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A year when decades happened – Review of 2003

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The biggest global demonstration in history THIS WAS the year when we saw the ferocious brutality of the United States and its 'coalition of the killing'. And we also saw the rise of another great power to contest them-the global anti-war movement.
Issue 1882

The biggest global demonstration in history

THIS WAS the year when we saw the ferocious brutality of the United States and its ‘coalition of the killing’. And we also saw the rise of another great power to contest them-the global anti-war movement.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians have been butchered in a war fought for oil and US power. It was a war fought against the wishes of the vast majority of the world’s population and launched on the basis of lies.

Rarely has the true face of our bloodthirsty, dishonest and hypocritical rulers been revealed so clearly. And rarely in history has such a great movement risen up to confront them and threaten to bring them crashing down.

At the end of the year Bush and Blair’s hold on power is immeasurably weaker than 12 months ago. That is because of the anti-war protests. Blair clings to office. He is gravely wounded but still implementing a vicious agenda against public services, wages and conditions, refugees and civil rights.

There are fierce battles to come over these issues, as well as the continuing occupation of Iraq. In 2003 millions around the world have suffered capitalism’s ever-greater demands for more work, harder work and more ‘flexible’ work in order to grind out greater profits for a tiny elite.

There has been resistance on every continent. We will never forget the electric energy of the great anti-war demonstrations, the exuberant defiance of the school students’ walkouts. We will never forget the agony and the tears of the Iraqi people and the Palestinians.

The government

Tony Blair began to lose his grip on power

IT WAS the year Blair went from walking on water to almost sinking beneath the waves. The anti-war movement almost forced him out, and has gravely weakened him forever.

It was also the year when hopes of ‘reclaiming Labour’ were shaken. The Labour conference did not even discuss Iraq. And it was the trade union leaders who let Blair get away with it.

Nor did Labour MPs reflect the outrage against the war. In the biggest parliamentary rebellion, just before the war began, 247 Labour MPs backed the government while 139 did not.

It’s not just the war which has sunk New Labour. Life has got harder as the constant urging for ‘flexibility’ and ‘productivity’ means workers are driven harder and faster. Average full time workers now do 43 hours a week. One in four male full time workers are on over 48 hours a week, and one in ten do 55 hours.

Labour pressed ahead with ‘fast track’ surgery centres run by private operators. The Labour conference passed a motion against foundation hospitals. But the government ploughed on regardless. Before the conference decision 60 Labour MPs voted against foundation hospitals. After the conference 61 did.

New Labour’s top-up fees plan has now become a lightning rod for the anger against New Labour. Blair knows he will face a turbulent new year.

To come in 2004

The Hutton report is likely to be published in the week beginning 12 January. The key Commons vote on fees will take place soon after. The National Convention to found an alternative to New Labour will be on Sunday 25 January in London. Thursday 10 June is ‘super Thursday’, with elections to the European Parliament, elections for the mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly, and council elections in many parts of England and Wales.

The Trade Unions

Rank and file militancy’s dramatic comeback

THE FIREFIGHTERS were locked in a titanic battle against the government and most of the media in January. The pressures on them made the union leadership back off, resulting in a bad defeat for the firefighters.

But among millions of workers the feeling for change and the support for anyone who fought back did not go away. It was expressed in union elections where, for example, Tony Woodley defeated more pro-Blair candidates to become leader of the TGWU union.

But, much more importantly, we saw a return of the power of the rank and file. In July women check-in staff at Heathrow went on unofficial strike and humbled their bosses.

In September shipyard workers on the Tyne also won after an unofficial walkout which began at one yard and then rippled out to others.

The lessons of these disputes-that speedy, all-out action is the most effective strategy-was most powerfully confirmed by postal workers in October and November. Postal workers had narrowly lost a national strike ballot over pay. Much of the union leadership was thrown into confusion and crisis. But rank and file postal workers saved the union and its fighting strength.

First they struck unofficially in Oxford, and won. Then London postal workers pressed ahead with an official strike despite management warnings that the ‘world will change again’ if they did so. The strikes were such a threat to management’s plans to ram through new conditions that they provoked a big battle with a number of offices in London and the south east.

But, instead of backing off, rank and file networks spread the strikes to involve up to 35,000 workers. Much of Britain’s post was affected. As the action threatened to spread wider, Royal Mail bosses and the government pushed for a settlement. The bosses’ assault was pushed back.

