An alternative to ‘safe spaces’

Mike Macnair argues that ‘safe spaces’ aren’t liberating – and proposes an alternative. This article first appeared in the Weekly Worker.

The draft ‘safe spaces’ policy was referred back by the founding conference of Left Unity, but references to it (as an appendix) were left in the constitution. A new version was circulated in print at the March policy conference and made available on Left Unity’s website.1It is intended to be discussed at the next LU conference.

I believe that the basic approach of adopting a ‘safe spaces’ policy is mistaken, for three reasons.

In the first place, it rolls into one long document several issues which should be discussed and decided upon separately. On the one hand, a ‘code of conduct’ for LU members, clearly indicating behaviour that may attract internal disciplinary charges, and a ‘disputes procedure’, outlining how to deal with complaints and charges, should be in the constitution (mainly as appendixes). On the other hand, an ‘equalities policy for LU internal procedures’ is subject to resource constraints, which mean that in many cases only recommendations are practically possible, and therefore should be separate from the constitution.

Secondly, the actual proposals for disputes procedures contained in the proposed ‘safe spaces’ policy, and in the clauses of the constitution which refer to it, are bureaucratic and untransparent. Indeed, they contain a Tory policy: for compulsory mediation before the formal disputes procedure is used.

Thirdly, ‘safe spaces’ as a political concept should be rejected. It is both illusory and tends to poison discussion.

I am therefore putting forward a counter-proposal to the ‘safe spaces’ policy, which I hope the Communist Platform will adopt. My counterproposal consists of several parts:

1. Some constitutional amendments to eliminate references to the ‘safe spaces’ policy in the Left Unity constitution and substitute, where appropriate, references to a code of conduct or disputes procedure (and to modify the current disputes procedure);

2. A draft code of conduct for members of LU;

3. A draft disputes procedure;

4. A draft ‘Equalities policy for LU internal procedures’.

The first point – that the several issues involved should be dealt with separately – does not need much justification. It should be simple common sense. It will lead to a clearer discussion and clearer decisions than rolling them all together, as the ‘safe spaces’ policy document does.

The second point is also a short one. Left Unity’s disciplinary, or disputes, procedure should be fair, transparent and practicable. The procedures proposed in the draft ‘safe spaces’ document are over-elaborate and, as a necessary result, will be non-transparent, dilatory and impracticable. Non-transparent procedures are more likely to be abused in the way that the Socialist Workers Party’s disciplinary procedures have been abused. (Not just in the ‘Delta’ case for the benefit of a leadership member, but for years and years.)

In particular, compulsory mediation, which is proposed in the draft ‘safe spaces’ document procedures, has been studied in its application in the real world. The finding of such studies is that it tends to give the advantage to the higher-status individual.2 This is why the Tories have introduced compulsory mediation as a required gateway to an industrial tribunal.3 Left Unity should not imitate the Tories on this.

The third point is that the general concept of ‘safe spaces’ is illusory and poisonous. It is illusory because as a generalconcept it ignores the recalcitrance of the material world and is infantilising: you can kill yourself falling downstairs and, while we may put up stair-gates to protect toddlers, the rest of us just have to take care.

In fact, in politics this sort of approach tends to “breed short-beaked pigeons”.4 Inadequate exposure of children to germs produces auto-immune diseases; if you never took the child-gate down, the child would never learn how to negotiate stairs. A party which was much more controlling about PC language, etc than the surrounding society would leave people unable to engage with the general cut and thrust of political argument in the workplace, the media, etc.

The ‘safe spaces’ concept is actually a renaming of what was in the 1970s-80s called “liberated zones” by some American ‘soft Maoists’. This approach was totally unsuccessful both for the Maoists and for the movements of the oppressed which were influenced by their ideas.5 More recently, similar ideas have been called ‘prefigurative politics’: that is, that our political decision-making must prefigure the free society of the future.6

It is true that our politics must be to some extent prefigurative. For example, we do not allow people to pay for extra speaking time or to employ professional lobbyists to change party policy. But what is being ‘prefigured’ in the ‘safe spaces’ concept is an illusion. Hunter-gatherer societies where there is no class or the oppression of women are not without disputes, anger and hurtful words said. There is therefore not the slightest reason to suppose that the future free society will be without them.

