‘Capitalism in Crisis’ declared the posters, words like ‘revolution’ and ‘resistance’ echoed across the floor, and there was a tub-thumping ‘call to arms’ to fight the austerity cuts.
But behind the predictable rabble-rousing, a scandal was brewing.
Committee: Candy Udwin, 58, daughter of an eminent psychiatrist who enjoyed all the privileges of a comfortable middle-class upbringing in the leafy Surrey suburbs, now sits on the party¿s seven-strong 'disputes committee'
Allegations: The rape allegations were made by a woman in her 20s against a middle-aged, full-time party activist who has a partner
She is in her 20s. He is a middle-aged, full-time party activist who has a partner. Remember, when you read what follows, that the SWP is also an organisation that has always professed to champion the cause of women’s rights. Many of its estimated 2,000 or so members are women, after all.
Women such as comrade Candy Udwin. Miss Udwin, 58, daughter of an eminent psychiatrist who enjoyed all the privileges of a comfortable middle-class upbringing in the leafy Surrey suburbs, now sits on the party’s seven-strong ‘disputes committee’.
The committee — or DC — is the mechanism for resolving routine grievances and disciplinary matters in the party ranks.
Activist: Amy Leather, 37, from Manchester, a regular contributor to the Socialist Worker newspaper who was involved in the protest camp outside St Paul's Cathedral also sits on the committee
‘We [on the disputes committee] are here to protect the interests of the party and to make sure that any inappropriate behaviour of any kind by comrades is dealt with, and we do that according to the politics of a revolutionary party,’ she said.
Even, it seems, when the ‘dispute’ involves the aforementioned allegation of rape. Not just sexist or misogynistic behaviour, but rape.
Instead of calling in the police, it now transpires the claims were dealt with internally by Candy Udwin and her comrades on the disputes committee. The SWP insists it was the alleged victim herself who chose not to involve the police, but that does not excuse the charade that ensued.
No one on the committee knew the young woman, but all seven knew the ‘accused’ — who, it must be said, has vehemently denied the allegations against him. He was referred to as Comrade Delta throughout what can only be described as the kangaroo court hearing that followed.
Five of the committee had even worked alongside him at the SWP. That revelation alone would have immediately disqualified any potential juror from trying a case in the British courts.
It was not the only shortcoming. Comrade Delta was given a copy of his accuser’s statement before the hearing, but she did not see ‘his evidence against her’. The woman was also subjected to embarrassing questions about her sexual history and relationships with men.
The SWP, just to remind you, is the party which often boasts of its proud record on women’s rights.
What verdict then did the ‘disputes committee’ eventually reach?
They exonerated Comrade Delta. The decision was unanimous and was approved by conference. Party members voted to accept the panel’s findings by 231 votes to 209, before retiring to enjoy a buffet supper.
Could there be anything more distasteful — or plain wrong — than asking for a show of hands to ‘decide’ whether a young woman had been raped?
Author: Esme Choonara, 50, author of a Rebels's Guide To Trotsky and a London Ambulance Service employee sits on the seven-strong committee
The only spurious justification given at Hammersmith Town Hall for these shameful events (apart from the fact they say they had the young woman’s consent) was that the SWP had no confidence ‘in the bourgeois court system’ to deliver justice.
Of course, the SWP, which describes itself as a ‘revolutionary socialist party’ in the tradition of Leon Trotsky, didn’t want you to find out about any of this.
The only reason that details have leaked out now is because someone made a secret recording of the ‘dispute committee session’ at the annual conference. A transcript has now been posted on the internet. It runs to 27 damning pages.
The fallout has resulted in a string of resignations from the party.
One veteran stalwart who quit in disgust over the controversy accused the SWP of organising a ‘kangaroo court.’ Another that the SWP ‘thinks it’s outside the law’.
Surely no one, aside from fanatics who run the SWP, would disagree with either assertion.
Member: DC member Maxine Bowler, 54, from Sheffield, a community worker who once had a review of a play about Mary Shelly published in Socialist Worker online
Even so, their part in the debacle is difficult to defend. One of the women who effectively acted as judge and jury in the case, we have learned, was actually a trained rape counsellor.
