Last Saturday the leader of the Labour party spoke at a ‘Stand Up to Racism’ conference. Good, you might say. Racism is one of society’s great evils and it is brilliant that we have a leader who is vocal in his opposition to it. Unfortunately this particular organisation is not quite what it seems, which is why many women in the Labour party were disappointed when Jeremy Corbyn, after previously declining, chose to speak at the event.
‘Stand up to Racism’ has strong backing from the Socialist Workers party. Before we get into why that is a bad thing, I want to stress that by ‘strong backing’, I mean more than just printing leaflets. There is a handy section on the ‘Stand up to Racism’ website listing the officers of the organisation. It includes some Labour members of parliament and other representatives from the wider labour movement. Fine. But scroll down to the bottom of the list and you will see the names of the two co-convenors of the organisation, one of whom is Weyman Bennett, a senior member of the SWP. Now I will explain why I think the leader of the Labour party should not be anywhere near an event organised by someone from the SWP.
A quick Google search of ‘SWP Comrade Delta’ will come up with some awful accounts and damning critiques of what happened in that organisation a few years ago. To save you the time I’ll try to explain quickly here. In 2010, a young woman in the SWP told some of her comrades that a member of the SWP national committee, referred to as Comrade Delta, had sexually assaulted her. The SWP decided to silence and bully her and anyone who stood with her, including allowing the accused to stand up at their conference and publicly accuse rival left factions of fabricating the whole story in order to attack the SWP. The party eventually decided to deal with the accusation via a ‘disputes committee’ largely composed of friends of the accused. Among other questions, the woman was allegedly asked about whether she was drunk and whether she had had relations with this man before. Lo and behold, he was found not guilty – not by the law, but by an SWP committee. Other women came forward in this time and were also silenced and harassed by members of the committee.
It cannot be stressed enough that what happened in the SWP was not just the heinous actions of one individual. It was an organisational cover-up and harassment of victims and their friends that was led by those in positions of power within the organisation. In the debates on the left that followed the exposure, I often heard the argument made that sexual harassment happens in every political party and that people have singled out the SWP in order to silence them. Given the statistics on the sexual harassment I have no doubt it occurs in every political party, just as it occurs in every town and on every street in this country. The shocking part of what happened in the SWP is their response, which was nothing short of a disgrace.
It is important to keep telling people about the Comrade Delta case for two reasons. One, because they do not appear to have learned any lessons and two, because of the way they recruit members. The truth is the vast majority of people don’t go to their first SWP meeting because they want to be members of the SWP. They go because they were handed a leaflet from them about ‘defending the local hospital from Tories!’ or ‘solidarity with university cleaners!’, then they make friends with you, and then you end up at your first SWP meeting. Or what is also often the case, people go to an event under a different banner, which is actually just full of people from the SWP. When I began studying at Manchester university in September 2010, they were a huge political force on campus. At all the anti-fees and anti-cuts meetings and demonstrations in that autumn of student discontent, they were at the centre of everything – leading the charge, shouting the loudest down the megaphone, and printing the all-important leaflets to tell the world about the next big student demo in London.
It is easy to get sucked in. I even went to a couple of meetings myself before, thank God, I realised they definitely were not for me and got active in Labour Students instead. I did however remain friends with a couple of people in the student SWP society. We may have disagreed on a number of issues but they were decent campaigners who were motivated by a desire for the world to be a better place. Not one of them remains in the SWP. They all left, as did most of their members, when it became abundantly clear to anyone on the left the severity of what had happened.
Given that their most ardent supporters abandoned them, why then does Corbyn feel the need to share a platform with them? The left should be shutting them out of their spaces, not allowing them to lead.
As even Owen Jones and Aaron Bastani have pointed out, there is no use having a leftwing space to fight the evils and injustices of racism, if you are going to invite perpetrators and apologists of violence against women into that space. Solidarity simply does not work like that. Moreover, Corbyn does not need to be at a SWP front event in order to fight racism. Lest we forget, Corbyn is the leader of the official opposition, he could start a huge Labour party campaign against racism if he wanted to. He does not need the SWP and I hope he will think again before agreeing to share a platform next time.
Grace Skelton is a former national secretary of Labour Students. She tweets at @graceskelton
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