The result of this illusory character is that advocates of ‘safe spaces’ are all too often themselves inclined to troll-like interventions using threatening, abusive or insulting words. They tend to legitimise their own anger and delegitimise anyone else’s. This is the other side of the coin: the policy is, as I have said, not merely illusory, but also poisonous, because it leads to witch-hunting. There are plenty of examples from 1970s-80s US Maoism and from the 1980s movements influenced by US Maoism.

Further, this approach legitimates witch-hunting by the right wing of the broader workers’ movement. For example, see the Unison bureaucracy’s attack on Socialist Party supporters, alleging that their use of the old three monkeys, ‘Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ graphic was ‘racist’.7 Equally, Islamists argue that segregation and the hijab create ‘safe spaces’ for women, though it is clear that their real aim iscontrolling women.

For all these reasons the ‘safe spaces’ idea should be rejected, not just the current document.

1. Proposed amendments to Left Unity constitution

Clause 3, Membership, subhead (f): “abides by the principles and guidelines of behaviour set out in the safer spaces policy (appendix 1)”  Delete.

Why do I propose deleting this clause rather than amending it to refer to a proposed code of conduct? The draft ‘safe spaces’ policy itself does not propose that breaches of its principles and guidelines should automatically lead to expulsion. But by making compliance a condition of membership, that is what this clause does. An express power to expel members is not needed at this point in the constitution: this is currently in clause 18, Disputes committee; I propose that this should be in ‘Disputes procedure’.

Clause 10, Direct democratic participation …,subhead (d): “All discussion and debate will be expected to be respectful and adhere to the standards of behaviour set out in the safer spaces policy (appendix 1)” – Delete.

Why do I propose deleting this clause rather than amending it to refer to a proposed code of conduct? “Respectful” is highly problematic terminology in this context of speech control. JQ Whitman showed in 2000 its Roman-elite, aristocratic and Nazi antecedents.8 One person’s ‘disrespect’ is another’s ‘legitimate anger’ or ‘robust criticism’. If anything is necessary, it is sufficient to identify trolling LU online forums as a disciplinary offence in the code of conduct.

Clauses 18, Disputes committee, and 19, Appeals committee:

Rewrite as follows:

(18-19) Disputes and appeals

A. Disputes committee

(i) A disputes committee shall be elected annually by national ballot. This committee will consist of seven people, but shall include no members of the national council. Its role will be to investigate disputes and complaints about the behaviour of individual party members in appropriate cases.

(ii) The disputes committee may form a sub-committee of at least three members to consider any one case.

(iii) The disputes committee shall adopt its own procedures and standing orders, subject to approval and amendment from time to time by national conference.

B. Appeals committee

(i) An appeals committee shall be elected annually by national ballot. This committee is the last stage in any disputes resolution procedure and its decisions are final.

(ii) The appeals committee will consist of seven people, but shall include no members of the national council or disputes committee. Its role will be to hear appeals from members against disciplinary action taken against them. The appeals committee may form a sub-committee of at least three members to consider any one case.

(iii) The appeals committee shall adopt its own procedures and standing orders, subject to approval and amendment from time to time by national conference.

C. Disputes and disciplinary action

(i) Individual members have the right to make complaint against other members, or LU officers or organisations, complaining of violations of this constitution or of the code of conduct (appendix 1).

(ii) The national council may refuse any applicant for membership or take disciplinary action against an individual member. The individual concerned has a right to appeal to the appeals committee. Such action must be explained in writing to the member or potential member concerned, and such explanation must include a statement that the member or applicant is entitled to appeal to the appeals committee.

(iii) Complaints should, subject to (iv) below, be dealt with at the most local possible level. Individual members’ complaints against other members of the same branch should be dealt with in that branch. Complaints between members of different branches within a region may be appropriately dealt with by the relevant regional committee. Complaints against national officers or LU organisations must be dealt with by the national council or the disputes committee.

