Let's invite an elected leader

Observations on the Labour party conference

As usual, the poor old, neutered Labour Party was the last to hear of Tony Blair's wheeze of inviting the appointed Iraqi prime minister and former Ba'athist, Iyad Allawi, to be the "fraternal guest speaker" at the party's autumn conference. I blame myself for not paying attention at the latest meeting of Labour's National Executive Committee in July. Perhaps it was the distant prospect of sandwiches - or hearing the latest hot news from the party's internet "big conversation", where "conversation" on the Iraq war is strictly off-limits. According to my more studious colleague Ann Black, the guest speaker decision was apparently "deferred".

We should have smelled a rat. The decision had obviously been "referred" to 10 Downing Street, whose occupant increasingly appears to regard the Labour Party as his personal property.

I learned the news from a former minister who, after reading about it in the Sunday Times, called me in high dudgeon, wondering when the NEC had made its decision. As there was no answer to that, and as previous "fraternal guest speakers" had included Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton (before whom I had witnessed hard nosed left-wing women wilt), I wondered if the Sunday Times was up to silly-season tricks.

But Allawi was indeed a serious contender, a vulgar attempt to help justify a war with which few in the party agreed. Allawi is appointed, not elected, thus breaking a long-standing Labour convention. He could be excused his Ba'athist past because he fled Iraq in 1976, and was later attacked at his home in Twickenham by secret agents wielding axes and knives. But the new tough guy has pressed many of his old Ba'athist police enemies back into service, and created a nucleus for a return of the secret police: the General Security Directorate. Newsweek, on 26 July, reported that Allawi had recently ordered the execution of two Iraqi insurgents, had personally shot seven suspects in a Baghdad police station, and had hacked the hand from another with an axe. Allawi denied the stories but there is no doubt about his clampdown on al-Jazeera and on journalists reporting from Najaf.

My personal threat to walk out became, in the media, a "threat of a mass walk-out", and the promised demonstration of a handful of Labour CND members became a "threat of mass demonstrations". They did the trick. Downing Street backtracked - and now we can perhaps get around to inviting someone else. How about Hugo Chavez from Venezuela or Senator Edward Kennedy? They do have the advantage of having been elected.

Mark Seddon is an elected member of Labour's National Executive Committee