‘Speaking bitterness’ and Left Unity

The precursor of ‘safe spaces’ was unsuccessful and destructive in past movements of the oppressed, argues Mike Macnair. This article – a response to criticisms raised by comrades in Left Unity – was first published in the Weekly Worker

Last month the Weekly Worker published my article proposing an alternative to Left Unity’s draft ‘safe spaces’ policy. My proposals have since been agreed after some amendment by the Communist Platform and put forward to LU in this amended form. However, the posting of the original article on the Left Unity websitei has produced a long but mostly irrelevant response from Felicity Dowling, some shorter comments supporting her view, more serious points from Bev Keenan, and an intervention from John Pearson, who argues against the policy from a different angle. It is most convenient to deal with comrades Pearson’s and Keenan’s arguments first and then address comrade Dowling’s points later.

Comrade Pearson agrees with me that the draft ‘safe spaces’ policy poses a danger of witch-hunting. But his approach is emphatically not mine. He denies the ‘safe spaces’ document’s claim that contradictions of class, gender, race, etc “will always be an issue” in collective organising. I, on the contrary, agree that they “will always be an issue” in class society: it is precisely for this reason that the ‘safe spaces’ approach to them is fatally wrong.

Comrade Pearson insists that the problems ‘safe spaces’ addresses arise from organisations having “longevitous cliques of revered leaders”, thus creating “power relations within which abuses could occur”. LU, he argues, has broken with this model through its constitution, by term limits, reducing the powers of leading bodies and rejecting personality cults like that practised in the Scottish Socialist Party. LU’s commitment to a party of equals provides the fundamental basis for avoiding abuses.

I agree that term limits for leaders is a good idea. The rejection of personality cults is also desirable, but, since it is not founded on a clear programmatic alternative, it will probably collapse if LU is successful enough to get serious media attention. LU’s Heath Robinson constitution will inevitably produce an unaccountable ‘shadow leadership’, because at the end of the day leadership is no more than a means for taking decisions for common action. It is true that the ‘comrade Delta’ case in the Socialist Workers Party was mainly about the SWP’s power structure, but we cannot generalise from this particularly egregious case. Much of what the ‘safe spaces’ document tries to address is merely the normal sexism, etc of capitalist society. There is therefore no reason to suppose that LU’s constitution (whatever you think of it) or the ideological commitment to a party of equals will prevent problems arising from contradictions of class, gender, race, etc.

‘Freedom from harm’

Bev Keenan, one of the comrades involved in the suspension of Laurie McCauley from Manchester LU branchii, says that “the mediation stage of the safe spaces policy is not compulsory”. This may not have been the authors’ intentions, but what they have actually written – taken together with the existing provisions of the constitution – does make it compulsory. If you do not trust my opinion (admittedly that of an academic rather than a practitioner), ask another lawyer; I am confident you will get the same or a similar answer.

She goes on to argue that first-step mediation is common to “most workplace grievance procedures”. No doubt. This is, however, hardly a recommendation. It is not the strength of trade union organisation which has produced first-step mediation rules, here, but the weakness of trade unions and the fact that this mechanism is advantageous for management(and to a lesser extent for trade union full-timers).

Comrade Keenan says, roughly correctly, that “power relations will be present within any social setting” (it is necessary to add: “in class society”). She goes on: “The aim of the safe spaces policy is to address this in LU, by creating equality between members, regardless of their position in the party …” I respond that we can – and should – combat hierarchies and inequalities within the party. But we cannot create equality in our own little space in an unequal society by mere acts of will.

Comrade Keenan’s third point is that I see “Left Unity as a sort of breeding ground … in which members can be toughened up to take on the real world.” My point was more limited: that excessive speech controls in LU could lead to members talking such a different language from their workmates, neighbours, etc as to reduce the ability to interact with these people politically which members had before they were ‘trained’ by LU ‘safe spaces’. (The same problem can, of course, also arise with traditional left ‘Trot-speak’.)

In this particular context, comrade Keenan insists that we can redefine ‘respect’ in such a way as to tear it from its historical roots in ‘honour’ (as in ‘honour killings’). Perhaps. But to do so involves a lot more work than has been done for the ‘safe spaces’ policy.

She goes on to say that “we are used to employing concepts such as safeguarding, privacy, respect, confidentiality, freedom from harm, psychological or physical.” This is question-begging. These are the currently ascendant discourses in sections of the academy, the legal profession, the state bureaucracy and the world of trade union and NGO full-timers. There is no reason to suppose that these discourses are in the slightest sense prefigurative of a better future. “Respect” is the very word at issue. Privacy and confidentiality are no more than private property in information: and this is the foundation of Friedrich Hayek’s critique of socialism, and also of Trafigura’s super-injunctions, and so on.