(iv) A person complaining or complained against may request that the complaint is transferred from their branch to a regional committee or to the disputes committee. A branch or regional committee, or the national committee, may refer any complaint or disciplinary action which is to be dealt with before them to the disputes committee if it appears to them that this is required by the seriousness of the matter or if it appears to them that circumstances within the referring body make fair handling of the complaint impossible.

(v) People aggrieved by a decision, disciplinary action, or refusal to act on a complaint, by a branch, regional committee, the national council or the disputes committee have the right to appeal to the appeals committee.

(vi) Bodies handling complaints must act in accordance with the disputes procedure (appendix 4).

Why do I propose substantial redrafting rather than merely eliminating the reference in the existing text to the ‘safe spaces’ policy and to compulsory ‘reconciliation’ procedures? This whole clause will need considerable rewriting either to bring it into conformity with the ‘safe spaces’ policy if passed or to make it fit any alternative approach to dispute procedure. This redraft makes the minimum necessary changes to move the current text in the direction of local handling as far as possible, which will maximise transparency.

I stress minimum changes: for example, we are in general opposed to postal ballots, which the Tories introduced to cripple strikes, but the postal/online balloting method is all through the LU constitution and I do not attempt to change it for just this one case.

2. Code of conduct

Preamble

Left Unity aims as far as possible within the deeply unequal society within which we live to combat all forms of oppression and discrimination, to develop all our members as leaders, and to develop a culture of free discussion accessible to all members. We recognise that this is most likely to be achieved by a political culture in which fully open debate, including accusations of sexism, racism, class prejudice, scabbing, etc, or saying that ‘the emperor has no clothes’, are possible; and in which members are free to communicate with each other and to organise themselves for common ends. This code of conduct therefore merely sets certain minimal limits which are necessary to LU’s ability to function and pursue these goals.

Members may not:

violate this constitution;

actively disrupt LU’s agreed common actions (eg, election campaigns);

persistently actively disrupt LU internal meetings;

intentionally assist Redwatch or similar far-right organisations which target leftists with violence and threats, employers’ blacklisting organisations or mass-media witch-hunts;

‘troll’ LU online forums;

behave in a way which brings LU into disrepute: for example, by violence against other members, persistently oppressive conduct towards other members, or the exploitation of party office for private purposes.

LU recognises that we do not have the resources to properly investigate and handle complaints of serious crimes against other members: for example, rape or wounding/GBH; and that by attempting to do so we may contaminate evidence and thereby prevent justice being obtained.

3. Disputes procedure

A.Procedure

A body handling a complaint or disciplinary charges against a member must:

act as promptly as possible (having regard to the following points);

give the person complaining sufficient opportunity to formulate their complaint, and the person complained against sufficient notice of the nature of the complaint and sufficient opportunity to formulate their answer to it;

allow both the person complaining and the person complained against to have the unpaid assistance of another person;

where facts are disputed, allow both the person complaining and the person complained against to call witnesses and to ask questions of witnesses they have called and of witnesses called against them, and to offer other evidence (such as documents, emails, medical reports, etc);

conduct any hearing with fairness to both sides;

where the complaint is not dealt with in a branch, publish to the region (if dealt with in a regional committee) or to LU generally (if dealt with in the national committee, disputes committee or appeals committee) a summary of the decision and the body’s findings and reasons.

These procedural obligations do not prohibit dealing with complaints by voluntary negotiation, mediation or reconciliation procedures, whether before or at any stage of formal complaints procedures.

B. Sanctions

Where a complaint is upheld or a disciplinary charge found proved, the sanctions imposed may range from censure of the member complained against, through other penalties, up to suspension or expulsion from membership of LU.

In deciding on sanctions, account should be taken of the seriousness of the complaint, the extent to which a persistent course of conduct is involved, and of the level of political experience of the person complained against.

A vote to expel a member does not take effect until ratified by the national council or disputes committee on the basis of a report from the body hearing the complaint.

4. Draft equalities policy for LU internal procedures

Left Unity recognises that we live in a society characterised by profound systematic inequality, not just on the basis of class, but also of the oppression of women, discrimination against members of ethnic and religious minority groups, and LGBT people and of age hierarchies, as well as both direct discrimination and the inherent bias of market society against people with disabilities.

