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April 2003 • Vol 3, No. 4 •

Report From British Antiwar Activist

Neil Murray

The campaign against the war has been incredible-the biggest demonstration in British history, the biggest wartime demonstration (at five days’ notice!), the biggest parliamentary revolt since it meant anything, and a new generation drawn into political activity.

We haven’t managed (at least at the time of writing) to stop their war, although not for want of trying. The slaughter goes on, and with the overwhelming superiority of US weapons, the only real question is not “who wins,” but with how many deaths, how quickly, and what sort of a mess will Iraq be in when its “over.”

No-one who has participated in demonstrations over the last 20 years, including against previous wars, could have failed to be astounded by the exponential growth of the antiwar movement and the size and impact of its protests. From fairly small beginnings, the movement exploded, reflecting the level of opposition to the war in opinion polls, sprouting protests in small towns and Scottish islands which had never seen their like before, and shaking up the political situation.

The heroes of the movement have been school students, who, largely on their own initiative, have taken up the “no war” cry and organized walkouts, city center protests and participated in large numbers in organized demonstrations. Together with action taken by college students, it marks the end of the long, dark night of Thatcher’s children-the passing over of a generation which did not become politically active in significant numbers. Politicians have repeatedly claimed that they want young people involved in politics, but of course they didn’t mean this kind of involvement. Instead we have seen condemnation, charges of truancy, arrests and school authorities calling the police, locking gates (and fire doors!) and suspending and giving detention to those who defied their authority.

Could we have stopped it?

Tony Blair was always determined to link up with George Bush Jr.and go to war against Iraq. The question is whether the movement could have prevented this, forcing Blair at least to pull back, if not Bush. While the level of opposition in the US was also high, it did not reach the same levels as in Britain, and with the lack of any kind of workers’ party, did not have a parliamentary expression.

Protests against the Falklands war in 1982 and against the first Gulf war in 1991 were tiny compared with the present movement. But to prevent Blair going to war-given his determination-would have required an extraordinary level of opposition, combining protest and parliamentary opposition. While we reached unseen heights, we never quite got that far.

The parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition helped build each other. Without the scale of demonstrations on February 15 (not just in London and Glasgow, but world-wide), it is unlikely that the rebellion in parliament would have been as large. On the other hand, several MPs (from the Socialist Campaign Group of Labor MPs and George Galloway) were at the heart of the antiwar movement from the start and played an important part in building it.

Overall, the antiwar movement acted imaginatively, reacting positively to new levels of support and building new alliances, such as with the Muslim Association of Britain. Without downplaying the demonstrations, direct action and street protests, the key to actually stopping Blair’s war plans lay with the Labor movement. If Blair was not going to be moved by the unprecedented level of street protest, then he had to be forced to recognise the damage to his political career and the ‘economy’ which proceeding with the war would cause. The scale of the revolt by Labor MPs would have to be so large that it would force Blair to back down, and/or there would have to be strike action on a scale he could not ignore.

Parliamentary revolt

Opposition in parliament to the proposed war began on a small scale, among the ‘usual suspects’ who opposed the war whatever justification of ‘second resolutions’ was obtained. It grew considerably when it became obvious that such justification did not really matter to Bush, and Blair only wanted it as cover for a decision to go to war anyway. This ‘second wave’ of parliamentary opposition (which included the Liberal Democrats, but who are now, opportunist as ever, “supporting our boys”) showed all their illusions in the United Nations, still arguing when they rebelled a second time that they would have supported the war if it had obtained UN support, as if a second resolution obtained by bullying and blackmailing the smaller countries currently represented on the Security Council would have legitimized the action.

Regardless of these reservations about its limitations, the level of revolt in parliament was amazing by any standards, reaching not quite half of the Parliamentary Labor Party, with Blair losing a Cabinet minister, junior ministers and ministerial aides in the process. It had Blair worried enough to impose a three-line whip, resort to extreme arm-twisting (with even the un-elected Cherie Blair ringing women MPs to plead with them to “stand by her husband”).

With the decision to proceed to war having been made (though not yet enacted), Blair hoped the second major revolt, on March 18, would be smaller. Despite a small number of MPs returning to the loyalist fold, this did not happen - most resignations took place before this second vote and the new MPs rebelling outweighed those backtracking.