“Freedom from harm, psychological or physical” is at the very least far too broad. A couple of examples from personal experience: a few weeks ago I slipped on some oil on my kitchen floor, fell over backwards and cut my head open, and had to spend four hours in A&E. Physical harm, but merely a stupid accident. In 1998 my father died, and quite shortly afterwards I got divorced: a very painful experience – psychological harm – but neither anyone’s fault nor something against which I could demand protection.

I take it that what comrades really mean is that we should not hurt each other, either physically or psychologically. But even this is too broad. In relationship breakdowns, for example, people commonly do hurt each other psychologically (often unintentionally). Of course, pro-‘safe spaces’ comrades actually mean something narrower still; but once the concept is narrowed even further, the link to the ‘safe spaces’ idea is lost.

Comrade Keenan’s final point is that “if we properly involve branches and members in the debate, I don’t think that it will necessarily be the same as the one that has been discredited in other organisations” (I take it that she means by “other organisations” the soft Maoists and the women’s movement, etc, groups who wrecked themselves by this method in the 1970s-80s). Again, perhaps. In my opinion, however, to do better we have to get away from the whole method of “speaking bitterness” (in the old Maoist phrase) and ultimatums on the basis of particular oppressions, which is inherent in tying the issues to party disputes/disciplinary procedures and evident in the contributions of comrade Dowling and her other supporters.


Comrade Dowling’s contribution opens with the claim that LU is proud of those who have organised and fought on the several issues of oppression. I agree. I am even mildly proud of my own small contributions as an activist in the LGBT movement between 1971 and 1989 (I am bisexual), such as raising gay liberation in my school in 1971, outing myself as gay on the shop floor of a car factory in 1977, and moving the successful lesbian and gay rights motion to Labour Party conference in 1986. It is precisely because we should be proud of the movements against oppression and discrimination that we should also be willing to be critical of what has gone wrong with them. Nobody suggests that pride in the trade unions – which is right – should immunise the unions from criticism.

The large bulk of comrade Dowling’s contribution consists of repeating evidence of the existence and severity of oppression and discrimination against women and other oppressed groups both in Britain and worldwide. I do not in the slightest doubt any of this evidence. Nor did my first article in any way suggest that any of these inequalities are unimportant.

My point is that the proposed method of addressing these issues of oppression – by mixing them up with party disciplinary/disputes procedures – has been tried and failed, over and over again, and not merely failed, but proved positively destructive.

There are, in fact, some important omissions in comrade Dowling’s list: the oppression of Roma and travellers in this country and Europe, of Shia in Saudi and the Gulf States, of Sunnis in Syria and (under the current regime, as long as it lasts) in Iraq, and so on and on ad nauseam. As with the contradictions between ‘orthodox’ Islamism and feminism, to which comrade Dowling refers, and for the same reason, these oppressions pose issues of contradictions between groups experiencing different oppressions. It is these contradictions, far more than those between ‘white, middle class, straight males’ and the rest, which produced the failure of the ‘liberated zones’ precursors to ‘safe spaces’.

Once we take out the issues of the existence and importance of oppression, and pride in the movements against oppression, what is left in comrade Dowling’s contribution is episodically repeated claims that LU needs a “respect and safety” policy closely analogous to workplace “health and safety” policies; that it needs a “safeguarding policy” in relation to abuse closely analogous to the “safeguarding policies” of local authorities and NGOs in relation to children and vulnerable adults; and that – connected – comrades who suffer from one or another sort of oppression are entitled to claim that the existence of this oppression makes them “unsafe” in LU in a sense closely analogous to children or vulnerable adults placed under the authority of sexual or violent abusers, or of workers employed in unsafe mines, factories or building sites.

These analogies are misconceived. In the first place, as comrade Dowling herself, and comrade Pearson, point out, LU’s constitution is designed (perhaps over-designed) to avoid the SWP-style regime in which ‘Delta’ was his victim’s (senior) line manager. Beyond this context, it is clear that abuse of children and vulnerable adults is primarily facilitated by privacy or confidentiality (in the home, in the children’s home, the residential school, the church). But the draft ‘safe spaces’ policy’s disputes procedure is built around confidentiality and Bev Keenan’s contribution defends it as elementary principle. To defend privacy is to defend unsafe spaces from the point of view of abuse.

