The left and women’s rights: why the case of Steve Hedley is as serious as the case of Martin Smith

By Esther Townsend and Sacha Ismail

rosieriveter

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For further comment see here.

NB After this briefing was written and published, Steve Hedley was present at the SP’s Socialism 2013 event (2-3 November), welcomed as a guest.

We have also repeatedly been told by SP members that Janine Booth voted on the RMT Council of Executives to accept the official report on the Steve Hedley case. This is simply not true. There was only one vote on the case, and Janine voted with the minority of the executive to reject it by referring it back. SP members should stop spreading this untruth and start engaging with the issues.

(Notes added 26 November 2013)

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On International Women’s Day (8 March) 2013, Steve Hedley, Assistant General Secretary of the RMT trade union, was accused of physical, verbal and emotional abuse in a public statement by his former partner, then RMT activist Caroline Leneghan. Caroline says that in 2012 he carried out a severe physical assault on her. You can read her initial statement and see pictures of her injuries here (content warning).

About two months previously Caroline had made formal complaints to the police and the RMT. The union carried out an investigation and, by the end of March, decided to take no further action against Hedley. So why are many on the left still complaining about what happened? This note attempts to explain. It also looks at the role of the Socialist Party, which Hedley was a member of until he resigned shortly after Caroline published her initial statement.

We believe this case should be treated as seriously as the SWP’s “Comrade Delta”/Martin Smith affair.

One thing to note: there is no political vendetta or anything of the sort here. For many years we worked relatively closely with Steve Hedley, and Workers’ Liberty members in the RMT supported his election as London Transport Regional Organiser (before this story broke) because he seemed to be the more left-wing candidate.

Steve Hedley and Caroline Leneghan

1. We are NOT claiming to know for sure whether Steve Hedley is guilty. We accept that in legal or disciplinary terms he should be regarded as innocent until proved guilty (and our concern here is not to try to reopen the RMT investigation). We do think it is unlikely that a woman would put herself through a difficult and painful investigation process without genuine cause.

2. Moreover, whether or not Steve Hedley is guilty of domestic abuse, we know from other incidents that he has behaved in a sexist and verbally abusive manner towards women. In December 2012, he posted comments on Facebook directed at a young woman, for which he has never apologised. This is documented on her blog here and here. His comments are abusive towards the young woman concerned because – regardless of the general level of aggression or swearing in the exchange – they descend to the level of commenting on her physical appearance and attractiveness as a partner, and speculation on her mental health and disability. Several participants in the discussion thread – men and women – commented that they found Steve Hedley’s comments unacceptable and sexist. It is particularly objectionable that a leading trade unionist, who calls himself a socialist, would make such comments. There is no issue here as to the facts of what Hedley posted: this is a matter of record. Neither the RMT nor the Socialist Party have made any comment on them. It could be argued that the union would need an official complaint in order to take action; the Socialist Party, however, is not bound by such formalities. It should at least have commented if it was aware of the issue. If it was not, we challenge it to comment now.

3. Hedley claims that the RMT investigation into Caroline’s case exonerated him. (See his statement here.) Caroline’s RMT representative Andy Littlechild, explains here why this is not the case. The RMT decided to take no action against Steve Hedley on the grounds of insufficient evidence, noting that the police had also decided not to recommend prosecution. The police took this decision, not because they felt there was no case to answer, but due to the amount of time that had elapsed since the incident. This meant the Crown Prosecution Service would have been unwilling to proceed. The statement from Andy Littlechild quotes the relevant correspondence from the police, which says: “Steve was not exonerated. It was simply that the matter was not capable of proof at Court”.

4. Andy’s statement, and before it Caroline’s 8 March statement, criticise the RMT’s investigation procedures. We will not comment on them here, except to say: those who believe that the SWP carried out a flawed investigation into the Martin Smith sexual assault cases have no reason to think a mainstream trade union incapable of comparable flaws. We don’t know for sure whether Martin Smith was guilty either. What we can say is that the fact that both Smith and Hedley had no action taken against them by the labour movement organisations they were part of is not necessarily decisive.

