The SWP: slain by cynical scandal-milkers

The socialists have joined the Catholic Church and the BBC as victims of a corrosive zeitgeist that views all institutions as nests of perverts.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What do Britain’s Socialist Workers’ Party, the Catholic Church and the BBC have in common? At a glance, nothing. One is a godless far-left party that has lots of gutsy women in its ranks; one is a God-fearing church that refuses to let women don the priestly smock; and one is a vast broadcasting corporation which is neither gutsy nor godly but is quite smug. Yet despite the gaping chasms that separate these three institutions, they do share one striking thing in common: all have recently been shaken to their core by sex scandals, by accusations of behavioural depravity, by claims that they are not safe environments for women or children.

Now perhaps it is true that these three institutions really are ‘nests of paedophiles’ (as one politician described the BBC in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal), or ‘systemically paedophile’ (as the Catholic Church has been branded), or havens of ‘sexual abuse and misogyny’ (as has been said of the SWP), and we have all just happened upon this triple terrible truth in recent months. Or perhaps – and I think this is far more likely – these institutions have simultaneously fallen victim to the sick spirit of the age and a deeply corrosive zeitgeist: that is, politicised scandal-mongering; the fashion for turning incidents of individual misconduct into battering rams against ideologies or theologies some people detest, and against the idea of hierarchical organisation itself.

The British SWP’s travails are titillating newspaper commentators and the living-dead remains of the old left across the land. The trouble started a couple of months ago, when it was revealed that an SWP member had made an allegation of rape against an SWP leader, and that a sizeable portion of the party membership wasn’t happy that the party’s disputes committee basically found the accused not guilty. Cue outraged headlines, everywhere from the Independent to the Daily Mail, about the SWP using a ‘kangaroo court’, or better still a ‘socialist sharia court’, to rule on a serious alleged offence. Things worsened for the SWP this week, following new claims by an anonymous party member, made to a newspaper, about also being raped by a party official and then being asked inappropriate questions about her drinking habits by the disputes committee.

What is striking about the SWP crisis is how, in a direct echo of the fates that befell the Catholics and the BBC, these as-yet unproven allegations of wicked behaviour have been super-speedily transformed into evidence that the entire organisation is rotten to its core – in fact that the entire far left, being apparently made up of swaggering blokes, is a hotbed of ‘sexual abuse and misogyny’. The SWP is now referred to in newspapers as a ‘dangerous environment for women’. Even to someone like me – who spent his younger years in the bright and heretical Revolutionary Communist Party rather than in the drab SWP, and who got into many a heated row with SWP people at Uni – that description of the SWP doesn’t ring true. My memory of the SWP is that its women were quite formidable, certainly very shouty, sometimes even spittle-flecked, as they bellowed about the Tories and/or war. It feels opportunistically revisionist, and plain wrong, to see the SWP now rechristened ‘dangerous for women’.

What is happening here is that, just as the Catholic-hating set milked incidents of priestly abuse to try to do over a whole Church, and just as right-wing BBC-bashers exploited the Savile scandal to depict the entire Beeb as morally warped, so those with an aversion to radical leftism are using internal rape allegations to try to finish off the SWP. In essence, and pretty grotesquely, those alleged victims of rape are being turned by anti-left observers into Trojan Horses against Trotskyism, into ventriloquist’s dummies who might be used to mouth all sorts of stern judgements against ‘men in powerful positions on the left’. In one way, the SWP brought this upon itself. One of its worst traits was always its political opportunism, its thoughtless openness to whatever left-sounding fad happened to be floating by, no matter how flimsy or backward it might have been. And as one blogger points out, one of the trends blindly embraced by the SWP was identity-based feminism, which was ‘moralistic and oppressive’ rather than liberatory, and which ‘fostered authority rather than subverting it, demanding an eternal vigilance about “sexism” [and] enforcing a humourless respectability’. So if some SWP members are up in arms about the leadership’s insufficient recognition of the needs and alleged fragility of women, that could well be a rod created by the party itself for its own beleaguered back. But aligned with this, there’s a palpable thirst among observers for exploiting the party’s crisis to duff up the party’s ideology.

This is one of the ugliest trends in modern politics: the way scandal-milking has replaced political or theological critique to become the surest way to dent an institution you hate. The political and media classes have developed a nauseating habit of circumventing taxing moral argument in favour of simply saying to some group they don’t like: ‘You have a pervert in your ranks and therefore your whole institution must be perverted!’ The problem with this new voyeuristic, prurient style of attack is that it dumbs down political debate, by replacing principled criticism with salacious gossip, and it ratchets up panic about perverts, by encouraging everyone to believe that pretty much every organisation is a nest of weirdos. It eviscerates the political sphere, and nurtures overblown sexual fears.

And strikingly, it calls into question the virtue of organisation itself, especially leadership-based, committed organisation, and the wisdom of having institutions that derive their moral authority more from their own membership and beliefs than from external trends. This is one of the major blow-ups from the SWP crisis: the idea that closely knitted groups with their own internal logic and morality are deeply problematic because they foster a warped outlook and cultish behaviour. Ironically, given that the SWP’s biggest problem has been its failure to insulate itself from the general drift of political sentiment, that party is now slated for being one of those ‘organisations of committed people’, as one observer sniffily calls them, that arrogantly develops its own rules and ways of thinking. Similar criticisms were made of the BBC for seeking to resolve the Savile crisis in-house, and of the Catholic Church for having weird private spaces which, we were told, allowed perversity to flourish.

What is really being ridiculed by the corrosive zeitgeist that treats all organisations as sex dens waiting to be exposed is the old but important belief that people have the right to organise themselves in such a way that they remain resistant to mainstream thinking and, to a certain extent, to the rules and regulations of everyday life. The right of organisation itself is being called into question by the prurient modern pressure to prove that your network is not a nest of sickos, and the pressure to fling yourself open to external peering and to external, mainstream – that is, PC – values. In these lackadaisical, commitment-phobic times, there’s a breed of leisured, self-absorbed observer who finds the idea of devoting oneself to any closed-off institution, whether political, religious or public-service, a bit bonkers – meaning they view all churches and parties as inherently corrupting, or at least questionable.

You might not lose sleep over the SWP’s steady demise. But you should be concerned about the rise of a style of politics that cynically uses scandal to achieve ideological ends, and which treats all private organisations as necessarily depraved. I mean, if even the SWP, long-time home of loud women, can be rebranded a ‘dangerous environment for women’, then literally no organisation is safe from the pseudo-feministic hunt to bring down any institution that harbours perverts, which is apparently all of them.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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