Health and safety

Health and safety at work policies have to be understood in their context, which is that of class exploitation. Since the beginning of the industrial age, employers have pressed workers to work faster and work longer hours, under threat of the sack, thereby putting life and limb at risk. In effect, the employers claim the right to expropriate their workers’ arms, legs, eyes, lungs, etc, for the sake of higher profits.

Since around the 1830s, the English legal profession collectively (if not every individual lawyer) and hence the judiciary, have been committed to the idea that the employer has a common-law right to expropriate parts of their employees’ bodies, unless the employer can be proved to be ‘negligent’: and pressure for speed-up and longer hours does not, in this context, count as ‘negligence’. With the Factories Act 1844 the working class, by alliance with old-school, paternalist Tories against the Liberals, got the first public controls on dangerous machinery. The employers and the judiciary fought back with ‘strict construction’ of the laws to reduce their effectiveness. Parliaments episodically responded with new and stricter legislation to get rid of judicially created loopholes.

With the combination of medical advances, and the welfare state after 1945, the interest became an interest of capital as a whole against the individual employer and the bar and judiciary, and Tory as well as Labour governments extended workplace safety laws. The result at present is the baroque elaboration of ‘health and safety at work law’ through statutes (currently the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, as extensively amended), statutory instruments, codes of conduct, and requirements that each workplace have its own health and safety policy. They are all necessary because employers continue to press for speed-up and over-long hours, and judges are too biased on the issue to be trusted with general rules, even if these are in the interest of ‘the taxpayer’, meaning capital as a whole.

Into this context have come, from the 1980s on, both squeezes on welfare and increased unemployment, and ‘the right of management to manage’: that is, to bully and harass workers for speed-up. In this context in turn, the (small) minority of lawyers who work for trade unions and the poor managed, under the Blair government, a small miracle. They persuaded the judges that, where manager bullying and harassment – or manager blind eyes to racist, etc, bullying and harassment – led to an actual psychiatric illness, this was a violation of the employer’s duties under health and safety legislation. Hence the small minority of people who were made seriously ill by workplace bullying could recover damages.

But this small miracle, by its nature, cannot benefit the large majority who are not made seriously ill, but grumble and put up, or engage in forms of passive resistance, or whatever, as a response to their local David Brent. Like other legalistic ‘solutions’, it is a response to the underlying weakness of trade union organisation; but one which by individualising the problem, actually reinforces the weakness of union organisation by separating the ‘deserving’ sick from the ‘undeserving’ healthy.

Left Unity is not an employer (except for any full-timers it may take on) driven to speed-up and lengthening hours by competition in profitability, which therefore needs an elaborate ‘safety policy’. Equally, it is not a local authority with tax-raising powers or a charity NGO with tax-exempt status – both, therefore, with substantial resources – and children or vulnerable adults in its care. It is a small organisation which we can all create and build if we agree to collaborate. Equally, we can all too easily break it up.

The method of ultimatums backed by prominently displayed anger – “speaking bitterness” – is clearly visible in comrade Dowling’s contribution and those of her supporters. It is inherent in tying together the equalities policy with the disputes/disciplinary procedure in the draft ‘safe spaces’ policy. It was unsuccessful and destructive in the movements of the oppressed in the 1970s-80s and it will be unsuccessful and destructive if we try it again in Left Unity.

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15 responses to “‘Speaking bitterness’ and Left Unity”

  1. Felicity Dowling says:

    Equal pay, rising wages, universal availability of contraception, much better childcare than now and full employment, widespread social housing, a growing and developing NHS, legislation for abortion rights, free university education, all achieved by women in the 1970s and 1980s.If we could achieve what the women of the 70s achieved (before they supposedly wrecked themselves by the safe spaces policies of the time) we would be making progress!
    Now I thought it was the crisis of capitalism, the fall in the rate of profit, useless union leaderships or even uppity women that caused the crisis But no it was “safe spaces”(which I didn’t even see in the women’s movement seventies or the eighties!
    Many of us see safe spaces as essential. We get it though, Mike! You don’t like safe spaces policy. We intend to debate and to win this in the branches and at conference. The debate will be interesting and thorough. You will not silence us by writing “bitterness” in many forums.
    I see the above as an example of why we do need a safe spaces policy. If we are to have basic equality in our movement people need to listen to each other, be aware that they can be misunderstood and give unintended offence, be aware of the privilege they have and aim to build and grow the effective opposition to Austerity.
    Left organisations might be our best hope for the future but they are not immune to the sexism and discrimination endemic in our society
    In an organised and civilised workplace listening, apologising and moving on is normal.
    Vitriol is indeed best saved for the people who are robbing our NHS, making thousands of children grow up in poverty, causing a terrible housing crisi breaking union organisation and getting ever richer.
    If different elements of the left are to work together we do need to realise there need to be rules and boundaries, perhaps different from those employed in small democratic centralist organisations
    What we need at the moment is constructive discussion not unsupported assertions and the setting up and knocking down of straw women.

