The defining image of this year’s Labour Party conference was 72 year old Walter Wolfgang being manhandled out of the hall for heckling. That says a lot about both the conference and the popular perception of New Labour. The incident was shocking and demoralising for even the most hardened delegates. That Walter and 600 others in Brighton were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act has become another mini scandal among Labour members.
But the point about Walter Wolfgang most of the press missed was that he was speaking for the majority. He was like the little boy who says the emperor has no clothes. Jack Straw and the rest of the cabinet talk nonsense about Iraq. Almost everyone knows this. Almost no one in public life says it.
Was there ever a wider gulf between what elites are saying and what normal people think? The Labour conference voted overwhelmingly against council house privatisation, against the market in the NHS and for more union rights. But they must feel as if they may as well not have bothered. Just weeks later Blair launched a new policy drive to push for more autonomy and commercial opportunity for schools – a plan so blatantly pro market and anti working class it has angered even the ever loyal John Prescott.
The media has sensed that something is up. But their main response has been wall to wall coverage of the Tory leadership contest. One BBC producer bragged, ‘We are going to cover like it was the European Championship.’ Somehow they have managed to end up presenting their new darling David Cameron as a moderate. This is despite the fact that he’s signed up to the neo-liberal campaign for flatter taxes, that he pushes a Thatcherite economic programme, and that he is a gung-ho supporter of the war in Iraq.
That war remains the central problem for the governments in London and Washington. Everyone has known for a while that the majority in Britain and the US want the troops out. Blair and his coterie countered that we have to stay because the Iraqis need us. Now a poll commissioned by the Ministry of Defence itself has exposed this as one more in a long list of lies. The poll, conducted by Iraqi academics who didn’t know the survey was paid for by the British, found 82 percent of Iraqis are strongly opposed to foreign troops, less than 1 percent feel more secure on account of their presence and 65 percent in the south think military attacks are justified. This strength of feeling is partly explained by the survey’s other findings that 71 percent of Iraqis have no clean water and 47 percent are short of electricity.
These are devastating figures. They confirm that the Iraqis do not buy the idea that if the troops left there would be civil war. And they, after all, are in the best position to tell. The figures also outline what a desperate situation Bush and Blair have got themselves in to. Faced with such levels of hostility, it is almost impossible to see how a US or British sponsored political project can make any headway in Iraq. At the same time, withdrawal in anything resembling current conditions would be a disaster. As the Economist warns, ‘A loss of nerve and a humiliating retreat might turn America into a shadow of itself, with consequences that would be felt well beyond the Middle East.’
Meanwhile military and political chaos in Iraq is feeding back into domestic politics. As anti-war opinion grows on the ground, divisions in the US establishment are breaking into the open. Action against ‘Bush’s brain’ Karl Rove in the US would be a disaster for a president who has relied on him from the very start of his political career.
In Britain disaffection in the armed forces can no longer be concealed. Flight Lieutenant Kendall Smith and Troy Samuels are among the first soldiers to publicly take a stand against the war – and there are reports they have received strong support in their regiments. The fact that a senior commander has now resigned in protest at British soldiers facing roadside bombs without proper armoured vehicles must be causing migraines at the Ministry of Defence.
Given all this – and following the successful 24 September demonstration – the national media has been forced to take the anti-war movement seriously once again. Grieving mothers such as Rose Gentle and Sue Smith, along with Walter Wolfgang himself have become popular symbols of opposition. The shame is that Blair’s growing unpopularity and isolation has not been met with more parliamentary opposition.
In this critical situation the movement can once again make a big impact on British society. As we go to press 97 British soldiers are already dead. Military Families Against the War and the Stop the War Coalition are calling for protests on the dreadful day when that figure hits 100. The movement is also calling on activists in every area to organise delegations from workplaces, colleges, mosques and campaigning groups to the International Peace Conference on 10 December in London.
Meanwhile events in Birmingham should be a warning. If Blair’s pro-market policies are a disaster nationally, so can be the lack of any principled local opposition that can draw working class people together. As next year’s local elections loom, the need for Respect to grow has never been clearer.
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