We aim for a party in which all people can fully participate.

We also recognise, however, that there are serious limits on the extent to which the life of the party can overcome the inequalities of capitalist society or ‘prefigure’ the future, and the complete and disastrous failure of previous attempts to create party ‘liberated zones’ or ‘prefigurative politics’. In addition, a number of forms of discrimination and inequality, particularly around caring responsibilities and disabilities, immediately engage the questions of material resources and time; and the recent evolution of capitalism has been toreduce the resources in both space and time available to workers generally and to workers’ organisations. For instance, we may and should aim to meet in accessible rooms, but such rooms may simply be unavailable or not available at a price which small LU branches can afford.

What follows is therefore an incomplete list ofrecommendations for LU’s organisations for good practice in combating the effects of inequalities and discrimination on our decision-making. Most of these recommendations are hence subject to ‘as far as possible’ (generally, more will be possible for national meetings than for local meetings).

Meetings should be held in accessible spaces and with hearing loops, and so on.

Scheduling of meetings should take account of members’ or potential members’ caring responsibilities (for children, for people with disabilities, etc). Childcare arrangements should be provided. IT (streaming, Skype, etc) should be used to facilitate participation of those unable to attend.

Agendas and motions should be circulated well in advance.

Every effort should be made to avoid overcrowded agendas, which tend to cramp participation in discussions (and hence set up conflicts between open discussion of debated issues, on the one hand, and prioritising the contributions of oppressed groups, on the other).

Chairing should be sensitive to the need to draw in contributions from those who might not ‘normally’ speak, as well as to the need to clarify differences and allow full debate. On the other hand, some rotation of chairing is desirable to allow other comrades to gain experience of that duty.

Meetings of any length should include appropriate access breaks.

Left Unity needs to actively promote workers’ education and similar initiatives to empower those who have had less access to formal education. The party as a whole, and branches, need to develop party education for the same purpose.

Notes

1. http://leftunity.org/safe-spaces-document.

2. Some references are cited in K Bollen, ‘Hybrid online mediation in hierarchical labor disputes’ (www.juripax.com/…/Hybrid_online_mediation_labor_Leuven.pdf). The result could have been predicted from M Clanchy’s study of medieval equivalents, ‘Law and love in the middle ages’, in J Bossy (ed) Disputes and settlements Cambridge 1983.

3. See Dave Renton: www.struckout.co.uk/once-more-on-compulsory-conciliation.

4. Trotsky’s comment on Labourism in Britain: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/britain/wibg/ch04.htm.

5. S Smith, ‘Mistaken identity – or can identity politics liberate the oppressed?’ International Socialist Journal No62, spring 1994: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj62/smith.htm, collects several references. (This is not to endorse the political line of the article as a whole.)

6. See (among others) Sam Farber in International Socialist Review No92: http://isreview.org/issue/92/reflections-prefigurative-politics.

7. See ‘The Unison monkey trial’ Weekly Worker September 10 2009.

8. ‘Enforcing civility and respect: three societies’ (2000) Yale Law Journal 1279-1398: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/646.


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11 comments

11 responses to “An alternative to ‘safe spaces’”

