Labour Party conference debates Iraq

Submitted by Janine on 6 October, 2004 - 9:32

At this year's Labour Party Conference there was a collective amnesia about the split in the party on the issue of the War in Iraq. Delegates who opposed the war got up to say that we must all leave this behind and all pull together to rebuild Iraq. Unions that had opposed the war agreed an NEC Statement, carried overwhelmingly, that firmly shut away the destabilising aspects of Blair's decision to go to war on Iraq. A critical motion that called for a date to be set for an early withdrawl of troops was defeated approx 80% to 20%, with the vote in the Union section even higher: 90% to 10%. This was particularly ironic as at TUC not two weeks previously, the vast majority of Unions supported a similarly worded motion!

The reasons that the Iraq issue was put to bed on the Labour Party Conference floor can be explained by it being the last Conference before a probable General Election. The stakes are however very high. When the Iraq War was last properly discussed at the Conference, in 2002, before the troops went in, there was a 40% vote at the Conference against all military action in Iraq, and the vote for action stressed the need for the involvement of the UN. It probably reflected public opinion at the time.

Since then public opinion on the war has hardened and many more Labour party members have left because of the war. This changed circumstance was not however reflected at this year's Conference.

The fig leaf used by the Blairites to cover their naked 'save Tony' strategy was trade union support for the Allawi government. In order to persuade the Big Four Union delegations that they should oppose the critical motion, representatives of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions attended delegation meetings to argue against any early withdrawal of troops, and to put the case that the decision on this was down to the Iraqi elected Government (where?) rather than Labour Party Conference.

At a fringe meeting supported by the Fabian Society, The Observer, LabourStart, War on Want and UNISON, the position of "Labour Friends of Iraq" was trumpeted. The focus on the need to rebuild trade union organisation in Iraq, promote soildarity between British workers and Iraqi workers, and the need to financially support the providing of the basics of civil society (water, electricity, communications, jobs, homes etc) is of course fundamental for the people of Iraq. However it was equally important for the democracy and political representation of the British Labour movement that Tony Blair should have been criticised for what we all know was a major and costly misjudgement, to wage war on Iraq, at his own Party Conference.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/10/2004 - 22:40

Chase the ace: Iraq, Labour Conference and the 3 card trick…

Blarities and general elections heh?

Making much out of an apparently manoeuvring leadership and mixing it in with other left commonplaces adds up to a good read which proceeds at pace, entertains the reader and serves to reassure that all in the world of the left is in its proper place. But this knock-about stuff is no substitute for understanding the real issues at play during the Iraq debate at Party conference. Indeed, I wonder if you deliberately write at such a lick in order to misdirect. Is the article a three-card trick designed to keep you within the left-family; a cover for some politics which you would rather not share?

But first, I’ll be tolerant. Maybe you are right and of the competing analytical frameworks that we have at hand your tribal version of UK politics (where the actions of the Left are good and those of the Right always bad) is indeed the most useful. However, another way of understanding what went on is to think about it from the perspective of Iraqi socialists and the living issues on the ground in their country. I think this is the better vantage point. But, still in the spirit of tolerance, lets suspend disbelief for a moment and agree your prism is the best viewing devise. We can move on to the other lens in a minute.

The number-crunching within the lead piece is possibly right: perhaps there was an anti-war majority on Conference floor. But even if such a majority did exist then there was still no chance of it passing an anti-war resolution. You know that and I know you know it. Regardless of policies decided at any other time and place (and the TUC motion is not the same as the LAW position – more of which later) such a motion would simply not have got through. I cannot conceive of a scenario that gives a different outcome.
Your vantage point, complete with its goodies and baddies, allows you to smart against the leadership rather than interrogate the politics of the situation. You run to this, your default mode, rather than examine the reasons why the unions did not vote for the motion you cheer on: actually, they did not vote for it because its politics were bad. The Labour Against the War motion represented the 'anti-imperialist' wing of the debate. The wing that flies to hideous parts of the world where your neighbours turn you in and the trains only run to the factories. It was pretty ropey. I think the authors - as voices of a political current, if not as individuals- really believe that the US wants to stay in Iraq and that the resistance is an army of national liberation. Either that or they fancy themselves as strategic advisors who know how best to compose an exit strategy from war-zones. Perhaps they have watched too much of the West Wing.