Blair expected Robin Cook’s resignation before the final vote; what he couldn’t have hoped for (though, no doubt, went out of his way to secure) was Clare Short’s farcical performance. Having gone as public as possible in describing Blair’s push to war as ‘reckless’ and stated categorically that she would resign if Britain went to war without UN backing, she did a complete about-turn on the basis of vague promises about the “roadmap” to a solution of the Palestine/Israel conflict and UN involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq (and, no doubt, her love of the trappings of office). While all this made her look a total idiot in the eyes of everyone, whether pro or antiwar (which she herself acknowledged), hers was an important scalp for Blair. If she had resigned there is little doubt the parliamentary revolt would have reached levels that made it difficult for Blair to proceed. Blair will probably show his gratitude by ditching Short in his next reshuffle.

Opposition in the unions

Almost from the start, several national trade unions (including Natfhe, CWU, RMT, Aslef and the FBU) announced their support for the Stop the War Coalition. This was due to the personal conviction of their general secretaries, backed up by their national executives. Some of these unions made their position known to their members, though never too prominently or effectively. Even when holding a view passionately, general secretaries are not well-practiced in convincing their members to act, not least because they might hold them to account over them in the future.

Of course, some of the largest unions, such as TGWU and Amicus, have been strangely silent on the war. Roger Lyons, general secretary of the MSF section of Amicus, sent out a letter as late as the week of March 17 banning branches and regions from affiliating to the Stop the War Coalition.

Keep that Card!

Many Labor Party members have torn up their membership cards - or threatened to-in horror at Blair’s drive to war. Many union members are threatening to withdraw their political levy and are talking of disaffiliation from the Labor Party.

Yet there is an ongoing fight in the party over its future course. Does Blair escape with a bloody nose from his encounter with the antiwar movement and rebel MPs, or do we hold him to account? Those most opposed to the war have the most responsibility to challenge him, not walk away.

Blair and his acolytes would like nothing better than for all those opposed to his policies, in particular, the war, to leave and enter the political wilderness. Better to stay and challenge him, and above all get organized!

Five supportive unions, representing 750,000 members, did push for a recall congress of the TUC on the basis of its Rule 8(k), adopted in the aftermath of the First World War, which states: “In order that the trade union movement may do everything which lies in its power to prevent future wars, the General Council shall, in the event of there being a danger of an outbreak of war, call a special Congress to decide on industrial action, such Congress to be called, if possible, before war is declared.” This was kicked into touch by the general council, deferring a decision and sticking to the line that war was only permissible with a second UN resolution, despite deploring Bush’s rush to war. After war was started the general council came out with the line that “while many trade unionists will want to continue to show their opposition to the war, the public will expect us to give support to our soldiers”.

Elsewhere in Europe the picture was a little different, and the European TUC actually called for 15-minute work stoppages on March 14 to protest against the threat of war. Ignored by the British TUC and its affiliated unions, this call was followed in several countries, Greece even experiencing a four-hour general strike when war broke out.

With the failure of the TUC to act, it was down to individual unions to organize action against the war. Several did call for protest action, and gave the impression they were calling for strike action, only, in most cases, to backtrack rapidly. The worst, perhaps, was Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, who made a strong speech at the ‘People’s Parliament’ on March 12, saying: “When war breaks out we want to see as many CWU members as possible out on the streets protesting against this war...isn’t it about time that the TUC said ‘On the day war breaks out, every trade unionist should get in the street?’“ This was understood by all present to mean strike action. Yet Hayes never made any serious effort to convey this message to CWU members, and later put out a press release saying, “Billy expects any such actions to be organized at about six o’clock in the evening, and he is not calling for members to take illegal industrial action.” He even had the kindness to inform Royal Mail management of this, thus making it virtually impossible for postal workers to take action. Other general secretaries did not go so far, Dave Prentis of Unison, for instance, merely pointing out in a factual statement that industrial action would be unlawful.

Getting industrial action against the war (first mooted by Tony Benn last year) was never going to be easy in the best of circumstances. Even with the support of the national union (and even the TUC!), such action would be unlawful (as is all “political” strike action under the anti-union laws which the government refuses to repeal), laying local representatives open to victimization and national unions which encouraged or supported such action liable to the seizure of their funds. Most unions are committed to the repeal of these laws, but few are willing to challenge them, even in the case of war. This made the call for a “global general strike” exceptionally silly, since it was either an encouragement for people to walk out individually, or, in fact, was totally ignored as being impracticable.

