Friday, 22 April 2011

An open letter to TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber

Dear Brendan,

I am proud of much of the work that the union movement has done in the international sphere over the years, including its support of the anti-apartheid movement and supporting fledgling unions in new democracies. So I write, first of all, to applaud that work. I’m also writing to you to highlight something you may not even be aware of.

There is an organisation currently claiming that the TUC was backing its political conference last Saturday, although there is nothing about it on the TUC website, so I appreciate it may not have been given official sanction.

I also found it difficult to believe, given that the organisation in question is well-known as the mouthpiece of a regime currently giving rise to serious concerns about human rights and democracy, as well as freedom of its press and judiciary. These are not subjective judgements of mine, but those of universally respected organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The organisation is called the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC). It exists to promote the work of President Hugo Chávez internationally or, if you prefer, as it puts it on its own website, “to defend the achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution”.

I was pleased to see that Chávez' presidency was, in contrast, condemned by an overwhelming majority of party members who commented on Colin Burgon’s recent article about it on LabourList. Some also recounted, in their comments, their personal knowledge of people brutalised by the same regime.

While I appreciate that, at the beginning of his tenure, President Hugo Chávez looked to many of our movement like a true people’s hero, this perception has changed radically to the great majority, as the disturbing facts have emerged about these abuses. Where it may once have seemed appropriate to support his government with reservations, we are now at the point where little doubt remains as to where its politics is heading: towards a state with little democracy and individual freedom.  Unlike the majority of South American countries which have made a welcome transition to bona fide free democracies, Venezuela is now almost universally not recognised as such by NGOs.

In addition, it seems that Chávez’ principal defence against these accusations, a little ironically, seems to be that it is a conspiracy on the part of Western media (which is free) against his own (which is not). A not very convincing argument, I’m sure you’d agree.

I note the high esteem in which the TUC holds Amnesty International – in fact, there is a link from your website clicking through to theirs, where you can see listed the various human rights violations in Venezuela – which made me feel sure that all this must have been a mistake.

I am sure that you would not want the TUC to be associated with the VSC and the Chávez regime and that this is an oversight, but I should point out that they displayed your logo on their conference website and had two TUC personnel speaking at the same conference. I understand some Labour MPs also spoke, but they did so as individuals without the support, or use of the logo, of the Labour leadership. (Being fair neither would I, as many of my fellow members do not, condone mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone’s defence of Chávez and believe it to be misguided and wrong.)

Whilst I appreciate that individual unions have a right to send their staff to this conference as they wish – as of course do you – the TUC represents the whole, mainstream, British union movement. Therefore, the weight of your logo and conference speakers, as well as VSC activists claiming the conference was “backed by the TUC”, are significant in giving legitimacy to what is, to many British people, a thoroughly dubious cause. I worry, furthermore, that such participation, intentional or otherwise, might be seen by the general public to reflect poorly on the whole Labour movement.

In short: it is clear, as a movement and a party, that we will always need to engage with countries, such as China, whose position on democracy and human rights we disagree with. That is real-life politics. But, surely, it is neither necessary nor desirable for us to go a stage further by being seen as active participants in the propaganda machines of such regimes.

I hope you can accept this letter in the constructive spirit in which it is intended, that this has been useful information, and that this oversight might be reviewed and remedied soon.

Yours fraternally

Rob Marchant

This article first published as the first article in my new Free Thinking column at LabourList


  1. I feel that, having now seen the mad comments on LabourList about the article, I should reproduce my response to them here, which sums up the arguments.

    This has been a most interesting discussion. The first comments by Lawrence Shaw, aimed to move the argument to a place (how unions do democracy) that I think irrelevant to the issue of human rights abuses. But, fair play to him, at least Lawrence did not try to defend Chavez.

    The other, somewhat swivel-eyed arguments, which do just that, seem to be variations on one or more of the following:

    1. These deliberate abuses by Chavez' regime are a “price worth paying” for all the fantastic good work Chavez is doing.

    2. It’s all a conspiracy of the Western media, these abuses didn’t happen.

    3. There are human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, therefore these ones are ok, because unless we stop all human rights abuses then we shouldn’t try and stop any.

    4. Britain’s record on human rights is directly comparable to Venezuela’s: we are in a glass house and we shouldn’t throw stones.

    2 and 4 are fantasy. 3 is both an ugly moral relativism and logically absurd. That leaves 1, which is morally repugnant.

  2. Chavez & Morales are not perfect but infinitely preferable to the pudgy generals that haunted Latin America under the patronage of Uncle Sam.

  3. Hmm, yes, they are probably preferable to Hitler and Stalin as well, but...


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