leadership positions is conferred by routine work largely only with other party members, and by literary endeavour of books and magazines read mainly by other party members, then patronage becomes an important factor.
Unequal power relationships related to patronage and charismatic authority are typically susceptible to sexual abuse, and the messianic aspirations of the group discourage abused victims from taking any action that would damage the organisation. Paradoxically, in left organisations nominally dedicated to anti-sexism, the fact that promotion and influence is by a self-referential system of prestige related to “party work”, rather than achievement in the outside world, opens up advancement by patronage where leading female members are subaltern to their male lovers.
The self-referential nature of the SWP also explains its sometime dynamism. Its members are organisationally well trained, and acquire good skills in persuading, public speaking and the routine organisation of putting on meetings, writing and publishing posters and leaflets, etc. However, its activity is largely orthogonal to the established mechanisms of civic and political lobbying, opinion forming, and constitutionality engaged with by mainstream political and advocacy groups.
The SWP is therefore very well suited to engaging with novel opportunities for radicalism, because it provides a scaffolding for readily building a campaign, and its advocacy methods are accessible immediately to anyone prepared to take to the streets, without the relatively long period necessary to access more mainstream political infleunce. But as radicalism subsides the SWP struggles to integrate the new activists, as the propaganda routine is not engaged with practical political reform in the here and now; and the SWP’s relative political and social isolation provides no gateway for activists to move from the SWP’s routine into effective engagement with mainstream politics. The resultent high churn rate is reminiscent of New Religious Movements, where modern research emphasises the active role of recruits and converts in seeking membership, and then rapidly “role adopting” the ethos of the group, which provides both an illusion of perpetual growth and dynamism, and also performs the role of reinforcing the optimism of the established members. However, the “role adopters” leave as easily as they join.
The reference to Sharia law in the Independent article came about when I observed to the journalist that clearly the members of the SWP on the Disputes Committee were well intentioned, and by their own lights they believed they were doing the right thing.
Jerome Taylor replied to me that he had in the past reported on Sharia courts in the UK, and observed that in some cases they had exceeded their authority by assuming jurisdiction over criminal matters, but he had likewise been struck by the integrity and honesty of those presiding over proceedings, and the fact that while what they were doing was against the broader public interest, they were doing so in the subjective belief that they were doing the best thing for their community.
In this context, the reference to Sharia law is obviously not about how Sharia law might itself deal with the issue of rape, but is related to a discussion of how competing and different legal jurisdictions operate within a polity. I observed to Jerome Taylor, that for religiously observant people from minority communities, there may be important practical benefits in using the services of courts from their heritage background. As I have written before
We should also recognise that people who choose to self-identify with a religious community, and its associated laws and ethics have a right to do so. The actual, and so far relatively successful, experience of multi-culturalism and convergence towards consensual liberal values in British society has not been on the basis of any campaign for secularism, but has succeeded by offering choice and empowerment.
But in those areas like contract law, inheritance and family law, sharia courts could be incorporated into the English Legal System in the same way that Jewish Beth Din courts already are. In this way, we could engineer a situation where individuals can choose which code to adopt. Of course any choice to use religious arbitration would have to be mutual and based on free and informed consent.
This encourages the secular legal authorities to respect the plurality of our society, and recognise people’s different senses of identity; and simultaneously it puts pressure on the religious communities to evolve towards the wider norms of society.
Recognition of Jewish, Islamic or other religious arbitration by the law of the land means that communities do not rely upon extra-judicial pressure. At the same time, recognition and incorporation of religious courts means that the state’s civil courts institutionalise their right of supervision over those religious courts to ensure natural justice, and that their use is consensual.
However, we must also agree that with the legal theorist, Ayelet Shachar,who raised the problem that any model that ends up ‘franchising’ a non-state jurisdiction could reinforce its most problematic features and further disadvantage its weakest members: ‘we must be alert’, she writes, ‘to the potentially injurious effects of well-meaning external protections upon different categories of group members here – effects which may unwittingly exacerbate preexisting internal power hierarchies’
Any attempt to franchise any authority over sanctions for criminal behaviour to non-state actors is open to abuse. In that sense, and that sense only, the quasi-judiicial proceedings of the SWP are analogous to those who might seek to extend the jurisdiction of sharia courts in the UK to criminal matters. But the comparison was not one I even made, it was suggested to me by the Independent journalist, Jerome Taylor, and I responded to him by distancing myself from the implication.
It constantly amazes me that people on the left have so little experience with dealing with the mainstream media that they fail to recognise how the arguments become distorted by the political assumptions of the newspaper. Exactly the same happened last year when I was beaten up by some for a quote that was inserted by the Guardian sub-editors at the insistence of their lawyers into an article I wrote and which I had never seen before publication.