Iraq and the Missing Social Democratic Narrative

Guest post from Alan Johnson, Labour Friends of Iraq (personal capacity)

At the heart of the Iraq debate is a hole in the shape of a social democratic narrative. The Labour Party must fill that hole, win, lose or draw on Thursday.

The Single Transferable Article about Iraq (STAI)

To see what I mean take Gary Younge’s column in today’s Guardian. Gary Younge is a supporter of George (Free Tariq Aziz!) Galloway and Respect. Today it was Gary’s turn to write the Single Transferable Article about Iraq, or the STAI, for short. The STAI has three points: Blair is a liar, Iraq is worse off, vote Respect or Lib Dem. The columnistas (Robert and Yasmin, Seamus and George, but also Peter and Simon, for the STAI comes in a right-wing version) have been writing the STAI for two years now.

There are three simple steps to writing the STAI. Step 1: bracket out every single positive development in Iraq. That’s right, just ignore every one. Pretend they have not happened. Close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears and hum loudly. After all it’s not your job to set out a real-world policy for Iraq. Step 2: play up every single error, set-back, crime, and cock-up you can find. Step 3: treat every set-back as the fault of Bush and Blair and ‘the war’ [admitting you are inwardly glad when an outrage occurs in Iraq because you think it is a poke in the eye for Bush is optional: only Yasmin has taken that option so far].

The STAI reduces the political complexity of Iraq to a simple story of cowboys, poodles and freedom fighters. Mood music for your real interest: the attack on Bush-Blair. [Definition of irony: columnistas who daily ‘sex up’ Iraq in this way complaining about spin! In truth they have been the most disciplined on-message spinners, dicing and slicing Iraq to fit their ‘project’].

The right wing version of the STAI differs from the left-wing version only in the conclusion (Vote Tory!) and the literary register. Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail is all faux plebeian, ranting about the ‘Arabs’ (who can’t do democracy, don’t you know) and comparing Tony Blair and Adolf Hitler (a figure the Daily Mail did not always find so uncongenial, we recall). Simon Jenkins goes in for a lanquid-aristo-born-to-rule-snob-appeasing-retro-1930s-country-estate version of the STAI over at the Times. And then there is a Mandarin-Harrumphing version of the STAI. Former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd (the Hero of the Balkans: Not) asks where our national interest is, declares there isn’t one (hey, just like the Balkans!) and concludes we should pull out and leave the locals to it. Messy business, what?

If you have little time there is a quick way to spot an STAI. The STAI has a symptomatic silence about one date: January 30 2005. Gary Younge offers a typical example in today’s Guardian. He offers dates galore! We have May 1997, Summer 2002, February 15 2003, June 10 2004, as well as ‘2001, after the bombing of Serbia’, and even ‘last summer in Tuscany’. And, of course, May 5 2005, when all good left-liberals will vote for ‘the Iraqi poor’ and ‘give Tony Blair a bloody nose’ Younge gives us all dates bar one: January 30 2005, the day eight and a half million Iraqis, most very poor, voted for a democratic future after thirty years of totalitarianism, war and misery, and danced with joy, purple fingers held aloft in pride. You see the STAI doesn’t do January 30 2005. It would spoil a good story.

The Missing Social Democratic Narrative

But here’s the rub: how much have we heard from the Labour Party about the election of January 30 2005? Yes, it has been mentioned as A Good Thing. But it has not been wrapped in a compelling narrative. Someone somewhere decided that if we did not mention Iraq then no one else would. Let’s just say that has not turned out to be the best advice.

It would have been better if Labour had been bolder and had told a more compelling political narrative about Iraq much earlier (as well as admitting mistakes earlier and explaining them). The failure to do so has been one reason for the current state of the ‘debate’ and has blocked the coming home of many Labour supporters and activists. Blunt fact: home has to feel like home before you come back to it. Supporters will come home when they are convinced that what is happening now in Iraq can be understood in the terms of their own social democratic values and hopes.

Labour could be bold in articulating a social democratic vision in which events in Iraq can be understood: the removal of Saddam, the end of the Ba’ath, the return of the refugees, the joy of the Kurds, the religious freedoms now enjoyed by the Shia, the creation of a UN-backed political process, the 8 million voters in the January elections, a fantastic display of ‘purple power’, a new democratic assembly, one in three members of which are women, the rebirth of trade unionism and the labour movement, the rise of new democratic political parties, a relatively free press, the reflooding of the Marshlands, the return of the Marsh Arabs, the opening up of the mass graves, the beginning of a truth and justice process. The yearning for freedom, democratiya and social justice is spreading through the region and it is the only antidote to fundamentalism. It is the only real road to an end to terrorism.

This same social democratic narrative is the basis for a critique of events in post-war Iraq: an anti-fascist discourse about the so-called ‘resistance’ (‘They Shall Not Pass!), a social –democratic demand for a Marshall Plan for Iraq and social justice in the new economy (Sennian ‘Development as Freedom!’), democratic socialist solidarity with the third camp in Iraq: free trade unions (‘The Union Makes Us Strong!’), democratic political parties, progressive civil society (‘Solidarity Forever!’).