  1. Felicity Dowling says:

    Left Unity urgently needs its safe spaces policy, its own practical and political safeguarding policy.
    Each individual working within or with Left Unity is entitled to respect and safety, yet respect and safety cannot be taken for granted in this society. There is a need for a political commitment to make it happen. Not a commitment to a one off statement, but to an ongoing working procedure.
    Like a family who make a house safe, like workers in a building who check the fabric, check the known hazards, check the fire escapes, extinguishers and alarms, who insist on fire drills, who organise to remove asbestos in order to keep the workplace safe, we in Left Unity need a safe spaces policy.
    We need safety as a shared responsibility, like climbers who check each other’s ropes and divers who check each other’s equipment, safety should be is a common effort
    We can be proud of the traditions of the Trade Union movement in fighting for equal pay, for rights for women and for recognising domestic abuse as a trade union issue, for recognising the rights of women to control their own fertility. Many in Left Unity come from such a tradition. We can be proud of the decent men who have worked so hard for equality and for women’s rights and against violence against women.
    Left Unity is proud that many of its founding members cut their teeth on the struggles (still to be won) against attacks on people with disabilities.
    We are proud also of the women who join us from women’s rights work, from the defence of women against rape and sexual and domestic violence, proud of those who joined us with long (and shorter) histories fighting for feminism.
    We are proud of the LGBT comrades who have fought so hard for their rights so freshly won and still at risk.
    We are proud of the youth who entered the struggle in the fight against the imposition of student fees, and from subsequent experiences, and bring their own versions of radical safe spaces work.
    We are especially proud of those people who have joined Left Unity basically on their own; because they made a personal decision to do something to stop this government in its attack on the poor.
    It would though, be crude and foolish to believe that reliance on such good will and such good traditions is in itself enough to create a safe space. For all who want to take part in the many struggles we face to change this society, and to flourish whilst campaigning, a conscious orientation towards common safety and respect and a deliberate effort is needed..
    Women are massively under-represented in political life. We think this is, in part, because, if they challenge abuse or privilege, they are further abused, called “grass” or “scab” or have their mental health brought into question. As one in four of us experience mental health issues during our lives, so allowing such a “defence” is an abusers’ charter. Rather than face such humiliation, many retreat from politics and work in smaller community or women only groups. We want such women active in Left Unity
    Along with a health and safety policy, each organisation needs its safeguarding policy. As a feminist and socialist organisation, committed to ending capitalism we have a special need of such a policy because our people will be at the forefront of challenging entrenched power. They will be in the campaigns, they will be in the front line challenging oppression and championing the rights of the oppressed, and so will attract heightened aggression.
    Jimmy Saville, Elliot Roger, Stuart Hall, John Warboys, Lord Rennard, ‘Comrade Delta’ the litany of abusers rolls on remorselessly in 2014. Thousands of men are known to the police as a threat to their current or past partners. Each week in the UK two men kill their partners. Rape as a crime is under reported, under prosecuted and under convicted. The complaints against Saville are now in their hundreds; he was allowed to control hospitals, top security psychiatric hospitals and appears to have had a free run of the BBC. Young girls and women were given no protection.
    Still in the UK and especially in the North of Ireland, women can be denied control over their bodies and denied abortion rights available elsewhere in the UK.
    The abuse of children, girls and boys, in children’s homes by the rich and powerful, the grinding relentless unearthing of stories of abuse in the catholic church, the tales of grooming gangs across the country, these are all part of the backcloth against which we work. Thousands of these stories have still to be told. Many choose to shut the experience far from their mind and choose never to re visit it. Only the crude, arrogant boasting of Stuart Hall angered other victims enough to come forward with charges against him.
    It is common practice now for all voluntary organisations to have safeguarding policies for all their employees and all service users. Left Unity too needs its safeguarding policy too.
    One of our responsibilities is towards women. This is because of the attitudes to women held by sections of this society .Some in our society still believe that women are often to blame for the rape and abuse they experience if they drink, use drugs or are “flirty”.
    Seventy-six percent of people believe at present, that those accused of rape should be given anonymity;
    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/07/rape-attacks-blamed-on-victim-drunk-flirt_n_2638103.html
    http://www.uic.edu/depts/owa/sa_rape_support.html
    Women are one section of society at risk. Left Unity recognises other sections of society are also at risk. Hate crime based on race, religion, sexual orientation and physical or mental impairments are a significant and in some cases growing problem https://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/hate_crime.pdf
