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Why left Unity needs Safe Spaces

June 3, 2014

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;
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
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
Hate crime against Muslims has risen to become part of the fabric of politics, with women the main targets
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
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:
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 “
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.

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One Comment
  1. brigittelechner permalink

    I am a newish member but have see the safe space policy. Initially, I thought this was meant in lieu of ‘ground rules’ most groups nowadays would base their interactions on. I told comrades that this wasn’t it, as ground rules are normally numbered. We ought to have ground rules for meetings that every new member in a branch would be given. But in addition, a policy document such as a ‘safe space policy is good to have to spell out the values and expectations in clear terms; to make it absolutely clear what is expected and what values we stand for. We cannot take these for granted. If ground rules are like the highway code then the safe space policy is an equal rights constitution.

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