    • Mike Macnair says:

      1. The debate will continue. Great! It’s through debate and disagreement that our understanding can progress.

      2. “You will not silence us …” – I have not the slightest intention of doing so. I want to see *more*, not less, argument put forward in favour of “safe spaces”, rather than this approach being proposed as a taken-for-granted thing.

      3. However, I also think
      (a) that the safe spaces document makes a *mistake* in mixing up the equalities policy or anti-oppression policy with the disputes procedures;
      (b) that no real sense can be made of “safe spaces” which is not the old “liberated zones” mistake; and
      (c) that the document makes this mistake worse by seeking to include in the disputes procedure (i) automatic first-stage mediation and (ii) confidentiality.

      4. Of course I agree that the present crisis is a crisis of *capitalism*, not one the movements of the exploited and oppressed have caused. But this doesn’t in the least affect the point that we need to avoid mistakes which have damaged the movement in the past. Some of these mistakes are those of the SWP, and so on. Others are mistakes of the ‘autonomous movements’ – less recent in comrades’ experience and in their worst forms on the other side of the Atlantic, but nonetheless real.

      5. (a) “there need to be rules and boundaries” – I agree entirely; the question is *what* rules and boundaries;
      (b) “perhaps different from those employed in small democratic centralist organisations” – certainly, if you mean by “democratic centralist” the SWP and similar organisations (including the Fourth International and its British affiliates), or the “Bolshevism” of 1921 and after; but I am not (yet) willing to abandon the original “democratic centralisation” idea from the 1905 Congress of the German Social Democratic Party, that the party as a whole needs to be able to sack individual MPs and change the editorial board of the party’s paper to make it apply congress policy.
      The question is, then, precisely *what* “rules and boundaries” – and procedures – will allow us to cooperate effectively for our common aims, and conversely which are more likely to end up in promoting disunity.

      6. “constructive discussion”: what I have proposed (and Communist Platform is proposing) is, precisely, a constructive alternative to the safe spaces document: “constructive discussion”. I have laid out my objections to your proposal; what are your objections to my proposal?

  2. Brigitte Lechner says:

    As a new member who joined LU because it claims to be feminist, indicating an awareness of egalitarian faultlines in society (and I am waiting for racism to be added as explicitly as feminism) I am puzzled by the vehemence with which this policy is contested. It is merely a series of statements that lay out the values we stand for and how these would translate in our behaviour towards each other. This is the very least I expect of an organisation that claims to be egalitarian.

    The amount of vitriol is indeed best saved for fighting capitalist oppression in its many manifestations. What is it doing here, and against an organisational policy that does not more than ask members to practice what it preaches.

    When I initially engaged with this policy I misread it as a form of ground-rules most groups working together nowadays establish from the outset. It took me a while to understand it as a laying out of values that we all need to agree on and then, thereafter, use them to establish ground-rules for branch meetings. At least, that’s what I hope will happen in my branch.

    I also understood then that some parts of the policy set out what steps we can agree on to take in the case of transgressions. I am mystified by this negative reading and can only assume other members have misread it too.

    • Mike Macnair says:

      I disagree with the document. I give reasons for disagreeing. I propose an alternative approach. I respond – without any sort of abusive language – to the responses to this alternative proposal. Where’s the “vehemence” or “vitriol” in that? If anyone’s trying to “silence” disagreement here, it’s not me.

  3. Jade Hope says:

    Personally, i think we need this policy. I am believe it should already of been passed by now but i understand the importance of everyone needing to have their say and the time to amend the document.

    This policy is truly a positive way to show that we (LEFT UNITY) are doing a new kind of politics. It is time for change, especially on the left and i believe this is the way forward.

    I do however think that a paper format needs sending out to all branches so it can be discussed with everyone, i will try to do this with my branch in the near future but i know they all support the safe spaces policy.

    I do understand why some people are worried about this document however we all need to unite and take the jump together. Amend it and have your say but support it.