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has not consistently placed events in Iraq in such a compelling social democratic narrative. JackStraw’s speech to the Fabian Society was one thoughtful attempt to do so. Straw said “Progressives know better than anyone the power of democracy as an instrument of social justice, and as a tool for the realisation of human potential. And we know the Middle East’s importance to our foreign policy and to the international community as a whole. Supporting the emergence of democracy in the Middle East and around the world must be a central part of a progressive foreign policy, and a task for all of us”. Tony Blair has urged people to ‘listen to the Iraqis’, pointed to the Iraqi elections and the new Iraqi government and has tried to remind people of how far Iraq has come (even yesterday he was pointing out discovery of the latest mass grave in southern Iraq, where children had been machine gunned in pits by Saddam). But a speech here and a comment there have not been enough.

‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’

We need a bolder politics that educates desire. The West Wing is a TV soap about a fictional Democrat US President, Jed Bartlett. In one scene his key aides decide that they have played defence long enough, creeping around a hostile Republican Congress and hyper-critical media, silencing their own better instincts. So someone scrawls on a piece of card ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ and holds it aloft. A fightback begins.

Whatever the result of the election someone needs to draw up a similar sign for the Labour leadership. Enough with the ‘we don’t disrespect you’ message. People know that. Get back to the tone and élan of the 1999 Chicago speech. It’s the failure to stand up and hit back against the morale-sapping daily beating about Iraq that is the problem. It has gone so far that every morning on the tax-payer funded supposedly neutral BBC (ha!) John Hu-rumphreys openly lets listeners know (a comment here, a tone of voice there, a sarcastic question, a sigh) that only the morally grubby will vote Labour on May 5. So take him on! Articulate a social democratic narrative about Iraq. Where are the Ministers who when asked questions about Iraq in the Commons will be bold and use the opportunity to articulate that social democratic narrative rather than offer safe legalistic replies? Where are the MPs and intellectuals willing to take on the paleo left/right? As Delia Smith would say “let’s be having you!”

We must end the grotesque deference shown to the arguments of the columnistas. In truth they are lefty-righty Kissingerian Realists, from Gary Younge to Douglas Hurd, Tony Benn to Peter Hitchens. Tony Benn wants Tariq Aziz released from jail. Well, shame on Tony Benn. Peter Hitchens says Iraq was better off under Saddam. Well, shame on Peter Hitchens. These people are living in a past that has gone forever. Lets say so.

Taking on the Neocons

But – and this is the crux – we will only develop the confidence to take on the Benn-Hitchens paleo-left/right once we have also taken on the Neocons. Until we do the suspicion will remain that to reject Pilger-Gott-Ali-Younge-Milne-Benn-Galloway is to embrace the Neo-Cons. And this is where the Labour Party, and so much of the country, is stuck. To move the country on (to a place I think the country wants to go) Labour politicians must first move themselves on by articulating a clear third way.

Try this on for size. The Neo-Cons Don’t Get It. They talk of freedom and democracy, they may even sincerely want it (I am sure Paul Wolfowitz does) but we do not believe they understand – look at their conduct in post-war Iraq – how to reach those goals. We believe we do. The Neocons do not understand the place of social justice in bringing the goals about. We social democrats do. The Neocons do not understand the pivotal role of civil society. We social democrats do. The Neocons are hostile to the trade unions. We social democrats understand they are vital to a new plural secular Iraqi polity. The Neocons do not understand why the achievement of a two state solution in Israel-Palestine unlocks the door to democratiya in the region. We social democrats do. The Neocons believe in ‘US primacy’. We social democrats believe in the Doctrine of the International Community. The Neocons believe in the free market raw. We social democrats believe in an economy of social justice and opportunity whether in Britain or in Africa. The Neocons dream of a US-led military intervention from above in Iran. We social democrats dream of a popular democratic revolution in Iran supported by a global international community.

Iraq the Model

The frustrating thing is (what an understatement that is!) much of this alternative doctrine is already implicit in Tony Blair’s Chicago speech of April 24 1999, when he set out the doctrine of the international community, in Gordon Brown’s speeches on international trade justice, the ending of world poverty, and the new global social democracy, and in Peter Hain’s speeches on globalisation, the new European democratic socialism, and the ‘Future Labour Party’ we need. We’ve already got us a doctrine: a modern networked party campaigning in modern ways for a global international community based on global democratisation, global development, global civil society and humanitarian interventionism for those facing Genocide and Crimes against Humanity. Yet we often fail to articulate this doctrine clearly, even to ourselves. And we almost always fail to show how post-war Iraq can be understood in the terms of that doctrine.

Working in support of the Iraqi democrats for a social democratic Iraq is a 21st century project to be proud of. It is internationalist and in the best traditions of our movement. Bush is brazenly for a free market Iraq. We should be as brazenly for a social democratic Iraq. Even now it is not too late to articulate that vision during this campaign.

If Labour is re-elected on Thursday it will have one more chance to ‘let Bartlett be Bartlett’. That will mean a much more critical stance towards the Bush administration. It will mean a far bolder presentation of our own alternative social democratic foreign policy doctrine. It will mean Labour Ministers and MPs articulating that doctrine, putting clear social democratic and neo-progressive water between us and the paleo-left/right alliance in London and the Neocons in Washington. It will mean intellectuals making the case for a social democratic foreign policy. It will mean local parties linking themselves with local unions and the new free trade unions of Iraq and, armed with a doctrine of international community, connecting to new political actors and networks in the UK, such as Make Poverty History.

Who’s up for a fight?