The unions were right not to vote for it. Consider the issue of substance. It is do with the terms ‘speedy withdrawal’ as in the TUC resolution and ‘set a date for withdrawal’ from the LAW motion. You describe the two resolutions as ‘similarly worded’ and indeed they are – if you are not able to read them politically. The two phrases represent different views of the world: similar words – entirely different meanings.
The ‘speedy withdrawal’ of the TUC motion recognises the troops are not the long-term answer; but just as importantly it recognises that they are not the whole picture of the political processes at play. Everyone wants troops out – some want them out at a pre-set date, regardless of the state of play on the ground: others want them to go as part of a political settlement beneficial to Iraqis. A world of difference.

Turn the lens to actual, living Iraq and privileging the withdrawal of troops above a settlement to create a democratic Iraq is either foolish or downright hostile to progressive Iraqis. At worst it is a murderous demand possibly paving the way for a massive reaction on par with Iran or Afghanistan; bloody civil war and probably partition. I repeat: the unions were right not to vote for the LAW motion.

If AWL had the strength in the Party to get a motion to conference floor I’m sure you would not have composited in with this anti-imperialism of idiots. But in your commentary you are either guilty of deception or of following your heart and not using your head. You line up with the traditional left, even though I suspect you know they are wrong and need to be faced down! Perhaps the worse thing you could think of was to be isolated with us.

Your paragraphs on the IFTU fringe meeting reveal your dilemma. You know that Iraq may prove to be the hinge of our times and there are two glittering prizes that can be won. The first is the reconstruction of a democratic, secular Iraq: a beacon for progressives across the mid-east.

The second is the construction of a left-wing able to fight tyranny and break from the stupidities of its own history. And the consequences of the debate, rather than the debate itself are prime examples of such idiocies.

A couple of days after Conference an article in one of the big Arab dailies declared the IFTU reps. to be communists and agents and maybe quislings too (they got to it before George in the Morning Star). This ups the stakes in the battle against potentially murderous stupidities. And this moral disintegration is trumped by this week's SWP editorial where Bush becomes Hitler and killing informers/collaborators is more or less ok. Claire Short chimed in on the radio saying much the same this afternoon. Here the left lines up with some of the most reactionary forces on earth: personally, any friend of theirs is no friend of mine – or more importantly, no friend of Iraq. Surely you can see the need to face them down rather than avoid the issue?

Now, had you argued that you would have preferred a resolution which condemned the war, condemned the reactionaries of the resistance and demanded fullspeed to a democratic political settlement, reconstruction and sovereignty, then you would have had a case for voting against the Derbyshire resolution. I would not agree that was the right tactic, as it would never have been passed – but at least in that scenario you would not be choosing the wrong friends.

Jane Ashworth

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 08/10/2004 - 12:43

From Martin Thomas

We oppose both the occupation and the Islamist "resistance", and favour the development of an independent working-class Third Camp. This view has been explained at length on this site, including in our May 2004 AWL conference motion.

So we're against slogans and motions which just say "end the occupation" as if that is a full answer, or "troops out now" (implying support for the Islamist militias).

But we are also against Bush and Blair!

Where we can't get our own motions or amendments on the table, we have to make second-best choices. But I cannot imagine any circumstances where the second-best choice would be to back Bush and Blair.

The actual effect of the Labour Friends of Iraq/ Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions intervention at the Labour Party conference was to give Blair a free hand to carry on backing Bush. Whatever sophistry may be used to evade this fact, it was de facto support to Bush's policy - brutal, arrogant, militaristic, privatise-at-all-costs, "spot of trouble? Slaughter a few hundred more civilians and that'll show them!" - which, far from being a democratic alternative to the rise of Islamist reaction, has fuelled that rise.

There are many things to be said against the George Galloway/ SWP line, and the softened versions of it which have influence in the Labour and trade union left. We have said those things, and will continue to say them.

But not by way of selling our political souls to Tony Blair and George W Bush.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 08/10/2004 - 17:41

In reply to by AWL

So you think its ok to back a wrong position providing it involves soul-selling to your prefered devil...Actually no selling took place, but had there to be some, and in general terms, I would prefer to trade living at the fag end of American imperialism for living in the state offered by the resistance. So would you, I feel sure to say.

But that was not the issue in play. The political issue here is not just about condeming the war, which I would have done, but about the nature of the resistance. You went soft on it. Read the resolution again - it is not pro-war!And I am a bit shocked that you put about the idea that I supported killing civilians. It is a surprise to me that you even suggest I do.

