PHIL DORÉ recounts his personal and painful journey from the Stop the War Coalition to Labour Friends of Iraq
In March 2003, as the war began in Iraq, I found myself sitting in the middle of a road in Cardiff alongside hundreds of anti-war protestors. I was one of what the media had dubbed ‘protest virgins’: ordinary, politically non-aligned people who had been galvanised by the impending war into joining a protest march for the first time in their lives.
Like most of the protest virgins, I didn’t stay with the Stop the War Coalition for long. The bulk of them turned up in London on 15 February, spent a jolly day marching from the Victoria Embankment to Hyde Park, watched Ms Dynamite and then went home to gossip over a latte about what a thrilling experience it had been and how they even got to carry a placard.
Personally, I stayed rather longer. I continued to join protests and help organise local STWC events until about three weeks into the war. By this time the US forces were about to take Baghdad. It was also becoming increasingly obvious to me that whatever remained of the Stop the War Coalition, post-invasion, would be ugly, ineffectual and dominated by extremism and idiocy.
Two years on, and with the benefit of hindsight, my time with the Stop the War Coalition has been a rather depressing experience. Not just because the biggest protest movement in British history failed utterly to have the slightest influence on government policy, but also because of what it illustrated about the state of the British left. At its peak, the STWC represented a broad swathe of centre-left opinion, but its direction was all-too-easily steered, not by those people who represent the best of the left, but its worst. Clapped-out Stalinists, dimwit Trotskyists, armchair Che Guevaras, clueless ultra-left hacks – these constitute the sorry shower who have become the noisiest voices on the left over Iraq.
The Socialist Workers Party are not the only ones to blame for this, but through their manoeuvring in order to dominate the STWC agenda, they have to shoulder more blame than most.
Of those protest virgins who tried to continue working with the STWC, there often seems to have been some sort of pivotal see-saw moment when the desire to register one’s protest at the war became overtaken by the sheer levels of blithering stupidity on display at STWC events. For an acquaintance of mine, that moment was when American flags began to be burned on protest marches. For me, it was the ‘Victory to the Resistance’ placards printed by the SWP a couple of weeks into the war. Declaring your opposition to an ill-conceived, potentially disastrous foreign policy adventure is one thing; being a cheerleader for Saddam’s Fedayeen thugs is quite another. It wasn’t a coincidence that around this time I stopped turning up to STWC meetings and started ‘forgetting’ to return the voicemail messages of STWC activists.
Once the invasion was over and the occupation began, one would have expected that the priority of a decent left would have been to begin building solidarity with democratic and progressive forces in Iraq. The anti-war movement’s failure to do so is shocking. At times they’ve not only ignored Iraqi leftists and democrats, they’ve actively hindered them. The Iraqi Communist Party opposed the war, but once it was over joined the Iraqi Governing Council. To an ordinary mortal like me, getting involved with the closest approximation to a democratic forum in post-invasion Iraq seems like a sensible and obvious move in order to try to influence events. To the ideologues of the hard left, however, this was collaboration.
Recipe for disaster
When a representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions told a Labour Party conference that an immediate withdrawal of British troops could lead to civil war and the balkanisation of Iraq, it struck me as a straight- forward statement of the bleeding obvious. Whatever one may have thought about the original war, a sudden pullout of foreign troops is a self-evident recipe for disaster; a quick and easy way to massively escalate the chaos and turn Iraq into a deeply unpleasant place where anyone who is a democrat, a socialist, a communist, a liberal, a trade unionist, a feminist or a human rights campaigner is liable to wind up receiving a bullet in the back of the head.
Despite the sheer obviousness of the IFTU representative’s words, this was, once again, collaboration. This time the charge was made in an official Stop the War Coalition statement. Chillingly, the same statement also condemned the IFTU’s ‘view that genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation’. So trade unionists aren’t even allowed to try to represent Iraqi workers? Socialist solidarity, comrade. Even more chillingly, this was followed by a call for Iraqis to resist the occupation ‘by whatever means they find necessary’. This was only a week or so after certain Iraqis found it necessary to behead Ken Bigley. A couple of weeks later, other Iraqis found it necessary to murder the humanitarian aid worker Margaret Hassan.