The victory has inspired others. Civil servants announced their campaign against an imposed pay deal with unofficial walkouts and will be balloting for strikes next month.

The mood generated by the anti-war movement has percolated through the workers’ movement, deepening the debates over the unions’ use of the political fund. In the summer the RMT rail union conference voted to allow funding for socialist candidates standing against New Labour. At other conferences union leaders had to promise a more aggressive approach to Blair in order to stave off demands to democratise the political fund.

The debate is far from finished. In 2004 we can expect more strikes like the postal workers’. But workers will also need to overcome the hesitancy and cowardice of most union leaders which held back many fights in 2003.

To come in 2004

An important battle is brewing over civil service pay. There will be more pressure for action over London weighting and other pay questions. Saturday 7 February will be the Convention of the Trade Union Left, in London.

The war

Imperialism shaken by resistance

WAR AND the resistance to it shaped politics across the world last year. At every step the anti-war movement dogged Bush and Blair.

They started the year determined to wage war on Iraq. Incredibly, Bush dared to justify the war by saying in February, ‘Throughout the 20th century small groups of men seized control of nations, built armies and arsenals, and set out to dominate the weak and intimidate the world.’

In the run-up to war US Secretary of State Colin Powell used Blair’s dossier to ‘prove’ Iraq was trying to obtain uranium. No one admitted that the CIA regarded this claim as false. Blair rushed out what became known as the ‘dodgy dossier’, cribbed from a student’s old PhD thesis.

On these false claims Bush and Blair unleashed the carnage on 20 March. The vast majority of the British press hailed the ‘liberation’ of Iraq. But the anti-war movement was far from crushed.

The reality of the US occupation and the Iraqis’ increasing resistance proved the anti-war movement’s arguments were right. The rising death toll of US soldiers raised the spectre of Vietnam. By early December the death toll was 506 US and British soldiers.

The demonstrations in London were a series of record-breakers. The largest demo in history-15 February, 2 million. The largest against a war that had started-22 March, 500,000. The largest demo at the end of a war-12 April, 200,000. The biggest weekday protests-20 November, 300,000.

This opposition showed up the spineless ‘official’ opposition in Bush’s and Blair’s governments. Too few Labour MPs found enough conscience to vote against Blair over the war. Robin Cook, Blair’s foreign secretary, finally resigned on 17 March. It took Clare Short until 12 May before she left.

In the US the majority of Democrats voted for Bush’s war, including Hillary Clinton. As the war got increasingly unpopular, some Democrats changed their minds. The capture of Saddam Hussein has sent many of them rushing back to the Bush camp.

As the Washington Post reported back in September, ‘Virtually all of Bush’s biggest accomplishments won the backing of large numbers of Democrats, including most of those hoping to oust him.’

The anti-war movement has blocked Bush and Blair from rushing on to wars elsewhere, despite repeated threats against North Korea and Iran. The anti-war movement has gone from strength to strength. Its impact has been felt in the trade unions and anti-capitalist mobilisations.

The task next year is to continue that pressure on Bush and Blair and to punish them in the crucial elections that both will be facing.


Anti-capitalist movement still spreading

THE anti-capitalist movement was not hurled into chaos by the war on Iraq, as some had predicted. Instead the vast majority of anti-capitalists became part of the anti-war mobilisations.

In turn, the anti-war movement strengthened the anti-capitalists. In January over 8,000 people attended the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, India, and tens of thousands gathered at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. These events confirmed again that opposition to capitalist globalisation was not confined to a thin layer of young activists in the richer countries.

Around 100,000 people marched against the Evian G8 summit in June.Then in August 200,000 gathered in Larzac, France, for an anti-capitalist festival.

The present round of anti-capitalist mobilisations burst onto the world’s screens in Seattle in 1999 as people protested against the World Trade Organisation.

This year protesters again took on the WTO, in Cancun, Mexico. The demonstrations outside helped to fuel the bitter divisions inside the plush conference centre and thereby brought about the collapse of the world trade talks. This was a victory for the poor across the globe as the privatising, deregulating, pro-multinational proposals on the agenda were not implemented.

The European Social Forum in Paris in November, which attracted over 50,000 people, was a great success, more political and more determined than ever.

To watch in 2004


16-21 January, Mumbai, India – 100,000 people are expected to attend.


8-10 June, Sea Island, Georgia, United States


planned for October, London


A system of mass destruction

In Bolivia a popular movement over the sale of the country’s gas reserves to the US ended with the president fleeing to Miami, driven from office by a massive revolutionary uprising.

