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Cambridge Respect - think again!

Andy Newman

 

A dispute has arisen between some supporters of Respect in Cambridge and the Labour Friends of Iraq that shows how a confused understanding of the nature of the Iraqi insurgency can damage the anti-war movement. Steps need to be urgently taken to defuse this controversy before it escalates. In particular, incautious statements by Cambridge Respect officers may be used to attack Respect and the Stop the War Coalition at a national level, and they should be encouraged to rethink some of their positions.

The origin of the dispute was an e-mail sent to the Campeace discussion list (Cambridge for Peace) by Christine Titmus asking that people sign an appeal issued by the Labour Friends of Iraq in support of Nozad Ismail, the President of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) in Kirkuk, who has apparently twice escaped assassins and who receives regular death threats. In response to this, Cambridge Respect issued a controversial statement in the name of Jonathan Walker (Press Officer); Tom Woodcock (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate); and Jo Robbins (Chair).  This included the frankly libellous claim that the leadership of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) "has effectively transferred its loyalty from one murderous tyrant to another, from Saddam Hussein to George W Bush"; an offensive claim given the persecution, torture and murder of Iraqi trade unionists under Saddam Hussein.

A subsidiary controversy had emerged at the Cambridge Trades Council where there was a fractious debate over a motion from an Amicus branch, calling on the trades council to support Iraqi trades unions.

It must be said that Labour Friends of Iraq (LFoI) are a pernicious organisation. In the guise of organising support for the Iraqi labour movement, they seek to subvert the instinctive and justified solidarity of socialists and trade unionists towards effectively supporting the US occupation of Iraq. Their web site (http://www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk/) is largely devoted to criticising the anti-war movement or the Iraqi insurgency, and is silent about the atrocity of the American assault on Fallujah and the daily humiliations and hardships inflicted upon the Iraqi people by the occupation forces.

Aware that their own voice may seem rather shrill and irrelevant, Labour Friends of Iraq seek to promote the interests of the IFTU, pretending an identity of interests. However, as Steve Bell, the CWU delegate to the recent Stop the War Coalition national conference said: Labour Friends of Iraq are no friends of the Iraqi people, they are not true friends of the IFTU and they are not even good friends of the Labour Party.

In January this year Labour Friends of Iraq sought to cynically exploit the murder of Iraqi trade unionist, Hadi Saleh, by circulating an open letter that inaccurately claimed the Stop the War Coalition had issued a statement saying it supported the struggle against the occupation "by any means necessary", and implying that the StWC was silent about the murder of trade unionists. In fact the national chair of the coalition, Andrew Murray, sent a letter to the Independent on 7th January that said: "we have repeatedly denounced the murder of civilians" and a letter to the Observer by Lindsey German on 9th January said: "we condemn the killing of Iraqi trade unionists".

January's open letter from LFoI attacking the StWC was signed by the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) despite the fact it was inaccurate. The AWL has an increasingly ambivalent attitude to Iraq and occasionally they err towards the same emphasis as the LFoI. The fact that the motion to the Cambridge Trades Council was moved by a supporter of the AWL may have contributed to the polarised nature of the response.

The specifics of these disputes in Cambridge are not particularly interesting or significant, and I will touch on them as sparingly as possible. The substantive political issue is the relationship between the military insurgency in Iraq, and the Iraqi trade unions, and other institutions of civil society.

The insurgency is both seemingly chaotic and multi-stranded, and while there is broad popular participation in attacks on occupation forces in some parts of Iraq, there are also strands within the resistance who wish to see a Ba'athist restoration, or to impose a theocratic dictatorship on the Iraqi people. As I have written before: "tactics being adopted by some parts of the insurgency ... to disrupt reconstruction, murder workers and increase the misery of the Iraqi people, and are therefore an obstacle towards any favourable outcome." It is in this context that the murder of Hadi Saleh must be seen. Originally, I inclined to agree with Sami Ramadani that Hadi's murder might be connected with his membership of the Iraqi Communist party, and the participation of the ICP in the Allawi government. At the time I argued that "the murder of Hadi Saleh shows that the ICP participation in the government has tarred the trade union movement with the implication that they are collaborators with the US occupation forces." I now believe that I was mistaken and a much more nuanced argument is put by David Bacon, writing in Z Magazine: "Hadi Saleh's murderers had two objectives. For the Ba'athists among the insurgents, the growth of unions and organizations of civil society, from women's groups to political parties, is a dangerous deviation. Their hopes of returning to power rest on a military defeat for the U.S., without a corresponding development of popular, progressive organizations that can govern a post-occupation Iraq.  Trying to stop those organizations from using the elections to organize a large support base is a second objective."

Obviously, we may never know the truth about this, but there is evidence to support David Bacon's position because on 16th March a press release was issued by the Basra based General Union of Oil Employees, a union with only loose links to the IFTU, unconnected with the ICP, and with no participation in government. "Yesterday Mr. Samir Yasin Sabbah, head of the Section of the Union in the Fao Sector, was the object of a bomb that destroyed his car.  This aimed to terminate his work and to further the interests of those poor souls who seek only their own not the wider good.   At the time of this terrible attempt on the life on the unionist, whom God in his justice saved from death as he practiced his honourable work in the service of noble Iraq, we call upon all decent persons and friends of the Union abroad to express their solidarity with us in the hope of preventing the criminal acts presently directed against the Union in Iraq. Long live the heroic union organisations, Long live the brave working class, Shame and dishonour to the cowardly terrorists who do not want stability for this country; may God stay their hands."