However, this inability to win significant strike action at the height of antiwar feeling did expose a weakness of the left and the shallowness of its roots in the unions. Too much credence was placed on the declarations of union leaders, without backing it up with activity in the unions and workplaces to win the argument against war and for strike action. “Union work” is too often seen as securing union positions and branch (and national conference) policy without the more arduous task of taking the arguments to the rank and file. Few local antiwar groups targeted workplaces for leaflets and meetings.

Faced with the reality that strike action without the support of the national union would only be possible if it involved the active participation of a large majority of the workforce (able to fight off attempted victimizations), and even then probably of many workplaces of the same employer, it is hardly surprising that action, in the end, was restricted almost exclusively to schools, colleges and some local government workplaces, with lunchtime protest meetings organized by others. The left is not to be condemned for not exposing its forces to mass victimization, but has to draw lessons about how it functions in the unions.

The fight in the Labor Party

Since war against Iraq was first mooted, opposition within the Labor Party has grown. At last year’s Labor Party conference a leadership-backed resolution (the least they could get away with) supporting ‘war within international law’ was only passed by 60-40 against one opposing war (the same margin, with the same policy difference, as at TUC congress a two weeks earlier).

Since its formation in October 2001, Labor Against the War has been building up support among MPs, branches, CLPs and affiliated trade unions. In the last few months there have been many reports of Labor Party bodies (many in areas not known for their opposition) passing resolutions against the war and condemning Blair. In many cases such opposition has moved on from passing resolutions to active participation in protests and demonstrations. Pressure from these CLPs undoubtedly helped boost the number of antiwar MPs, not least through the threat that they might be deselected if they did not show any backbone.

There has been some criticism of LATW for mainly consisting of the “usual suspects”-the Campaign Group of MPs and the known left. Apart from the fact that many of the branches and CLPs affiliating are not among the usual suspects, this criticism comes down to a failure to involve that “second wave” of MPs who voted for the amendments in parliament, and some “Old Laborites,” such as Glenda Jackson and Peter Kilfoyle, who have opposed the war from the start. Efforts need to be made to draw in the likes of Kilfoyle and Jackson, but we cannot underestimate the political gulf that exists between the Campaign Group and many other MPs, even critical ones. Glenda Jackson was invited to speak at the Labor Against the War conference on March 29th, but declined. Building trusts between the two groups will take time. It is difficult to see how the `second wave’ could be involved while they were still arguing that war would be all right if a second resolution were passed by the UN. If it had been, they would either have simply faded away or, alternatively, wrecked Labor Against the War. Nor should it be forgotten that many of them voted for both the antiwar amendment and the substantive resolution on March 18th. Now war is underway, of course, it is a different matter and every effort should be made to bring them on board, although without doubt many will take the attitude that we must now support the war effort.

Some sections of the Labor Party have rightly taken up the call for a recall Labor Party conference to determine policy on the war, in the strong belief that Blair has proceeded in the face of opposition by a large minority, if not a majority, of party members. Unfortunately, to have any chance of becoming a reality, such a move will have to gain the support of major unions, which they are ducking at the moment. Indeed, the actions of union representatives on Labor’s NEC has been one of the weakest spots of the antiwar movement - at the January meeting not a single union representative was prepared to support the antiwar resolution.

Blair out?

A slogan taken up by much of the antiwar movement has been ‘Blair out!’. Rather more limited than the vague ‘regime change’ favored by some on the left, it at least recognizes the reality that the most that can be achieved at the moment is a change of Labor Party leadership, and that Blair alone has been largely responsible for Britain’s support for Bush’s war drive. Those who argue this is insufficient have a duty to say what they would replace the present government by, and how.

Yet, if Blair is not willing to bow to the pressure of massive demonstrations, and strike action on any scale was unachievable, then the only way he can be forced out is by action in the Labor Party.

Many antiwar MPs and some sections of the party opposed to the war have been horrified at the fact that some of the Campaign Groups and some antiwar CLPs have raised the need for a challenge to Blair’s leadership. Yet it is the only consistent way to stop his war lust. Indeed, if the antiwar forces in the party had managed to achieve their aim of getting a majority of Labor MPs to vote against the war, Blair would more than likely have had to resign (or form a national government). Blair himself said, in the run up to March 18, “Back me or sack me,” and Robin Cook, in his resignation speech, while praising Blair, called on MPs to vote to stop the drive to war-if they had succeeded, Blair’s position would have been untenable.

