A day to remember
It is still an incredible feeling to have been involved in organising the largest demonstration ever in Britain. That’s what 15 February was. The ‘Guardian’ poll of 18 February showed that at least one person from 1.25 million households came on this demonstration, so the figure we gave of 2 million is quite accurate. The ‘Daily Telegraph’ estimated 4 percent of the population came, and an urban geographer put the figure at 2.2 million. There were another 30,000 in Belfast, and another 100,000-plus in Glasgow, so this is a huge proportion of the population. It means two or three adults from each street came on the demonstration.
The whole diversity of the demonstration is also significant. The idea that it was made up of predominantly ‘middle England’ is not true. There were two important elements to it. Firstly there were many first-time marchers who had not been on a demonstration before. Many of them were mobilised by the ‘Daily Mirror’. Also there were many people who have marched before but who may not have been on a demonstration for 20 or 30 years. They are sensing they can defeat the government and that they can make a difference. This is very important. Secondly it was also the beginning of the revival of the working class movement. The organised unions were there in force. In many working class areas shops and pubs have posters up which say ‘No to war’. This reflects the mood of local opinion. So this march attracted many celebrities but it was also the authentic voice of working class people.
When you read the people interviewed in the papers you can hear an echo of some of the arguments we have put in all the meetings up and down the country. It reflects the fact that we have had an 18 month campaign which has created a body of people around the country who are the bedrock of the Stop the War Coalition who really do understand that this is a war for oil, and that there are double standards regarding Palestine. We are developing a level of consciousness that is incredibly high.
We were at the centre of initiating the international demonstrations as well. At the European Social Forum in Florence we had an argument about the centrality of the 15th. Two members of the Coalition went to a conference in Cairo where again we argued to widen it out, and people went to Porto Alegre and did the same there. The result was a whole number of demonstrations throughout South America. So it didn’t happen spontaneously–there were a number of activists from the anti-capitalist and the anti-war movement and from the left who came together and argued this through and who created a Europe-wide then a worldwide day of protest.
Nobody can ignore these demonstrations–from Friday morning our time right through to Sunday night there were people demonstrating throughout the world, and that is an amazing achievement. The demonstrations were huge–especially against Aznar, Berlusconi and Blair, and also against Bush. The Spanish demonstrations were the biggest in terms of the proportion of the population that came. But then you had, for example, 100,000 in Stockholm, half a million each in San Francisco and Berlin, 50,000 in Uruguay, 50,000 in Budapest–virtually everywhere around the world people report that these are the biggest demonstrations that have ever taken place.
Democracy and Labour
This is a tremendous challenge to the government. The movement has now become not just a movement against the war but about democracy itself. People are asking questions such as how does the system work, who makes the decisions, what is going on in the world. There is now a very great mood for change.
We are planning a people’s assembly, or parliament, for 12 March, which will be an alternative to the palace of lies in Westminster. We will argue for delegates from across the country–representative of the march–to discuss the war.
We are also saying we want people to strike on the day war breaks out. There are obvious difficulties since it is supposedly legal for Tony Blair to go to war, but illegal for us to strike against it. Nonetheless, now there is a huge mood for it. The left union leaders are trying to get a recall of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which is very significant. Under a clause which was written in 1919 the TUC is supposed to recall its general council in the event of war to discuss its attitude to it and industrial action. There may also be spontaneous strikes in a whole number of places around the country. If the government goes to war there will be such an eruption of anger that the government will not know what has hit them.
Students are planning to occupy their colleges and to walk out of schools. There will be a students’ and school students’ strike on 5 March. In Westminster and Whitehall we are going to try and take over the whole area and make it impossible for the government to function when war breaks out. Demonstrations are planned for when war breaks out, but we are not leaving it till then. There were protests at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s inauguration, the Welsh Labour Party conference, and there will be protests at MP’s surgeries on International Women’s Day.
The Labour government now has no legitimacy on this question. Blair talks about his moral right to wage war, but what he is saying is that we have to take one man’s supposed morality against the wishes of the mass of people. Therefore if he goes to war he will not have a mandate and he will not be fit to be prime minister. If parliament either cannot or will not speak authentically for what people in this country think about war then people will have to do it elsewhere. The traditions of civil disobedience will be the traditions that people look to. They are not simply going to be prepared to say, we will kick Tony Blair out in two years time–they are keen to do something now in order to stop this war.
This is either going to break Blair or break the Labour Party, or possibly both. You cannot have a situation where there is such a discrepancy between what people feel and what the Labour government is doing. There has never been a time since universal suffrage when establishment politics has been so cut off. That situation creates very serious problems for Blair. He has no base politically inside the Labour Party and now he is its most unpopular prime minister. Whatever the outcome of the war people will not forgive him for what he has done.
The question many are asking is, what is the Labour Party for and why should we carry on funding the Labour Party–why should our MPs, who are supposed to represent us, be pro-war? There are many people who are leaving Labour and are tearing up their membership cards. Already over the last year there has been a lot of rumbling about the political fund. These questions will come up again and again and be posed more sharply as the drive to war continues.
The Stop the War Coalition
We will look back at the Stop the War Coalition as one of the most important political phenomena of recent years. The press tries to say this is a movement without leaders but this is not true. We have a collective leadership of the Coalition which is democratically elected and organised. This would not have happened without the involvement of a wide number of forces–the peace movement and the left, the trade unions and the Muslim community.
Most of the arguments that the Coalition have put forward are now accepted by the majority of people in this country. We are not an isolated minority–we speak for the majority of people on this question. The arguments we have put over the last 18 months means we have built a core of anti-war activists throughout the country who are familiar with a number of key arguments about what this war is about. A whole range of different people are now on board and more are wanting to join the Coalition. This movement was built by the people on the ground. Local meetings are a wonderful cross-section of people: longstanding peace campaigners, school students, socialists, Muslims, Christians, trade unionists. These are the people who are now key to the Coalition, and they work together on the basis of mutual respect, united around this one campaign.
This also has an implication as to where the future lies. Whatever the outcome of this war, people are not going to come out of the campaign and say, ‘thank you and goodnight’. Rather people will say, what else are we going to campaign about, how do we change politics in this country? There is a new politics now and this is very much tied into the anti-capitalist movement. Florence was very important, so too was Genoa in terms of building the huge anti-war movement.
Ideas of socialism, and socialist organisation, are coming to the fore in this movement. Socialists were instrumental in initiating the Stop the War Coalition, and have been central to its politics. As people act to change the world, so they experience feelings of collectivity and solidarity which open them to socialist ideas. So the fight against war can also help produce the revival of the mass socialist movement committed to ending capitalism as well as war.
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