Which side is the left on?

Submitted by Matthew on 8 August, 2013 - 1:55

At Unison National Delegate Conference 2013, we discussed a motion about creating “a safe space for women in the labour movement”. We also discussed an amendment about male violence against women. I am still angry about the discussion around the amendment and upset by the fact it was defeated.

The original, uncontroversial, motion was about organising women in the labour movement, actively supporting young women, buddying systems and many other ways. The amendment on male violence against women should have been uncontroversial. Sadly, it wasn’t.

This is the text of the amendment:

“We believe that our trade union has the potential to transform society for the better. Therefore we have a particular responsibility to confront and challenge male violence against women within our movement. Male violence against women is not acceptable in any case. It must not be tolerated from those who hold office or power in our movement.

“We recognise the enormous challenges faced by women victims of male violence, and the pressures which women face, including from abusive men, not to complain about violence and abuse. We therefore believe that, when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade union should start from a position of believing women. We believe that all women who complain of male violence have the right to be listened to and supported.

“[Conference resolves to] Review existing practice and subsequently issue guidance to all Unison bodies about how to respond to male violence against women in our movement.”

Prior to the discussion about the amendment, our main concern was the attitude of the SWP. The National Executive were supporting it. The SWP’s official line was “support with qualifications”. (Yes, I thought that was bureaucratic rubbish too.)

So what were the qualifications? Apparently, the idea of “believing” women when they make disclosures of domestic violence, harassment or sexual violence is controversial. Their argument is that this interferes with due process and changes the presumption of innocence.

The lack of understanding about the barriers women face when coming forward to make a complaint was shocking.

Surely it is well known that whenever women come forward they have their previous relationships, sexual history, drinking habits and mental health brought into question.

That they doubt themselves and don’t expect to be believed.

It should be different in the trade unions. When a union member comes to you saying they’re being bullied or harassed (male or female), do you say “I’m afraid I need to look at the evidence before I decide”, or do you listen, be supportive and plan how to help them? Why should this approach change with regard to male violence against women?

The first speeches against the motion were all about the fact that it focuses solely on male violence against women. There are so many problems with this I almost don’t know where to start.

Women are the main victims of domestic violence. That is a fact. Two women die a week as a result of domestic violence.

Nothing in this amendment suggested that other types of violence will be ignored or discounted (those victims might like to be believed too). In fact, quite the opposite: reassurance was given that they would be included.

In the debate the majority of speakers in favour of the amendment — notably the SWP but also the Socialist Party — made so many qualifications that at times I got confused.

The whole debate was very muddled. Sadly, many delegations (the majority) come without a mandate and without any discussion about how to vote. Without a delegation lead there was no sense that voting was about anything other than individual opinion.

The fact that this amendment was controversial and was defeated is shocking and disgraceful. It is, however, useful in putting up a mirror to the labour movement and the left. We need to have some honesty and understand where we are before we can fight to change anything. And where we are is woefully behind in terms of our political consciousness on how to tackle violence against women.

Unison has the official equality structures but what it doesn’t have is vibrant self-organisation, real democracy and a rank and file organisation which unites people to fight the cuts and engages them on other issues, including the struggle for women’s liberation. Let this serve as a wake up call.

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