Not the way to tackle violence against women

By Cathy Nugent

At the 2013 AGM of the transport union RMT (23-28 June, Brighton), an appeal about the conduct of an investigation into a complaint brought by RMT member Caroline Leneghan against Assistant General Secretary Steve Hedley accusing him of domestic violence was withdrawn. That was done at Caroline’s request.

The case is now “closed”. The way it was discussed over some months has re-raised questions about the conduct of the labour movement and left which need to be addressed.

One general issue is the lack of knowledge, culture and expertise in the labour movement about violence against women. But there also appears to be an almost wilful insensitivity on these issues by some on the left.

While the SWP’s handling of the investigation into rape allegations against a leading member, which made it into the mainstream press, continues to trouble us and others, less attention has been focused on how the Socialist Party conduct themselves. In particular how this, the second-largest far-left group in Britain, of which Hedley was then a member, responded to Caroline’s complaint. That too fell far short of what we should expect from socialist organisations.

On 8 March 2013, Caroline published a blog post detailing her experiences during her relationship with Steve Hedley and including photographs of injuries she had sustained.

Domestic violence is an under-reported but extremely serious crime — its effects can be very damaging to long-term health and well-being. Every socialist should know this.

Yet despite the fact that Hedley was one of their most prominent trade union members, the Socialist Party made no public comment on the matter until 14 March, when they published a short note explaining that he had resigned from the Socialist Party. The note said: “Steve refutes this allegation, which is currently being investigated by the RMT.”

It also quoted, without comment, from Hedley’s resignation letter, in which he said: “Regarding our conversation earlier the police have dropped the case and I’m currently awaiting the outcome of the RMT investigation.

“I am not in control of when the decision will be made and have been strongly advised against issuing a public statement whilst investigations are ongoing.

“I know this puts the Socialist Party in a difficult position and am therefore resigning my membership.

“I will continue to support TUSC and the NSSN and work constructively with SP comrades.”

There was no statement that the SP itself took the allegations against Hedley seriously, or even a general affirmation that they should be independently investigated. To reproduce Hedley’s note without comment suggested he was somehow being self-sacrificing in his resignation and that he was the victim in the situation.

That presentation is highly problematic. The vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women. It is, as the SP should know, a problem rooted in systemic oppression of women; women do not make these accusations lightly. In any similar situation a socialist, labour movement, or any other democratic organisation should be, minimally, neutral. They should not adopt a stance of disbelieving the victim.

Ten days later, Hedley published a statement in which he claimed he had been “cleared of domestic violence”. He also claimed publicly that the real issue was Caroline Leneghan’s mental health, and that he had been a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of domestic violence.

On 2 April the Socialist Party published an article entitled: “RMT investigation concludes: Steve Hedley has no case to answer”. The article said: “Following an in-depth investigation the RMT has concluded that there is ‘no case to answer’ against Steve and decided that the union ‘will not be taking any further action on this matter’. The police had previously investigated and concluded they would be taking no action.”

The article included (at last!) an affirmation of view that “all allegations of violence against women should be taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly, in a way that is sympathetic towards the woman making the accusation”. This should have been their immediate response!

The article also said: “Some have attempted to raise doubts about the RMT’s investigation, but no flaws have been drawn to our attention.” The article did not mention that Caroline Leneghan was appealing about the conduct of the RMT investigation, though the SP must have known that.

The article concluded by linking to Hedley’s statement of 28 March, about which the SP said: “Domestic violence is, in the large majority of cases, a crime carried out by men against women, but we recognise that there are some cases of women being violent towards men.

“Steve would clearly have preferred not to have to give a public explanation of the events concerned, but has had no choice but to do so given the public allegations that had been made against him.”

They concluded that the SP “will continue to work with Steve on the urgent task of building a mass movement against austerity.”

In summary, the article accepted Hedley’s claims to have been the victim here and to have been “cleared”.

For information, a long article written by Andy Littlechild, the RMT activist representing Caroline in the internal investigation, was published on Caroline’s blog on 7 April, refuting Steve’s claim that he had “no case to answer”.

The Socialist Party’s only other public comment of relevance is Hannah Sell’s long article “Combating violence against women: a socialist perspective”, published on 11 April. This was in part a polemic against the authors of a statement entitled “Our movement must be a safe space for women”, published on 19 March. I commented on that here.

By the time of Unison conference (17-21 June), SP (and SWP) members were arguing in favour of an amendment, submitted by one of the authors of the statement they had polemicised against, which committed the union to take a more serious attitude towards confronting violence against women. However, they supported it with so many qualifications that their “support” actually lent weight to the opposition. The amendment was voted down.

The emphasis of the Socialist Party’s public statements throughout this issue, notwithstanding a single sentence in their statement of 2 April, was to defend Hedley, almost declaring him innocent in advance, rather than maintain a proper distance from him while investigations and appeals were ongoing. Their first concern seems to have been to reaffirm him as an important figure whom they wished to continue working with.

If Socialist Party comrades wish to make the labour movement and the revolutionary left accessible spaces for activists of all genders, and challenge the male-dominated, machismo culture that is still prevalent, they urgently need to hold their leadership to account for its recent record.

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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