The consequences for the young woman who made the allegation have been devastating.
The unnamed female party member claims she was assaulted over a six-month period between 2008 and 2009, although she only made a formal complaint to the SWP leadership in September of last year. It is understood that she appeared before the disputes committee some weeks later. The committee spent four days ‘investigating’ the complaint.
‘She felt like she was being interrogated and felt they were trying to catch her out in order to make her out to be a liar,’ revealed a close friend quoted in a transcript of the conference coverage.
‘She did not accept the line of questioning, saying, “They think I’m a slut who asked for it.” ’
Precisely the kind of behaviour Candy Udwin and her fellow Trotskyites say the police are often guilty of.
Worse was to follow after the hearing. Both the young woman and the witnesses who supported her at the hearing have been vilified where they live.
‘The disgusting lies and gossip that have been going round about her have been really distressing for her,’ the friend told the conference. ‘And the way her own witnesses have been treated hasn’t been much better.’
Yet the experience of the man accused of raping her could hardly have been more different.
He once had a top role in the SWP — and is still a full-time party activist. He has represented the SWP at key conferences.
And there is something else you should know about Comrade Delta. A second woman, known as Miss X, also accused him of sexual harassment.
The disputes committee also found this case against comrade Delta was ‘not proven’. No further details about the allegations are known.
But Miss X spoke up at the conference in Hammersmith. This is what she said: ‘I want to just quickly outline why I think there were problems with the way the dispute was conducted.
‘First, I think the composition of the disputes committee was problematic.
Rights: The party has long championed women's rights
‘I want to reiterate — this is not an attack on the comrades’ integrity. I just believe the nature of the investigation was fundamentally flawed. The accused was able to see my evidence four days in advance of any questioning to prepare his defence.
‘I was not made aware of the evidence the accused brought to contradict my case — I had no opportunity to challenge his testimony. I was still denied the right to even basic details of his response — whether he denied it ever happened or had given a different version of events.
‘None of my witnesses were called. I was never cross-examined following the accused’s evidence.
‘Obviously there are instances where people may come forward with malicious intent, so it’s right to investigate claims.
‘However, women do not come forward lightly in cases like these. We should start from the belief and attempt to substantiate the woman’s complaint.
‘Finally, the worst part was the nature of some of the questioning. I was asked if it was fair to say I liked to have a drink. That’s all I need to say on the matter.’
Innocence: Members of the ¿disputes committee¿ (of which more later) told the conference that whatever criticisms may be levelled against them, they acted in good faith and were convinced of Comrade Delta¿s innocence
The bottom line?
The allegations of both these women have not been properly determined, because the ‘verdicts’ of the party’s disputes committee are utterly meaningless.
We already know one of those who ‘investigated’ the rape allegation: Candy Udwin. She once worked as a medical receptionist.
The other members of the disputes committee were: Maxine Bowler, 54, from Sheffield, a community worker who once had a review of a play about Mary Shelly published in Socialist Worker online; Esme Choonara, 50, author of a Rebels’s Guide To Trotsky and a London Ambulance Service employee; Amy Leather, 37, from Manchester, a regular contributor to the Socialist Worker newspaper who was involved in the protest camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral; Londoner Pat Stack, chair of the appeals committee that overseas expulsions from the SWP; and, finally, Rhetta Moran, also from Manchester, trained rape counsellor and founder of a refugees’ charity.
All have either refused to comment about the controversy or have not yet responded to written requests to be interviewed.
The partner of Comrade Delta shut the door when a Mail reporter called at the accused comrade’s address this week.
Tom Walker, a journalist on the party’s Socialist Worker newspaper, has resigned over the rape case row. He has now published his reasons for doing so online.
‘The disputes committee — and by extension the entire mess that followed — should simply never have happened,’ he wrote.
‘To be honest, it is nothing short of incredible that it was allowed to go ahead. What right does the party have to organise its very own “kangaroo court” investigation and judgment over such serious allegations against a leading member? None whatsoever.
‘I also wonder what on earth the disputes committee thought it was going to do if it found Comrade Delta guilty. Expel him and send him on his way?’
That perhaps is the most pertinent question of all — and one that the militants from the Socialist Workers Party would find impossible to answer.