By John Rees
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The Conquest of Iraq

This article is over 21 years, 1 months old
The Stop the War Coalition is now entering a new phase of its evolution.
Issue 274

From its first meeting in September 2001 it has been clear that the coalition is unique as a single-issue campaigning body. Its precursor was the anti-globalisation movement, whose broad critique of capitalism and methods of organisation entered into its bloodstream at birth even if it never formed part of the coalition’s explicit programme.

If a historical parallel is necessary the successes of the coalition echo some of the strengths of the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s. The main concern of the civil rights movement was obvious from its title. But the scope of the issues it addressed, the variety of actions it organised, its impact on wider society and its ability to develop its political stance in response to events and the tactics of its enemies all ran far beyond the usual remit of a single-issue campaign.

Colonial enterprise

The coalition now has to respond to the occupation of Iraq by British and US troops. The military victory and the fall of the Iraqi regime have created a US and British colony in Iraq. The military government and the economic reconstruction are both nakedly colonial enterprises. The attempt to create an Iraqi puppet government is in essence little different from the British Raj’s attempt to govern India through local maharajahs and nabobs.

The coalition’s main task is now to defeat this occupation. This campaign will be enormously assisted by the fact that the Iraqi people, as anti-war speakers constantly predicted before the war, do not want US and British troops in their country. The coalition will be taking this message to the protest against the G8 meeting in Evian, France, in June. And it will be organising throughout Britain against the new colonialism. But if this new campaign is to be successful we must pause for a moment to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the movement during the phase that has just passed.

First let us examine the huge strengths of the movement. The scale of the anti-war movement is unprecedented. The Stop the War Coalition has organised the largest (15 February), the second largest (22 March) and the third largest (28 September 2002) left wing demonstrations in British political history. No one has claimed the top three places in this way since the Beatles.

The Stop the War Coalition’s more modest mobilisations are in the same league as the poll tax demonstration and the demonstrations against pit closures in 1992. And the coalition has inspired the largest movement of school students in British history and organised two of the biggest days of direct action the country has seen–on 31 October 2002 and on the day the invasion of Iraq began. None of this would have been possible without the politicisation of sections of the trade union movement and the active support of the left trade union leaders. Nor would it have been possible without the active participation of the Asian and Muslim population of Britain on an enormous scale. These forces, added to the socialist left and the traditional peace movement, provided the core around which even larger support gathered as the attack on Iraq became imminent.

Internationally the movement is equally impressive. The mobilisations on 15 February, 22 March and 12 April were the largest internationally coordinated actions by any protest movement in many generations. We now know the profound impact that this movement had on the British government. Tony Blair warned both civil servants and his family that he might lose his job and contingency plans were drawn up to bring British troops back from the Gulf. It was clearly this contingency that Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when he famously stated that the US might have to go it alone. This is an important point: the anti-war movement is not only a protest movement taking action out of principle, it is also a movement powerful enough to actually change the political course of British society. It is only the fact that this movement came within a hair’s breadth of stopping a major imperialist war that can explain the ferocity with which the press and the Labour leadership are now witch-hunting George Galloway and, to a lesser degree, other leaders of the Stop the War Coalition.

Indeed the anti-war movement internationally did affect the conduct of the war even if it could not prevent it. The fact that the ‘coalition of the willing’ fell from 28 countries in the first Gulf War to four belligerent countries in this war was substantially to do with the pressure of the anti-war movement. In 1991 United Nations sanction was given to the war, but not this time. Even the tactics used by the US and Britain, relying on encirclement and propaganda rather than direct assault to topple the Iraqi regime, was testimony to the fact that Britain and the US were fearful of further inflaming anti-war opinion. But for all this we need to discuss how the Stop the War Coalition could have stopped the war and how it can be strengthened to stop future wars.

Backbench rebellion

The critical moment came around the time of the second vote on the war in the House of Commons on Tuesday 18 March. Accident has some role to play in all this. Had Clare Short resigned alongside Robin Cook, thus ensuring the backbench rebellion was even larger than it was, Britain might well have been forced out of the war. But the fact that this did not happen has more than accidental roots. It has to do with the social weight of the organised labour movement within the Stop the War Coalition. Social weight and numbers are not exactly the same thing, although they are obviously related.

Social weight refers to the organised and institutional pressure that a particular organisation can bring to bear on government or governing parties. For a Labour government the trade unions and the Labour Party itself carry disproportionate influence.

If we compare the Stop the War Coalition with the anti-war movements in Italy and Spain we can see some of the impact of this question. Conservative governments are in power in both Spain and Italy. The anti-war movement in both countries therefore enjoys the support of the social democratic parties in a way that is not true in Britain where Labour is in power. This also increases the ability of the trade unions to effectively mobilise for the anti-war movement. In Italy, for instance, the movement can rely at the very minimum on the support of the 100,000-strong Rifondazione Comunista. This in turn has its effect on other institutions such as the church. In Britain the core of the organised left in the movement is much smaller–10,000 SWP members, plus 1,000 or so Communist Party members, plus the largely unorganised supporters of the left Labour MPs and union leaders. This represents an organised core of no more than 25,000 people.