    Mencap receives reports from around the country of people who are verbally abused, physically attacked, raped and murdered, as many as 9 out of 10 people with a learning disability have been a victim of hate crime and bullying
    http://www.mencap.org.uk/campaigns/take-action/stand-me
    Hate crime against Muslims has risen to become part of the fabric of politics, with women the main targets
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/20/muslim-women-islamaphonic-attacks
    Left Unity is an internationalist organisation recognising that our society is part of a world society
    In India, rape is a common crime, causing outrage and huge demonstrations, but, so far counter struggles have resulted in little gain for women, though it is firmly on the political agenda.
    But the plight of women and children in Africa’s war zones screams to the high heavens for justice. Wars for resources, organised by well-funded and militarised gangs, using the cover of religion or ethnic loyalty are pitiless in ubiquitous use of sexual and other violence against women and girls. “Bring our Girls Home” we demanded and still demand; but they still far from home, far from safe.
    Even the UN recognises the problem http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Implementation_Plan_to_End_Violence_against_Women_and_Girls
    One in 3 women and girls experience violence in their lifetime. ”Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights”. According to a 2013 WHO global study, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner – see more at: http://www.unwomen.org/ru/news/in-focus/end-violence-against-women#sthash.RetTxoDC.dpuf
    Harm to women in not though only in the personal sphere. Harm is there too in crude economics al. Austerity in UK and Europe is is a fundamental attack on all the gains women, LGBT people, and those living with disabilities have gained in 70 years or more. “Restructuring” forced on many countries in the Global South by the IMF and World Bank has a chilling connection to greater risks to the lives and health of women and children and to their experience of violence. I do not though accept this as a simple explanation of the phenomenon. A friend wrote” While capitalism and neoliberalism may be the cause of increasing poverty, unemployment and the destruction of social welfare infrastructure of every kind it does not explain why this would lead to an increase in gender based violence. Frustration and rage, feelings of hopelessness and despair may lead to increased violence – but this explanation goes nowhere to explain violence against women and children, the weak and the vulnerable it does not contribute anything to explain sexual violence against women and children “
    http://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/misogynist-rants-and-murder-in-santa.html
    Racism as a tool of reaction is rearing its ugly head ever more brazenly in these early years of the 21st century. Islamaphobia attempts to both whip up hate and violence yet hypocritically claims to defend women’s rights. Extreme right wing Islam claims the moral high ground, yet uses violence against women as a political and social weapon of control.
    Left Unity will not recommend to women or other oppressed groups that they wait till the new society for the end to their issues. In fighting against these issues we build the foundations of a post capitalist world.
    These are real and pressing problems for the world we live in. They are the fabric of politics. These are real and pressing political problems, problems for a political party. It is my strong contention that this back ground of abuse, violence and discrimination will influence our party. Left Unity must have the highest levels of probity and excellent political education. We also need good, effective procedures firmly based on challenging offensive behaviour, protection of victims and reconciliation where ever possible. We must not tolerate abuse of any kind, but we challenge the behaviour, not the person, at least in the first instance.
    No socialist, no decent activist, we hope, would fail to condemn abuse. Yet, we know that wherever power is used it can be abused. Power can be held unwittingly, held by custom and unexpressed practice. People are influenced by the dominant ideas in their society. Women are often not believed. Left Unity from its inception has attempted to prevent the rise of entrenched power structures by limits on the time for which offices can be held. Power structures in older democratic centralist organisations were abused for sexual gain.
    Men, too, are the victims, as well as the perpetrators of violence, especially male on male violence. We will have no truck with macho violence. However, women face a further hurdle in that they are frequently cast as ‘liars’. Anyone in situation where they would not be believed or would be shamed within society is vulnerable. The onslaught on women is an epidmic If a man tells you he was mugged, most often he is believed. If a woman says she was raped, then doubt is almost always expressed. “Rape Crisis (England and Wales) is concerned that singling out rape and sexual assault for defendant anonymity would send a message that women who report these crimes are more likely to be lying than people who report other kinds of crime”.
    There is a need to protect all our members against bullying and abuse. It is, rightly, a routine procedure to have a safe guarding policy; but it is also a profoundly political position. We cannot separate the need to fight oppression from the need for this policy for these procedures Unsurprisingly, Safe Spaces has faced passionate support and opposition from different political positions. We are hoping this will now be debated across the party, and into the next conference -and be resoundingly accepted.