Trade unionism plays a significant role in today's Iraq. David Bacon lists a number of important areas for trade union activity, including fighting the imposition of Order #30 that lowered base wages from $60 to $40 per month and eliminated food and housing subsidies. There are a number of competing trade union federations, one of which is the IFTU, and all of which have been involved in fighting to defend and improve pay in opposition to the wild-west deregulation that the neo-conservatives have imposed on the Iraqi economy.

The struggle by the Iraqi people to free themselves from foreign occupation is progressive. There are many strategies being adopted to achieve that end, for example the military struggle, participation in the political process, and through building civil institutions under Iraqi control, such as trade unions. It is the task of the peace movement in the West to support unconditionally all activities of the Iraqi people to oppose the occupation. We must not presuppose that opposition to the occupation is necessarily military, nor must we conclude that all terrorist actions in Iraq are aimed at removing the occupation forces. The assassination of trade unionists, and the murder of nurses, teachers, rail workers and oil workers, on the pretext of their alleged collaboration, is part of a struggle within Iraqi society to secure hegemony for forces seeking Ba'athist restoration or theocracy, and should be condemned. Our position should be to unconditionally support all forms of resistance by the Iraqi people, including but not only military resistance, and at the same time criticise those strategies and tactics that are counter-productive or would thwart the aspirations of Iraqis for a humane and democratic society.

Unfortunately some confusion over the role of the IFTU has been generated. In particular IFTU representative, Abdullah Muhsin, has acted on a number of occasions within Britain to advocate support for the policies of the British government in Iraq, for example, his intervention at the 2004 Labour Party conference. In response to which intervention the Stop the War Coalition issued a statement that criticised the activities of the IFTU in Britain. It is important to note that the Coalition took no view on the activities of the IFTU in Iraq. (http://www.stopwar.org.uk/article.asp?id=111004).

The statement from the Stop the War Coalition included one poorly worded sentence, that the Coalition condemns the IFTU's "view that genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation (including the daily bombardment of major Iraqi cities) by the USA and Britain.". This was clearly intended to mean that the task of constructing genuinely independent trade unions in Iraq must also address the issue of ending the military occupation, which for example perpetuates the anti-trade union restriction of the Hussein era.

However it could also be misconstrued as meaning that the task of constructing genuinely independent trade unions in Iraq is impossible until after the occupation is ended. This seems to have been the view verbally expressed by SWP and Respect members in Cambridge. In practice,  this would mean subordinating workers' organisation to the military insurgency and postponing the day to day struggles to improve living conditions until after a military victory has been achieved. Given that the military insurgency contains forces hostile to democracy, women's' rights and trade unionism, it would be suicidal not to use every opportunity to build workers defence organizations in the here and now. To postpone building the labour movement would mean leaving the working classes powerless to affect events when the occupation forces leave Iraq.

The motion moved at the trades council by the Amicus representative was largely uncontentious, and was in line with the policy of the Stop the war Coalition of encouraging links between British and Iraqi trade unions. It was however unbalanced by failing to emphasise that the responsibility for the violence in Iraq lies with the military occupation, and in its use of the contentious term "so-called resistance" to refer to the insurgency. However, the correct way to handle this motion was a sympathetic amendment to correct these deficiencies, and then to support it. Whereas Cambridge SWP and Respect opposed the motion even when the contentious bits were removed, as they took the position that it is in principle wrong to encourage links with Iraqi trade unions.

The submission to the Campeace list by the Respect officers contains a number of problems. They are absolutely correct to repudiate Labour Friends of Iraq, and some of the criticism of Abdullah Muhsin's behaviour is also justified. However some other parts of their statement are clearly wrong and should be retracted:

    i)      They do not address the substance of Christine Titmus's e-mail, which was to draw attention to the threat to the life of trade unionist Nozad Ismail.

    ii)     They conflate the interests of the LFoI with those of the IFTU - thus unwittingly promoting the agenda of LFoI.

    iii)    They claim that the IFTU is not a genuine trade union. Whilst the political position of the IFTU leadership may be problematic this by itself does not prove it is not a genuine trade union - Bacon's article suggests that it is very much engaged with basic trade union issues, there is also evidence of this gathered by Alex Gordon in his trip to Iraq in 2003, and, for example, the lay union representatives that the IFTU have brought from Iraq to attend negotiating courses in Britain.

    iv)     They claim that the IFTU acts as a front organisation for the Iraqi Governing Council and its successor the Interim Government. No evidence is presented for this claim.

    v)      They claim (outrageously) that the IFTU "has effectively transferred its loyalty from one murderous tyrant to another, from Saddam Hussein to George W. Bush"


     

Respect positions itself as being the political party that gives electoral expression to the anti-war movement. It must therefore seek to represent the broad basis upon which the anti war movement is built. The current position taken by Cambridge Respect is narrow and sectional, and they have fallen into a trap set for them by LFoI.

In the past, pro-war commentators such as Johann Hari, Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch have taken such legitimate debates within the labour and peace movements and twisted them into an attack on us. Let us avoid giving them the ammunition to do that, particularly in this sensitive pre-election period.

Cambridge Respect should retract the factual inaccuracies in their officer's statement. They should also stress that these were the personal views of the officers - not Respect policy. They should also issue a statement of support for Nozad Ismail, and condemn those who seek to assassinate him.

 

March 2005

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