Many say that Blair will now go “in the fullness of time.” Maybe, but that allows for the Blairites to organize a smooth transition, the last thing that is needed. A drive is needed to force Blair out. A combination of pushing for a change of policy on war and for a leadership challenge is needed.

Others say that forcing Blair out would only see him replaced by Gordon Brown or some other member of the Cabinet who bears equal responsibility for the war policy. Perhaps, although if it came to an election the left would undoubtedly put up a better candidate, and even if Brown, for example, were to replace him, the very fact of forcing Blair out would mean that his successor had to pay more attention to the concerns of the party and union rank and file than has been the case to date. It would be a significant defeat for the “New Labor” project.

The technical hurdles for forcing a leadership election when Labor is in government are immense - conference, by a majority, has to pass a resolution calling for such an election, and any candidate has to have the backing of 82 MPs. Yet neither of these, nor winning a change of policy, are impossible if the forces are actively fighting for them, and Blair might go sooner if he realizes the way the tide is turning. Many more MPs now have the taste of rebellion, as seen over the issue of ‘foundation hospitals’, and they should be pushed to generalize that opposition.

Having said that, it would be tactically stupid for a section of the antiwar forces in the Labor movement to put their emphasis on replacing Blair if that erects a barrier to others. Many in the CLPs, and many more antiwar MPs, do not currently support this, and cannot be battered into submission. Unity can be maintained around the issue of policy (including a special conference) and accountability. Emphasising getting Blair out could also contain the danger that if we don’t achieve it, we could be left high and dry. Certainly those of us who support a challenge to Blair should raise the issue, but not in a way which creates divisions. Most of our effort should go into getting resolutions to Party conference (special or regular) opposing the policy on the war. That in itself would be a major defeat for Blair.

The alternative to any fight over the war is to follow the advice of Peter Hain, now posing as the Cabinet’s token lefty, who argues we should support Blair over war while pushing for a greater emphasis on policies such as the redistribution of wealth. Yet Blair would be strengthened in his other policies if he gets away with his performance over Iraq.

Where now for the antiwar movement?

War against Iraq is only the latest installment of Bush’s drive for military (and economic) dominance of the globe. Both the British and U.S. governments have been explicit that they will move on to their next victim once Iraq is subdued. Blair’s hope now is that he has a “good war”-that it’s over quickly with as little bloodshed as possible and the news can show Iraqis dancing in the streets welcoming the British and U.S. troops.

In this they are encountering more problems than they envisaged. It is clear that the spin doctors swallowed their own line that all Iraqis would welcome the invasion, neglecting the fact that many who have no love for Saddam Hussein resent their country being occupied.

We have to continue to oppose this war as long as it goes on, calling for the withdrawal of the troops. We also have to oppose the U.S. plans for once they have “won,” involving an American governor, or at best a puppet Iraqi government. The antiwar forces have a duty to support those in Iraq who will argue for democracy, including for the right of self-determination for the Kurds, the right to form free trade unions, etc.

While continuing to oppose this war, we also have to prepare for the next. Some of the public opposition to this war has melted away through a misguided “patriotism” (though it may re-emerge the longer and bloodier the conflict). But it is likely to come to the fore again when Bush decides on his next target.

For the movement to be stronger next time around, it needs to firm up and deepen the alliances made in the course of the campaign, but it also means the left winning people to an analysis which draws the connection between imperialist war and imperialist policies more generally, of convincing people of the need for class politics and that such wars will only ultimately be abolished when we have abolished capitalism.

Left organizations will undoubtedly recruit out of the antiwar movement (although not necessarily in the permanent numbers they hope), but that recruitment has to be linked to drawing lessons from our failure to stop this war - a turn to consistent work in the unions and workplaces, and a recognition that the Labor Party is a significant, if difficult, terrain for the battle against Blair.

Within the Labor Party (the CLPs and the affiliated unions), the weak forces of the left have to organize themselves to attract those drawing wider lessons from the fight over the war. We have to make the connections with Party democracy, with policy issues like the anti-union laws, the attacks on asylum seekers; privatization and public sector pay (the firefighters!), drawing in those who have become critical around the war into building a left force within the Party which can challenge the whole range of New Labor policies.





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