Submitted by Pete on Sat, 09/10/2004 - 11:09

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Jane (and I presume it is Jane again)
The political issue (at Party conference) was about the 'nature of the resistance'. Really?
I don't remember the newspaper headlines about that. I do remember headlines about how Blair had beaten back criticism of his Iraq policy.
If you weren't looking to make shameful excuses for your friends, you would see that.
There are flaws in the wording and the reasoning behind 'early withdrawal' formulations, OK. But what about the position you support?
Haven't you noticed that Blair has moved the goalposts - knowing he could hardly win support for a justification of the war. Now to preserve his alliance with Bush, he concentrates on asking people to support the continuing occupation. The position adopted allows him to do that.
The Islamist militias have to be opposed, but so does that brutal occupation. At least the instigators of it, such as Blair, should not be actively supported when attacked by their own party members! You and your friends did exactly that.
That is shameful not only from a moral point of view but because it seriously limits the development of UK working class solidarity with the Iraqi trade union movement. It presents the Iraqi trade union movement, falsely, as a strong ally of the US/UK occupation. That can only mystify the issues and concern those who believe the Iraqi trade unions are the advocates of a democratic alternative to both that occupation and the Islamists.
Apart from career-seeking bureaucrats and CPI politicians, it has to be doubted whether that is the case with workers on the ground.
Pete Radcliff

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 09/10/2004 - 22:37

In reply to by Pete


An AWL editorial writen by Sean Matgamna stated that the coalition was 'relatively progressive' against the danger of the 'vast regression of Iraqi society' represented by the 'fascistic' resistance. Sean also argued that calls for 'troops out now' should, therefore, be 'condemned'. Sean also wrote that the relevant comparison was WW2 and that socialists today should give critical support to the coalition while continuing to fight for socialism, just as the ILP had given critical support to the allies against the axis powers, in Britain during the Second World War. In effect Sean was saying that there are times when the third camp fights its corner from a position of critical support for the first camp. He called this 'revolutionary defensism'.

It seems to me that Sean's position and the position taken up by yourself, Martin, and more or less the entire AWL (third camp as abstract propoganda, a point of eqi-distance between the 'twin evils', etc) are poles apart. But I dont want to get involved in your internal split.

The point is that conference and the unions were doing no more than recognising the wisdom of the kind of sensible socialist policy advanced by Sean. They did not, as Martin wildly alleges, 'back Bush'. Nor did Sean. Nor did the IFTU. Both the Unions and the IFTU back the speedy withdrawal of the coalition as part of a political settlement. Both call for elections, democracy, labour rights, womens rights, the return of sovereignty and the speedy withdrawal of the US-UK troops.

But the idea of setting a fixed date for withdrawal, no matter what the situation on the ground, is something else entirely. For many it means 'troops out now' which s idiotic. For others it means lets hold the poll in January and then leave the next day, which is idiot-lite. Either way, its not serious politics.

The AWL should have no trouble in opposing the idea of a fixed date for withdrawal. If the AWL did not think a set date for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland was a good policy in the 1990s(and you did not, arguing instead that the troops should only come out as part of a political settlement, casting our own role as working for the best political settement for the working class)then why are the AWL backing the call for an arbitrary date for withdrawal of troops from Iraq where the situation is far more violent, and the damage that would be done to the prospects of the nascent labour movement and the third camp by a precipitate withdrawal would be far greater? (dont you have a responsibility, Pete, to judge what the actual impact of a policy is before you advocate it? Tell me why you are for a fixed date for withdrawal, whatever the situation on the ground. Why not fight for the best political settlement for the working class?)And did the AWL position on Northern Ireland make you a 'strong ally of the British occupation of Ireland', Pete? Had you 'sold your soul', Pete? Of course not. But many, actually most, on the left said you had. They said that you were a 'pro-imperialist', and so on. It was all rubbish then. Its all rubbish now.

If the 'third camp' is to mean more than abstract propoganda to pick up a few recruits, a branding tool in the far left marketplace, then it must be applied in real political time. I came to that realisation about 'third camp politics' in trying to think through a political response to Iraq. In Iraq being 'third camp' means building the unions, not trusting the coalition, but using the breathing space and the transition to elections to hep make the third camp a real force in Iraq, and not just in theory. Then the political options are different.

