Labour MP Harry Barnes the left needs a new approach to Iraq following the elections
Given that the Iraqi turnout was the same or even larger than at the last UK election, the left must do some urgent rethinking on Iraq or be morally sidelined while our natural comrades there fight for non-sectarian democracy without the massive and direct solidarity they urgently require.
It was one thing to oppose the war, as I did in every single Commons vote. I don’t regret backing the other superpower – world public opinion against the war. But history has moved on, with Iraqis trying desperately to salvage a new society after decades of Saddam Hussein’s fascist-type rule and his wars – together with the predictable consequences of United Nations sanctions, invasion and occupation. But some left-wingers seem content just to say ‘I told you so’ and fail to respect if not always support the decisions of Iraqi progressives.
After Saddam was overthrown, I contacted the then fledgling Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which has soared from a small clandestine movement to up to 400,000 members in the last year or so. I organised meetings in the Commons and joined with others to increase support for the IFTU’s efforts to rebuild a free labour movement as part of a vibrant civil society – what we call ‘grassroots Iraq’.
We recently formed a new campaign group for this new civil society called Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ). Other parties should establish equivalent organisations. LFIQ seeks to unite party members who were pro-war and anti-war in favour of supporting post-war Iraq. I joined with Ann Clwyd as Joint President to symbolise such unity.
We back the new unions in Iraq. Such unions were once very powerful. Fresh from the million strong anti-war march in February 2003, I heard of an Iraqi who had participated in the May Day rally in Baghdad in 1959, which attracted similar numbers in a society of around ten million people. Free unions were, however, crushed after this and under Saddam, so much so that the very term ‘union’ is often associated with totalitarian terror, modelled on both Stalin and Hitler. But brave working class activists were able to pick up the threads against huge odds.
One problem was the antagonism of US occupying authorities. They attacked the IFTU’s headquarters in Baghdad and arrested several of its leaders in December 2003. The leaders were released without charge but the offices were closed. This caused a worldwide outcry and a year later the IFTU re-occupied its offices. No decent explanation has been given.
They opposed the war but the IFTU decided that the best way to strengthen civil society was to support the electoral and political process sanctioned unanimously by the United Nations Security Council.
The IFTU has rightly been accorded a great deal of support by the British and international labour movement but a small minority of ultra-leftists and armchair revolutionaries has behaved disgracefully by attacking groups like the IFTU. Unfortunately, sharp words here were mirrored by foul deeds in Iraq where the so-called resistance has attacked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered IFTU members.
Those who fingered the Iraqi labour movement as ‘Vichy’ forces and hailed the murderous resistance as ‘Maquis’ should no longer have any credibility or respect in the labour movement. The decent left should heed the voice and the vote of Iraqis, who have now issued a powerful message by braving the gunmen and the suicide bombers and voting in huge numbers for democracy and sovereignty. We are with them or not.
No one should pretend that the conditions in which the elections were held or the electoral system were perfect. But the turnout, despite intimidation, was superb – perhaps better than the turnout here. And a third of the candidates were women, which is certainly better than here.
The next question is the presence of the foreign troops. It may be unwise to set a precise deadline for withdrawal because that will be exploited by the so-called resistance. The idea of withdrawing foreign troops to barracks is superficially plausible but not if it endangers civil society. But the US and the UK should make it absolutely clear that they won’t overstay and will help Iraqis build political and security capability before leaving.
Whether we supported or opposed the war should not overshadow the central task of the British and international labour movement and that is to pour in direct assistance to grassroots Iraq and the IFTU, not least via the TUC’s appeal. Solidarity is the watchword.
Harry Barnes MP is Joint President of Labour Friends of Iraq. He resigned from Labour Against the war on 24 February saying, ‘I thought it was right to oppose the war. But history moves on and the Iraqi people now have a golden opportunity to take back their country and build a decent non-sectarian democracy based on social justice … Labour Against the War is standing in the way of solidarity and I have resigned to help alert the wider movement to the need to support grassroots Iraq.’
Labour Friends of Iraq Toolkit
The LFIQ toolkit for solidarity has been sent to all constituency Labour Parties and Labour MPs.
A useful resource pack for local parties, it’s full of facts, ideas and arguments. It outlines what LFIQ is, the nature of the new Iraqi trade union movement and civil society.
• model resolutions, leaflets and ideas for making solidarity with grassroots Iraq and the emerging trade union movement
• it details the political assassinations of Iraqi trade union leaders by the ‘resistance’
• includes articles from the press which outline the case for moving on from pro- or anti-war positions.
Order copies from www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk
Labour Friends of Iraq has a new service to provide background material and answer queries for speeches, debates, motions and letters. They will help to organise internal party debates and training sessions. Any query will be answered within three days with top-tips, resolutions, copy, speeches, quotes, references.
More details at www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk/asklfiq