SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 168 May 2013

Making the labour movement a safer place for women

An online declaration, entitled Our Movement Must Be A Safe Place For Women, by two UNISON activists, Marsha-Jane Thompson and Cath Elliott, is circulating amongst trade union activists. The statement makes clear that male violence against women is never acceptable and argues that workers’ organisations have a particular responsibility to challenge male abuse of women within our movement. The Socialist Party supports these and other points in the resolution but, as HANNAH SELL explains, we do not encourage trade unionists to sign this statement as it stands. Its positive aspects are combined with political arguments and proposals which could be used as a means to attack the left.

The discussion on combating male abuse of women within the labour movement is taking place 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. People have come forward to talk about the abuse they have faced during their lives, sometimes as children. This is positive, with likely beneficial consequences, making victims of sexual violence more confident 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 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 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 emphasising 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 20 women and one in 50 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 who 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

For socialists, the approach that 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. This is 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 the Socialist Party has 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. Therefore, the struggle for women’s liberation is, at root, 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 mean, of course, 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.

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 the film, 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 welcome, of course, 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 providing real economic equality and lifting the domestic burden from women, and 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 between 10% and 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 is now reversing many gains previously made.

It is only a narrow stratum of women that has enjoyed significant improvements. A recent survey by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) declared that feminism has "failed working-class women" in Britain (The Independent, 31 March 2013). It 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 who 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 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) 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 the issue of 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 women’s refuges, and for a mass council house building programme 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 that 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’

Unfortunately, we do not think that the statement, Our Movement Must Be A Safe Place For Women, 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 statement is likely to be taken up by the right in an attempt to divert attention from their role in the leadership of UNISON. It is not insignificant that it has been signed by Heather Wakefield, head of UNISON local government, one of those responsible for accepting a major assault on women UNISON members’ pension rights, including accepting that, in the future, they will have to work until they are 68 or even older.

The dangers were demonstrated at this year’s UNISON women’s conference. A motion written by one of the statement’s authors, Cath Elliott, arguing for a ‘no platform’ position for ‘rape deniers’, was overwhelmingly backed by the conference, including the right wing. She had originally written the resolution in response to George Galloway’s offensive comments on rape, but then used her conference speech to also attack the SWP for its handling of an allegation of rape against a leading member.

Elliott explained she was moving the motion "in solidarity with NUS [the National Union of Students]" after it had passed a motion "denying [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 British National Party being invited onto Question Time for example, 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, as 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 used repeatedly 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 restoring the education maintenance allowance for further education students, while at the same time trying to whip up opposition to the left by organising walk-outs against the SWP. Unfortunately, the SWP has not always been above these kinds of undemocratic methods itself, 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 was called on to act against ‘rape deniers’, yet New Labour in government invaded Iraq and Afghanistan resulting, as in all wars, in mass rape. 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 at the women’s conference that it 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 has a clear record on this in the way it tried and failed to use false accusations of racism to witch-hunt the Socialist Party UNISON Four. They were 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 had, in fact, a long history of fighting racism. That is not to imply the authors of the statement have the same motives – both have opposed the witch-hunt. Nonetheless, it is likely that the UNISON leadership will attempt to use the Our Movement statement in a similar way in UNISON.

Taking claims of sexual abuse seriously

If we agreed with the wording of the 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 that 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. Of those, only 7% result in conviction – much lower than the average for crime in general. It is vital therefore 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 17 months in 2011 and 2012. In this period there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence in England and Wales. By comparison 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 that 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 National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers 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 wrongdoing, including making false accusations of violence against them.

How should the workers’ movement respond when an accusation is made of violence against a woman within the movement? 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 it would often be remiss of a workers’ organisation if it 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 (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) guidance to managers faced with an allegation of sexual assault which has also been reported to the police is that "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".

Workers’ organisations exist within capitalism. They are not the model for a new society, but tools 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 reports in his book, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, rapes and sexual assaults took place in a whole number of Occupy camps. Paul Mason is sympathetic to Occupy and has counterposed it to allegedly ‘hierarchal’ socialist parties.

Even the most thinking class-conscious elements of the working class are products of capitalism, nonetheless, with all of the distortions of the human personality that creates. The aim of socialists in the workers’ movement should be to raise understanding of all issues over time, including the oppression of women and taking a position of confronting any instances of sexual harassment and abuse.

This is an edited extract from a longer statement available on this link to the Socialist Party website

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