Lula took office in Brazil at the start of the year. Millions of people in the country and across the world hoped he would bring radical change. He did bring some reforms. But within six months of coming to power Lula was implementing policies that hit the poor, giving tax cuts to the rich and pressing for the expulsion of left wing MPs who had voted against attacks on pensions. Lula’s policies have caused a wave of opposition, with major strikes and demonstrations in July and August.

In Venezuela workers and the poor came onto the streets and organised in their workplaces in February to defeat a bosses’ stoppage. It had threatened to bring down President Chavez. The action from below played a key role in beating back the right-and pushing for demands far more radical than those of Chavez himself.

Across Africa 2.4 million people died because of AIDS this year, nearly 7,000 a day. This was a real weapon of mass destruction. In the worst affected countries AIDS will kill a third of today’s 15 year olds unless immediate action is taken. The number of AIDS cases in China, India, Indonesia and Russia is rising dramatically. George W Bush cynically claimed to be pouring billions into the fight against AIDS. But he then appointed a pharmaceutical executive, Randall Tobias, to head his new AIDS initiative. Most of the money that Bush pledged for the US programme will find its way into the pockets of the drug companies. It is an initiative to support the profits of the pharmaceutical corporations.

A report from a UN agency in July showed how over 50 countries have been plunged backwards in the last decade. Every day 30,000 children die of preventable disease across the world. In country after country people are dying younger, as diseases like AIDS and the effects of poverty take their toll. The UN report was backed up by a study in the Lancet, the doctors’ magazine in Britain, last week. The Lancet report showed that every year nearly 11 million children around the world die before their fifth birthday. ‘Every single day an attack against children occurs that is ten times greater than the death toll from the World Trade Centre,’ said Professor Jean-Pierre Habicht, one of the authors of the Lancet study. The richest 1 percent of people in the world now have as much income as the poorest 57 percent.


Rail workers in Motherwell near Glasgow refuse to move munitions train bound for Iraq.

Some 300,000 join anti-war march in Washington.


20 million across the world join first global day of protest against war on 15 February.

The New York Times says, ‘There may still be two superpowers on the planet-the US and world public opinion.’


Over 1,500 delegates attend the People’s Assembly for Peace in London.

War begins 20 March. Walkouts or protests in 360 workplaces. Thousands of school students strike and 500,000 march against the war in London.


Saddam Hussein’s statue is toppled in Baghdad.

Three days later 200,000 march in London against the US occupation of Iraq. Protests are held across the world.

Tenth anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death. ‘I am saddened to say that not a lot has changed,’ comments his mother, Doreen.


Bush declares victory in Iraq on 1 May. US troops gun down protesters in Iraq.

New Labour suspends anti-war MP George Galloway.

Blair declares he wants to ‘redraw the 1945 welfare state settlement’. Benefits increase by just 70p a week.

May elections see the first Socialist Alliance councillor win in Preston. Scottish Socialist Party wins six seats in the Scottish Parliament. The BNP has a total of 14 councillors.

Two million in France join general strike over Tory attacks on pensions and welfare.


FBU finally forces delegates at union recall conference to accept pay deal. 10,000 Iraqis protest in British-controlled Basra. Six British soldiers killed in Iraq.


Check-in staff’s unofficial walkout humbles BA.

US has already spent $48 billion on war. New Labour says it is spending £5 million a day. Dr David Kelly’s body found, sparking a political crisis.


Trial of 13 refugees charged after a fire at Yarls Wood detention centre in February 2002. All defendants cleared of arson. Hutton inquiry into Kelly’s death uncovers top level rows over claims Iraq posed a threat.

Power cuts hits 50 million in North America-the crazy logic of the market in energy.


TUC conference attacks Blair and backs a motion opposing the war and occupation of Iraq. Thousands protest at arms fair in east London’s Docklands. Government uses terror laws against protesters. Three year anniversary of Palestinian intifada, or uprising.


Winston Silcott, framed after Broadwater Farm riot in 1985, is freed after 17 years in jail for an act of self defence.

1,300 attend meeting in London to discuss launching left alternative to New Labour.


Shocking police racism exposed in TV documentary The Secret Policeman. David Blunkett had tried to ban the programme.

Unite Against Fascism is set up with trade unions, anti-racist groups and campaigners. Statement to launch left electoral challenge to New Labour.


Brown raises spending on ‘war of terror’ to £6.3 billion in pre-budget statement. He signals curbs on public sector pay.

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