It is true that the Stop the War Coalition has created its own networks of support, even its own cadre, which is substantially bigger than this. The contribution of the Muslim community alone was a very important contribution to the Stop the War Coalition’s organised core. But the fact remains, even when the organised core of the movement is given its most generous estimate, the disproportion between those mobilised and those mobilising was greater in Britain than in Italy or Spain. In the approach to the 15 February demonstration the support of the ‘Mirror’ partially made good this social democratic deficit. But when the war began, and this is obviously going to be the case in a belligerent country, the size of the organised core is critical to being able to withstand the pressure of chauvinistic propaganda. So how can the Stop the War Coalition strengthen its core?

One obvious solution is that the supporters of the organised left grow in numbers. The more the socialist organisations grow the greater the clarity and mobilising capacity of the whole movement grows.

Secondly, the coalition can take steps to develop its own organisational structure, as it did between the end of the Afghan War in November 2001 and the 28 September 2002 demonstration. This is primarily a political question rather than an organisational issue. Day schools and teach-ins, strengthening the international links of the coalition, especially with the Middle East, and developing the written work in which the Coalition elaborates its arguments are all important tools.

But beyond these measures the coalition needs to concentrate on developing its support among trade unionists. After all, where can you go after you have brought 2 million people onto the streets? One obvious answer is to the 7 million people organised in trade unions. Each trade unionist has the power to organise greater numbers around them. They have, potentially, access to funds, mailing lists and audiences that the unorganised lack. More than this, such activity brings pressure directly to bear on the Labour government. Many left union leaders have supported the coalition. But, even in these unions, more can be done. And in unions not affiliated there is a key battle still to be won. Coalition speakers have to be invited into every meeting and conference and committee in the unions. Delegations must be sent to every coalition event and a ‘union cadre’ created. Without this work now, future mobilisations will not be bigger and the industrial action that took place on the day war began cannot be strengthened.

But there is another issue that needs to be addressed if the ‘social democratic deficit’ is to be overcome. And this is a question that the Stop the War Coalition, because it is a united front that contains many Labour Party members in both its membership and its leadership, cannot address directly. This is the issue of the Labour Party and its monopoly on the political representation of the working class.

The course of the war underlined a number of important facts about the current political situation. It showed that the Labour leadership neither represents the views of its own members or those of workers generally. It showed that the left in the Labour Party is too weak and the leadership too entrenched for the perspective of internal change to be anything other than the most distant and abstract of prospects. The course of the FBU dispute proves the same points.

A left alternative to Labour

The attacks by the media and the Labour leadership on George Galloway and FBU leader Andy Gilchrist show that the party hierarchy are as intolerant of left wing opinion as ever–and incomparably more vicious in pursuit of their enemies if they threaten New Labour’s right to rule unopposed. And the Labour Against the War conference held in London last month gathered no more than a few hundred activists with little chance of altering the course of the party on any significant policy. So the issue now becomes how the left of the unions, the left outside the Labour Party and those Labour Party members who have torn up their membership cards can cooperate to create a left alternative to Labour. The course of the political fund debate in the unions has been and remains critical to this debate. It seems likely that the RMT will soon become the first union to break with Labour’s monopoly of union money. Socialists will need to work hard to reproduce this result in other unions. This is vital if any broad left organisation on the model of the Socialist Alliance is going to gain credibility with millions of workers who still reluctantly support Labour.

But the left too has responsibilities. The first is to appeal to many in the Muslim community who have worked alongside us in the coalition to help create a radical alternative to New Labour. Religious belief is certainly no barrier to being part of such a project. The Muslim community has been politicised by the Afghan and Iraqi wars. All but a very few have worked creatively with the left in the Stop the War Coalition. It is true that, like all religious communities, the Muslim community contains people with conservative beliefs who would find it impossible to participate in a left alternative to New Labour. But this is not true of a very large proportion of the Muslim community, many of whom are Labour voters. They feel betrayed by New Labour in all the ways that the rest of the workers who traditionally support Labour feel betrayed–over the NHS, education, public transport and so on. But they feel most angered by Labour’s support for the new imperialism and by the domestic racism promoted in defence of it.

But the left itself, including the left Labour MPs, the left union leaders and the supporters of the Morning Star can be a vital force in making such an initiative work better than any of the existing organisations. What is now needed is an act of political imagination similar to the one that launched the Stop the War Coalition in the first place. Then it seemed a difficult and risky political chance to launch an anti-war movement in the atmosphere that existed the week after the 11 September attack. But it was also clear that there was a desire for someone to take a political initiative that could crystallise the opposition to Bush’s emerging war drive.

Today the same is true of the desire for a political alternative to Blair. On the left, in the unions, among the Muslim community, hundreds of thousands of people want to see a radical alternative to New Labour. The Socialist Alliance has attempted to build such an alternative. It certainly has its weaknesses but they will never be overcome unless broader forces create something on similar lines. Then there will be a genuine pole of attraction on the left that can cooperate in the way that various forces have done in the coalition and build an alternative to New Labour.

And if we do not take this chance not only is there the danger that in some areas the political vacuum created by New Labour will be filled by the BNP. There is also the danger that the future of the movement in the unions and the future of the Stop the War Coalition will be hampered by the limited size of the organised radical forces at its core.

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