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Rape and the Left – The enemy within

By Rebecca Anderson

THE RAPE AND assault charges against members of the Socialist Workers Party, the RMT union and the Socialist Party have dragged into the light a long overdue issue.

Such actions are far from only existing ‘out there’ – outside the Labour Movement. Indeed, to our shame, they represent an “enemy within”. We need to ask ourselves why cover-ups and investigations that are just charades are a default response in unions with formally excellent policies and in far left organisations that proclaim their goal as women’s liberation.

Perhaps the exposés have had such electrifying effect because they are far from isolated exceptions but are symptomatic. The fact is that these unions and parties that exist in a sexist society can never be immune to the influence of reactionary sexist attitudes and practices. And unless the labour movement recognises this and takes serious steps to deal with sexist behaviour then it will continue to blight the lives of female activists and drive many away.

Proposals have been raised – by some of the women directly involved – for better internal procedures for organisations investigating accusations of rape, abuse and oppressive behaviour. One of the key proposals is the right of women to caucus and discuss issues and cases of oppression. This right should be rolled out across every union and working class organisation including parties and left groups.

Some organisations, like the Socialist Workers Party, have argued that caucusing is divisive. Wrong! It is sexist behaviour, its toleration and covering up, that divides the working class and the struggle for a better society.

So too does the SWP’s denial that men in general, including working class men, are the immediate agencies or enforcers of women’s oppression, benefiting from it in short term. Of course the working class (both men and women) also suffer from sexism in that it divides and weakens the fight for our class interests and emancipation. This is the objective basis for class unity – the struggle against oppression. You can’t effectively fight something if you are wilfully blind to it.

Caucusing, by empowering women to expose and challenge their abusers with the support of other women, seeking the support from their anti-sexist male comrades, helps overcome the divisions that sexism and other oppressive behaviour and attitudes promote. However, on their own, women’s caucuses are not sufficient.

First, they are still only available to a small minority of working class women, who are already in a union or party and able to become active.

Second, they can become bureaucratised, providing a power base for parts of the officialdom in return for privileges to leading members of the caucus.

We need to get together across unions, in the working class parties and socialist groups, to discuss our experiences, to develop ideas on what can be done to eradicate sexism and violence.

We need to develop a charter on the rights of women and on best practice inside the workers’ movement. A conference of women activists and delegates from across the unions would be a great start.

This collective voice of working class women would set the standards that we should expect of our organisations and empower women to challenge the behaviour and barriers they face. Such a conference could seek to involve women from beyond activists in the trade unions and socialist organisations and reach out to unorganised women, female colleagues and unemployed women.

Even if such a conference at first only commanded the support of a minority of unions and socialist groups, it would act as a deterrent, putting pressure on other unions and groups to take the issues on board. And of course, we would not try to limit such a conference to the issue of oppression within the workers’ movement, no matter how important it is today, but urge it to go further and found a working class women’s movement that could take up issues of women’s oppression and liberation in wider society.

We need a movement that fights fearlessly for women’s liberation and against women’s oppression in whatever form and wherever it manifests itself. To achieve this it will need to produce its own literature and materials, initiate and join campaigns for women’s rights and equality, and offer practical support for victims of women’s oppression.

We want a movement that is avowedly for working class women, one which develops an agenda that centres on their needs rather than the more privileged middle and upper class women who dominate much of the media coverage of women’s issues.

We need a movement that is organically linked to the working class movement through cooperation and coordination of campaigns and action, affiliations, political and financial support. Women now make up their highest ever proportion of the workforce and the trade unions.

The historic crisis of capitalism we are living through has impacted upon working class women very severely, both as workers, especially in the public sector, where they are often the majority, who have seen their jobs, wages and pensions cut and their workload increased, and as service users and carers, who have had to take up the slack caused by the cuts.

On rape and assault against women, faith in the capacity and political will of the police or the courts to tackle these crimes and bring the culprits to justice is at a low ebb, thanks to their institutionally sexist structures. For example, the police’s specialist sex crime unit Sapphire is under investigation over allegations that its officers routinely pressure women to drop rape claims.

There is also evidence to suggest that violence against women may be on the rise, or at the least that it may be being reported more. The Home Office has recently included for the first time 16-17 year olds in its guidelines on domestic violence.

We ask anyone who agrees that women in the labour movement need to raise their collective voice, to tackle the practices that caused or exacerbated the recent scandals, anyone who believes a conference could usefully be called to discuss these issues, anyone who wants to build a working class women’s movement that can fight for our liberation, to raise these ideas within their own organisation and to contact women in Workers Power to discuss how we can take this forward.

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