    • Adam Jensen says:

      How about addressing some – any – of the arguments made in the article, instead of citing a load of horrific statistics and implying that the author just doesn’t care?

      • Susan Pashkoff says:

        I find your comment rather strange. There is only one statistic mentioned in Felicity’s response which comes from the WHO; so this a rather odd statement. Her whole statement was a response to his proposal explaining exactly why a safe spaces policy is needed.

  2. Keith C says:

    I am new to politics really, so could you explain what a “Safe Space” is?

    • Felicity Dowling says:

      A safe space in either a physical place such as a place for a meeting or an area of activity which could be on the web/ internet. It is a place where people from oppressed groups can operate safely physical verbal or organisational attacks/discrimination.
      It can be as simple as having meetings in accessible rooms so people with mobility issues can get there, or a place where someone with a stammer is allowed time to contribute, or a meeting which is signed for a deaf person. At the harsher end it a a place where physical and sexual attacks are forbidden, where verbal interaction is expected to be respectful. Most unionised workplaces have something similar and most voluntary organisations have a safe guarding policy.

      • Keith C says:

        Thanks Felicity, much appreciated, sorry for being obtuse.

        Perhaps LU could add a sort of Glossary to the site for new members. There are constraints of course, many much more important things probably have to be done. But at some stage it may be nice, as sometimes the discourse can be rather confusing for people – like me – who are not experienced in political banter.

  3. Heather Downs says:

    “Women are massively under-represented in political life. We think this is, in part, because, if they challenge abuse or privilege, they are further abused, called “grass” or “scab” or have their mental health brought into question. As one in four of us experience mental health issues during our lives, so allowing such a “defence” is an abusers’ charter. Rather than face such humiliation, many retreat from politics and work in smaller community or women only groups. We want such women active in Left Unity.”

    Yes. Thanks, Felicity

  4. Bev Keenan says:

    There are a couple of straightforward errors in the article by Mike Mc Nair

    The mediation stage of the SSP is not compulsory, in my experience members have the choice of engaging with mediation as a first step, but if they prefer they can go straight to making a complaint. Mediation is included as a first step because the aim is to resolve disputes at the local level, to embed respectful practice at the branch level. Mediation is used in many different contexts not only within ‘tory’ regulated tribunals. The first step in most work place grievance procedures is to seek mediation i.e. take it up yourself with the person who you have a disagreement with. If that fails then the advice is to take it to the line manager who will probably seek to ‘mediate’ i.e. get the parties concerned to resolve the problem. I agree that the institution within which mediation is offered determines the outcomes and that power relations will be present within any social setting. The aim of the safe spaces policy is to address this within Left Unity, by creating equality between members regardless of their positions within the party ‘hierarchy’. It may be that this is a very difficult task and that it requires constant vigilance, but it is essential that we seek to support those who are already labelled by capitalism as having lower status. Not only are all these groups underrepresented within Left Unity, but without this support, we will not be able to improve this and we will not be able to strengthen the whole movement by taking their experiences into our practice.

    I am dubious about Mike’s references to Left Unity as a sort of breeding ground, in which he implies that members should be toughened up to take on the real world and that the safe spaces policy would be a hindrance to that. Taking this view on its own terms, I would say that we need to redress the balance inside Left Unity towards oppressed groups, so that they do become more confident and are able to take things on, this can only be done by creating a space for that to happen or prefiguring what the world should be like.

    I agree that any concepts such as respect are difficult to define, but we don’t have to accept the Nazi or the aristocratic versions. As Felicity says we are used to employing concepts such as safe guarding. Privacy, respect, confidentiality, freedom from harm psychological and physical; are all things that we can agree on and use at branch level and expect members to be democratically accountable to.

    I think that we need to continue with the debate about the Safe Spaces Policy, in order to arrive at the Left Unity version of it. If we properly involve members and branches in this, I don’t think it will necessarily be the same as the one that has been so discredited in other organisations.

  5. I just want to comment on one para in Mike’s article: “For instance, we may and should aim to meet in accessible rooms, but such rooms may simply be unavailable or not available at a price which small LU branches can afford”. As a wheelchair user I decided that if I were to be able to play a useful role in LU locally I would have to take on the responsibility for organising our local branch myself because only then would no one be able to make this pathetic excuse around accessible venues. Yes, it is difficult to find accessible venues or to pay for them out of small local funds, but that is one example of the oppression we disabled people face every day of our lives. If Left Unity is to be successful it needs to ‘Be the change you want’ so if you are prepared to exclude some of the people who may be world-leaders-sitting-down because you don’t think it is a priority to find a room without steps, then LU has no right to preach to anyone about creating a better world. Changing oppressive attitudes and practices can be an emotional and uncomfortable process, but cannot be avoided. The past ways have failed.