    Jade Hope

  4. Merry Cross says:

    Perhaps I am just a jaded cynic, but I read this article as a straightforward attack on anything that might prevent the takeover of Left Unity by MEN. I dare to believe that most of our membership (and here I include many men, incidentally)are so thoroughly fed up with the domination of the left by ‘male, pale and stale’ policies and practices that we will fight for a good and fully practised Safe Spaces policy. It is essential if we are not to fall headlong into old and damaging ways, leaving the voices of women,black and disabled members (for example) silenced.

    In fact Mike’s long tirade, including nonsense about having fallen and hit his head and this not being anyone’s fault, is symptomatic of a deep contempt for women and our capacity for rational thought.

    I think the Safe Spaces policy does need tidying up and have communicated this to Felicity. But as a disabled woman who has felt there was no place for me in politics before, I will ALWAYS support its implementation in the only party that has ever taken our issues seriously and welcomed disabled people wholeheartedly.

    • Dan says:

      I’ve been following the comments being exchanged over the safe-spaces policy. It is, however, difficult to get a handle on the differences, when everyone seems intent on maligning the motivations of the other side.

      So I thought I would just ask outright. Mary, do you genuinely feel that critics of safe-spaces are motivated by a desire to exclude women?

      And does anyone have a concise summary of what safe spaces would practically entail for Left Unity, whether supportive or critical? I find the digressions into 1970s politics interesting, but unenlightening.

      • Felicity Dowling says:

        Dan this is the link to the document. Did you need more than this?

      • Dan says:

        (Sorry Felicity, I am unable to reply directly to you for some reason!)

        Yes, that is helpful, thank you. While I ‘have you’, so to speak, could I ask for your view of the following:

        There are clear and admirable declarations that transgressions of the safe spaces policy are unacceptable – even to the extent that you may be ‘conveying’ a particular expression of discrimination without meaning to (‘be on the safe side’, I guess!). However, it also says that ‘tolerance of other habits and norms will be expected’.

        Isn’t this somewhat contradictory, or does it mean that tolerance extends UP TO transgressions? In which case, is it in the ‘eye of the beholder’ or is there a separate document detailing what is and is not appropriate?

        The draft policy seems quite commonsensical, as someone commented in the thread you linked to. But equally, I imagine it is more an issue of how the policy is actually implemented. No one attracted to Left Unity is likely to be ‘in principle’ on the other side of this issue! (I would hope not, anyway.) It comes down to the sort of behaviour it endorses or censures, surely. In which case, the tone of this ongoing debate seems like a good example of where even the best policy can’t stop tempers from fraying.

    • Ray G says:


      Whatever the rights and wrongs of this policy, it is just not reasonable (indeed, may flout the safe spaces policy) to just blame any view you disagree with on the gender of the author. I am certain that Mike could name any number of female LU members who agree completely with his position, just as many male members agree with yours.

      I do not actually agree with Mike but I have also tried writing to Felicity to make the policy read more like part of our constitution with clear principles rather than a list of rhetorical exclamations, but alas my suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. The procedures we set up to deal with discriminatory or abusing behaviour need to be agreed, but for that to happen we do not all have to have full ideological agreement over WHY the policies are needed or an identical analysis of the reasons for the oppression of women, LGBT, disabled or black people. The document also needs to be timeless, and be stripped of topical references and statistics.

      It also needs to have safeguards for robust POLTIICAL disagreements to prevent the safe spaces policy being used as a way of clamping down on particular political positions (or dismissing someones views based on their gender, race etc!!)

      We need an in-between document that avoids the pitfalls of both the positions expressed so far.

    • Mike Macnair says:

      “takeover of Left Unity by MEN” – I wish that LU wasn’t in the situation that it has problems finding enough women willing to fill the gender quotas on leading bodies etc. My concern about the policy is actually more about what it means when there is a conflict between white women and black women/ muslim women, mothers and young women/ and so on, which is the sort of conflict which has caused problems with similar policies in the past.

      “Mike’s long tirade, … is symptomatic of a deep contempt for women and our capacity for rational thought”: exactly the contrary. Disagreeing with you and offering arguments, which are open to you knocking them down, is just how to *respect* your capacity for rational thought. It is *not* arguing which would be treating you with contempt for your rationality.

  5. Christopher Nickolay says:

    Hello. Please can someone tell me how to get to the discussion and decisions that began this conversation. I do have some things to say but want to read background first.
    Thank you

  6. TimP says:

    “Privacy and confidentiality are no more than private property in information”

    This may make me a capitalist running dog but I prefer to get undressed in private. And one or two other things too.

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