5. Steve Hedley responded to Caroline’s claims by publishing a statement publicly making claims about her mental health, in great detail. Treating someone’s mental health in this way is not acceptable. In this case, it also looks very much like the classic sexist phenomenon of dismissing a woman who says she has been abused as “mad”. He also accuses HER of abusing HIM, and of various other things, going into a remarkable amount of lurid detail. Andy’s statement makes clear that Caroline refutes these allegations. If anything, Steve Hedley’s statement looks damning of him, not of Caroline.

The role of the Socialist Party

6. After Caroline released her initial statement on 8 March, the Socialist Party said nothing until 14 March (although their members in the RMT knew about the case well before it became public). It then simply published a statement from Hedley saying he was resigning from the SP, which can be read here – and that was it. From the point of view of assessing the SP’s response, Hedley’s resignation is not really relevant. There was no POLITICAL break between him and the SP. The last line of his statement said he would continue to work closely with the organisation – this was the last line of the entire article, with no further comment from the SP.

7. On 2 April, the SP Executive Committee published a statement entitled “RMT investigation concludes: Steve Hedley has no case to answer”.
i) Andy Littlechild’s statement (linked to above) contests the idea that Hedley has “no case to answer”.
ii) Ignoring the issue of why the police did not proceed, the SP comments: “Some have attempted to raise doubts about the RMT’s investigation, but no flaws have been drawn to our attention”. This despite the serious flaws claimed in Andy and Caroline’s statements. Had the SP really not read this statement?
iii) The SP statement links to Steve Hedley’s statement in which he discusses Caroline Leneghan’s mental health, etc, and reports it in a sympathetic manner.
iv) The SP also comments: “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”. This is factually true. However, in this context, this sentence is obviously included to suggest endorsement of Steve Hedley’s claims against Caroline – claims which she refutes, although the SP does not mention this.
v) The SP continues to refer to Hedley positively – the final line is once again a political endorsement and an assurance that the SP will continue to work closely with him.

8. We are not saying that the Socialist Party should have declared Hedley guilty without an investigation. Moreover, there is not an exact blueprint on how the SP should have proceeded in terms of waiting for the RMT’s investigation to conclude, conducting a separate investigation and so on. This is not the question of principle we are addressing. The problem is that, rather than try to get the truth of what happened, the SP used the pretext of the RMT investigation to avoid dealing with the issue. It ignored what the police said, ignored claims of flaws in the investigation, ignored the RMT’s actual findings and uncritically reproduced Hedley’s version of events and statements on the issue. It adopted the distorted narrative of Hedley being cleared, and went one step further to promote his unacceptable, reactionary, personal attacks on Caroline Leneghan; attacks which she contests and denies. While reporting that Steve Hedley denied Caroline’s allegations against him, it did not to our knowledge report that she denied his allegations against her.

Political conclusions

9. This case is as serious as the Martin Smith case.

10. It seems that the Socialist Party acted like it did, consciously hiding behind technicalities and truisms, and the existence of an RMT investigation, in order to prevent the question of women’s rights disrupting its relationship with Steve Hedley. This looks like an example of this organisation idolising prominent “left-wing” trade unionists and dismissing their critics out of hand – even when this means showing a contemptuous attitude towards a woman who says she was violently abused. (For more on the SP’s attitude to sexism in the labour movement, see here.)

11. The SWP’s handling of the Martin Smith cases was atrocious, but there has been major argument, struggle and even splits in the organisation as a result of it. As far as we know, there has been little similar in the SP (we would be very happy to be corrected). To be clear: problems, including severe problems, can occur in any organisation. What we are objecting to is the SP’s leadership’s response to these problems. We should say here that, on the suggestion of an SP member, we wrote to SP deputy general secretary Hannah Sell about these issues. That was on 14 August: almost two months later we have not received a reply, or even an acknowledgement.

12. We call on Socialist Party comrades to stand up to their leaders about the organisation’s handling of the Steve Hedley/Caroline Leneghan case. We also challenge the Socialist Party to comment on Hedley’s sexist tirade discussed in point 2.

• For the Workers’ Liberty’s original coverage of this case, on 10 March and 3 July, see here and here.

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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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