Iraq is the hinge of our time. As Sean said in his 'editorial' this is the greatest opportunity for the working class in the Middle East in decades. I think that is what was recognised by so many at conference. Here is an extract from one delegates contribution. I think its sums up the position you find so shameful. I find it heroic myself.It is from the speech of Yvonne Ritchie, a GMB delegate She said:

"I opposed the war...however we cannot rewrite history...I do not want to leave the Iraqi people defenceless and vulnerable..the consequences of us wshing our hands of Iraq, if we could, would be heinous. I am an internationalist, a socialist and a trade unionist committed to a world wherefairness, justice and freedom are a basic human right. Iraq has a trade union movement. Conference we must stand in solidarity with them to reaise their dreams. They ned our support. We should not walk away when the going gets tough...With elections due in January 2005 we must do everything we can to help the Iraqi people build a democratic country'.

That sounds about right to me.

Alan Johnson

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/10/2004 - 00:13

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)


Rearranging Sean’s words to suit your argument won’t do. Nor does pretending there is disagreement within the AWL when there is none.

We don’t support a ‘fixed date for withdrawal’, or even an early date for withdrawal because, for one reason, that implies that before that date we support the troops. We don’t support the troops at any time, their aims aren’t our aims, their methods are not methods, they are not there to help the movement we want to help. At a moment’s notice, when and if it is necessary, they will turn on it with whatever ferocity they need to quell it. 2 days ago a video showed what was the ‘taking out’ with one missile of 50 or so Iraqis civilians fleeing from the battle between the Mehdi Army and the US troops in Falluja. Jonathan Steele in the Guardian quoted a statistic yesterday that something like 65% of Iraqi civilians killed have been killed by the US troops. This is the character of the occupation.

It would be stupid of socialists and workers, either in Iraq or here, to use the existence of a potentially more brutal force around Al Sadr to excuse the brutality of that occupation. But that as far as I can see was what the IFTU representatives, that you are close to, did at the Party conference. They did their members and their organisation no good by that behaviour.

Comparisons with Northern Ireland are obviously limited and it is true that we argued with the naivety and exclusivity of the Troops Out Now rhetoric for most of the time. But just as Blair and Bush now, the UK government then claimed that their primary aim was to promote democracy, even as they interned people by the hundreds and opened up on demonstrators at Bloody Sunday.

They were lying then, they are lying now, even more so in Iraq than Ireland. There are far more crucial material and political interests they represent which take priority. We have to make that clear at all times including the Labour Party conference.

Pete Radcliff

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/10/2004 - 22:23

In reply to by AWL


You say:

"The actual effect of the Labour Friends of Iraq/ Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions intervention at the Labour Party conference was to give Blair a free hand to carry on backing Bush. Whatever sophistry may be used to evade this fact, it was de facto support to Bush's policy - brutal, arrogant, militaristic, privatise-at-all-costs, "spot of trouble? Slaughter a few hundred more civilians and that'll show them!" - which, far from being a democratic alternative to the rise of Islamist reaction, has fuelled that rise."

With all due respect Martin, you are quite wrong. The IFTU have decided - while relying on no one and building their own strength as first priority - to support the United Nations backed political process and timetable to elections, full sovereignty, amd troops withdrawal that is set out in Security Council Resolution 1483. Abdullah explained this policy to the trade union delegations at conference and got a very good reception. He also set out the IFTUs goals of a democratic federal and pluralistic Iraq, womens rights, opposition to privatisation, labour rights, and peace. In the judgement of the IFTU the best way to achieve these goals is to build up the strength of the trade union and progressive forces while critically supporting the UN process. The IFTU have a record of forceful opposition to the attacks on civilians by US troops. Read the website.

Now one can judge that policy correct or not. For myself, I think it the best policy that the unions can follow in a very difficult situation. A before B. But your loose talk of their 'de facto support for Bush and for slaughter' is very very irresponsible.

The irony is that were I to ask you whether you were for the immediate withdrawal of the 'slaughterers' you would answer, 'no'. It seems that you and Abdullah actually agree that the troops must go, soon, but as part of a political settlement, to avoid a civil war in which the hopes of labour would die.

Martin, was Sean right in Solidarity No. 50 to say this: "right now the proclaimed programme of the US-UK in Iraq and their Iraqi clients and allies - the setting up of a viable democratic Iraqi government, and ultimate US withdrawal - is relatively progressive, and that of their armed opponents is reactionary by any measure you choose to use.(...) For all these reasons we condemn slogans like "troops out now" as inappropriate to the situation in Iraq".?

There is a debate to be had about how the third camp can act within the political process to best ensure labour's future in Iraq. And there is no more vital debate than this. But this nonsense about the 'de facto support for slaughter' is getting in the way. Come on,lets move on.

Alan Johnson

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