    • John Pearson says:

      Serious problems of abusive and/or oppressive relationships between members have occurred in a number of organisations on the left of politics. The draft Safe Spaces policy proposes setting up an elaborate system of internal policing to defend members against such treatment and also to deal with “complaints” of a far more minor nature.

      I think that this is the wrong approach entirely and that, rather than such a procedure acting to protect members from oppression, it risks ending up oppressing us all.

      Firstly, some of the assumptions that are stated in the document are highly dubious. For instance, on page 3 (in the printed version distributed at Policy Conference), it is stated, “For example, racism will always be an issue when trying to organise black and white people to work together; sexism will always be an issue when men and woman come together in a common endeavour, and, ablism when those with impairments and those without try and work together. Snobbery and discrimination can occur when different sections of working people work together.

      No evidence at all is offered that the stated special oppression related problems will always be an issue and that the class sectional related problem may be an issue, in the context of socialists working together on party work.

      Mike MacNair is right to raise the danger of facilitation of witch-hunting and assumptions such as these certainly appear to set an imagined terrain within which witch-hunts could take place.

      Most crucially however, Left Unity has not been created in the same mould as those organisations on the left where the aforementioned serious problems have arisen. Left Unity does not have the type of relationship between leaders and led that lay at the root of all of those problems.

      The organisations concerned had longevitous cliques of revered leaders around whom groups of often sycophantic praetorian guards (typically those who aspired to the succession ten years or so down the line) were able to cohere. The power relations within which abuses could occur were thus created.

      Our defence against any abuse or oppression of our comrades lies within our democracy and within our culture.

      We quite rightly debar longevity of office holding by Constitution and we do not empower our leaders to command us in our actions.

      Culturally, we most markedly have not (and Ken Loach’s exemplary modesty in this regard has been admirable), set out with any hint of promotion of celebrity. We have seen the problems that brought down the Scottish Socialist Party and I am absolutely confident that we will not allow such problems to arise in Left Unity.

      The best guarantee we have though, that Left Unity is and will remain a safe space for all our comrades and all who join us, is in our determination to build the party as an association of equals.
      Equality is such an important concept. Far more so than the concept of having to assume the ever presence of latent oppressive behaviour and looking over our shoulders to detect signs of its impending materialisation.

      It is of course necessary to have some rules and guidelines to assist in ensuring that party meetings and events are conducted in a comradely and orderly manner and are organised in such a way as to maximise participation of members. Model standing order no. 16 prescribes some such rules. There is scope for improvement of this standing order. It should for instance stress that ad hominem language in meetings and in internet discussion is not allowed. In other words, comrades must “go for the ball not the player”.

      These simple rules are applied, not by the existence of procedures for post factum complaints, but by the support of the organisation as a whole for sensible and sensitive chairing of meetings and for light touch moderation, including editing out of infringing text in our internet communications.

  6. Jacob Richter says:

    If I have not had the opportunity to provide a response to this as a WW letter, then perhaps this article posted here presents a very belated opportunity.

    If I already have provided a response, then I should focus on more technical aspects.

    Mike’s suggestion of four or more separate rules documents sounds reasonable. A distinct and enforceable code of political conduct is a must, but I believe his draft code of conduct is woefully short.

    “If anything is necessary, it is sufficient to identify trolling LU online forums as a disciplinary offence in the code of conduct” doesn’t sound enough. Political misrepresentation of other members’ views is worse than the usual trolling and flaming, when it can be seen that the perpetrators lost the argument before the trolling and flaming.

    Why “mass media witch hunts” is lumped together with collaboration with reactionary organizations in general puzzles me. Intentionally assisting reactionary media outlets with feeding sensationalist crap of “infighting” is bad enough to merit its own listing, because it has time and again disrupted common actions and internal meetings in ways that far-right collaboration couldn’t do.


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