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Unity Essential to Anti-War Struggle

Tony Woodley

IRAQ CONTINUES to cast a long shadow over British politics as we approach the general election. I along with the vast majority of trade unionists, want to go to the people on the basis of a clear campaign for social justice and against the Tories taking us back to the dark days of the 1980s.

That was the basis of the approach taken by the trade unions at Labour’s Brighton conference. We are building on the real policy advances secured at the policy forum meeting at Warwick in July.

However, our every attempt to move onto a domestic agenda which could really enthuse our activists and get our core voters out is being thwarted by events in Iraq.

In one sense, we cannot complain. We cannot ask the world to forget about the war and look away from Iraq.

But we can ask our government to come up with a clear exit strategy to get British troops out of what looks like an increasingly unpopular occupation.

Instead, we are being sucked in still deeper, with our troops being redeployed into central Iraq to help keep George Bush in the White House, many believe.

This is wrong in itself, which is the main thing. More lives will be lost – including those of our own sons and daughters in the military.

But this decision also helps ensure that the war and the occupation will loom large in the months before the general election.

So I would like to spell out where the T&G stands on this issue. At the TUC, we joined every other affiliate in backing a motion calling for the "speedy withdrawal" of our troops from Iraq, alongside supporting Iraqi trade unions in their work.

At the Labour Party conference, we faced a more complicated situation. There was a choice between a blatantly pro-government resolution, a statement from the party executive outlining a rather vague and conditional timetable for troop withdrawal and a constituency resolution asking for an early date to be set for troop withdrawal.

In the event, most unions helped secure the withdrawal of the first, unacceptable, resolution, voted for the executive statement and against the last resolution after the mover decided not to accept its remission, which would have been our preference.

I will not weary readers with the whole story, because, for me, our voting decisions were influenced by one factor above all others – the representations made to us by the spokesman for the Iraqi trade unions.

I make no apology for listening to the representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Brighton. Our traditions of solidarity and internationalism could not let us do otherwise.

And let me make it clear that, as far as the T&G was concerned, it was clear advice from Abdullah Muhsin which tipped the balance.

He made a compelling case about the disasters which might follow if troops withdrew before the Iraqi trade union movement felt that their country was secure.

So I am happy with how the T&G voted and I am confident that we deserted neither our proud traditions nor our conference policy in so doing.

The T&G could only take what we were told at face value and square up to the question Abdullah posed sharply. "Foreigners came into Iraq without asking – why should they now decide they are going to leave without asking?"

Of course, this must be set against the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq at present. Two civilian deaths out of three are, according to the Iraqi government’s own figures, caused by US and British troops.

Iraqi trade unionists – including the IFTU, alongside others – have a right to be heard on how and when this is ended. Which organisation ultimately represents Iraqi workers is not a matter for us to decide here in Britain.

Equally, the anti-war movement has a right to make its views known on the IFTU position on ending the occupation. The occupation involves the loss of British lives and the spending of British resources too.

The entire trade union movement is committed to the earliest possible withdrawal of our troops. The only debate is about exactly when.

Certainly, when we voted at the Labour Party conference, we were not voting for the redeployment of the Black Watch into the most dangerous areas of Iraq.

We were not voting for our soldiers to be put at risk, to help George Bush. And we were not voting to make it easier for the US army to attack Fallujah, with a likely vast loss of life

These are the issues we must now focus on. I am not afraid of robust debate and my comradeship with George Galloway will survive a frank exchange of opinions.

But no purpose can be served by allowing what happened at Brighton and the subsequent commentary to divide the anti-war movement.

It is a time for the tolerant discussion of differences. The anti-war movement must accept that trade unions will always and rightly want to offer support to our brothers and sisters abroad, particularly when they are struggling to establish trade unionism in such a difficult environment as Iraq.

Equally, those of us in the trade union movement must give some credit to the Stop the War Coalition for its achievements. It mobilised people when we did not and it has a right to a different view as to what happened at the party conference.

We would only be serving the warmongers if we divide now. If George Bush is re-elected, the world will remain a deeply dangerous place with new wars threatened – and, even if he is defeated, as I hope he is, we cannot afford complacency.

The anti-war movement is one of the remarkable political achievements of our time. Its breadth, strength and unity have helped reinvigorate progressive politics in Britain.

That has not been without complications. But I am proud of the part trade unions have played in the Stop the War Coalition.

Certainly, now is not the time for splits or resignations. It is a time for unity against the war danger and unity to get the most rapid possible withdrawal from Iraq.

For me it is quite simple. We cannot have progress without peace. We will not have peace without a powerful peace movement. Let’s stick together.

Published in the Morning Star, 26 October 2004