The words ‘by whatever means they find necessary’ were soon expunged from the statement, followed by unconvincing denials that they had ever said it in the first place. Despite the denials, it’s always been fairly obvious whose side the STWC leadership see themselves as being on. We can find the evidence in STWC vice-president Tariq Ali’s words that, ‘The immediate tasks that face an anti-imperialist movement are support for Iraqi resistance to the Anglo-American occupation’ and that the resistance is ‘the classic initial stage of guerrilla warfare against a colonial occupation’. We can find it in George Galloway’s comparison of the Iraqi insurgency to the French resistance in World War Two, and in John Rees’ comments that ‘I don’t propose to lecture the Iraqi people on the methods they use, and neither should we.’
So, to summarise, beheading terrified hostages is more forgivable than engaging with the occupation in order to try to develop a working democracy.
Those who want the occupation to be replaced by an Islamo-fascist theocracy or a return or to Ba’athist tyranny are worthy of our support. Those who want an orderly handover to a democratic state are not. All this reminds us of George Orwell’s famous comment that, ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.’
Thanks to the ideological agenda of the SWP and their allies, the overriding principle guiding STWC policy has become not democracy, human rights or international law, but anti-imperialism. When anti-imperialism is taken to its idiot extreme (and it all too often is) then anyone who is an opponent of western foreign policy becomes declared an ally to be supported. The trouble is, all too often this means supporting people with little or no regard for democracy, progressivism, the Geneva Convention, or even basic human decency. The Vietcong, General Galtieri, the IRA, the Soviet Union, Hamas, the Iranian ayatollahs, and now the brutal thugs of the Iraqi insurgency: all have received declarations of support from so-called ‘progressives’ who really ought to know better.
Naturally, all of this has no impact whatsoever on actual policy. The SWP are about as influential in the corridors of power as the Flat Earth Society are in geography classrooms. But the hysterical voices of the tinpot ‘anti-imperialist’ ideologues can drown out the more reasoned voices of those who want to see a decent left founded on principles of democracy and humanitarianism. The SWP are not a threat to new Labour or the Bush agenda. They are a threat to genuine left-wing dissent.
It was this sorry state of affairs that I was contemplating when I was invited to join Labour Friends of Iraq. The key idea behind LFIQ is a straightforward one: no matter whether you supported or opposed the war, the important thing now is to get behind the democrats and left-wingers in Iraq, beginning with the Iraqi trade union movement. I was sympathetic to the idea. How many times does one have to re-run the old argument about what should have been done back in March 2003? I opposed the war, and don’t apologise for that. Even so I’d rather work with someone who supported the war but wants to ensure the best possible future for the Iraqi people, than someone who’d happily see an entire nation burn just to prove Bush and Blair wrong.
There was, however, a slight snag. When the war began I’d vowed never to vote Labour again. Now I was being asked to join the Labour Party in order to support the Iraqi trade unions. I opted to go back on my word and signed up with Labour and LFIQ. If the only decent, pro-democracy alternative to the STWC was inside Labour then that was where I would go.
So far I haven’t had cause to regret pledging my support to LFIQ. By challenging the far left’s smears and libels against courageous Iraqi trade unionists, LFIQ and others have succeeded in forcing the SWP and co to mute their hostility to those Iraqis who have the temerity not to follow the SWP party line. (I suppose an apology from the SWP might not be possible? No? I thought not.) There is a need to support Iraqi leftists operating in difficult and dangerous conditions, and LFIQ have highlighted that need where others have ignored it or tried to hinder it. It would be the ultimate irony if, after all the cries of betrayal over new Labour, a new form of dissent based on decency and democracy were to emerge from within the ranks of Labour itself.
A new, decent left needs to emerge to challenge the totalitarian pseudo-left. The voices of this decent left can be heard not just in LFIQ. They can be heard on internet blogs such as Harry’s Place, in the thoughtful analyses of writers such as Johann Hari, and in Peter Tatchell’s bloody-minded commitment to the principle of universal human rights.
For now, Labour Friends of Iraq have generated a remarkable change in my own outlook. In March 2003 I felt ashamed to have supported Labour in the past, and proud to march with the Stop the War Coalition.
In March 2005, I feel ashamed to have supported the Stop the War Coalition, but Ican now once again feel proud to be a Labour supporter.
Reprinted with permission from the LFIQ website: www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk