Write us!

February 2003 • Vol 3, No. 2 •

The British Antiwar Movement Is Rising

By Mike Calvert

The antiwar movement in this country is on the rise. The general upturn in the political situation in this country is exemplified by the recent wave of strikes in local government and the fire service and by the phenomenal rise of the Stop the War Coalition. On September 26th no less than 400,000 marched through London against the war drive of George W Bush and Tony Blair. The size and breadth of the protests took the organizers, police and the media by surprise and consequently the authorities were not prepared for such a turn out.

The demonstration included Labor MPs, trade union tops, union contingents from across the Labor movement marching behind their official union banners marching side by side with huge swathes of ordinary working people and peacenik types. The Muslim community in Britain was also prominent in the protests.

This huge size was further manifested by turnout to the antiwar conference held in January in London. The organizers had no idea that around 1,000 delegates and visitors from across the country would turn up to hear speeches from luminaries of the peace movement and to debate resolutions mapping out the way forward.

“This movement today, not Tony Blair, is speaking for the British people,” declared ASLEF [Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen] member Andrew Murray, opening the Stop the War national conference. Eight hundred activists came from local coalitions, political parties, trade unions and peace groups, along with some new young people getting active for the first time.

In a rousing speech, Tony Benn, a long-time left-wing Labor Party leader, said, “We speak for humanity. This is an argument between the people of the world and the rulers of the world.”

Former president of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, who at the age of 86 has just become president of the newly-formed International Campaign Against U.S. Aggression on Iraq, spoke to a standing ovation. He said, “There is terror in the world—the terror of George Bush... The world system keeps 85 percent of the population in poverty and dependency.” He called on the British antiwar movement to “take the smile off Tony Blair’s face.”

There were cheers as George Galloway, MP, paid tribute to the train drivers in Motherwell who refused to drive trains with ammunition intended for use against Iraq. The conference agreed to campaign within the trade unions for such decisive action on a mass scale to stop the war.

Socialist Party supporter and Coventry councilor, Dave Nellist, called on the recently elected left trade union leaders to plough at least some of the money they currently give to New Labor into the antiwar movement and to drive on this campaign.

Later in the day, an announcement that soldiers in the north of the country were refusing to go to Iraq was met with huge applause.

Build for action

The conference agreed that the immediate priority is to aim for an unprecedented turnout on the national demo on 15 February. On that day, there will be demos in most European capitals and in many other countries as well. George Galloway said, “It’s hard to imagine a more important day in any of our lives so far. Nothing but death can be an excuse to not be in London on February 15th!”

Delegates were also urged to build for action the day war breaks out, for a demo in every village, town and city. Workers were asked to take at least one hour of protest on that day—for “a massive howl of protest and rage, so that the government becomes more frightened of us than we are of them.”

Mass civil disobedience

Dave Nellist—former Labor Party MP—argued that “demonstrations alone won’t shift a capitalist government like New Labor, which is wedded to the political and economic interests of the U.S. Only sustained, organized mass civil disobedience can stop a war in progress and force a government to retreat.”

Dave gave the example of the campaign against the poll tax, which was rooted in estates, schools, colleges and workplaces, and was organized through democratic structures locally, regionally and nationally.

To great applause, he also stressed that as well as fighting against this war, “we have to raise an alternative, and be just as determined to build a new world, in my opinion a socialist world.”


This was an optimistic and enthusiastic conference. Twenty-six resolutions were debated, plus two composite motions on policy and trade union work. Unfortunately, however, it was very difficult for ordinary delegates to intervene in conference discussions unless they were moving resolutions. To build a successful antiwar movement now will require the development of democratic and open local coalitions, not dominated by any one group, brought together in elected and accountable regional and national bodies.

The newly elected steering committee of the coalition has representation from political parties, trade unions and peace and other campaigns involved in the coalition, plus some individuals.

A broad coalition

The Muslim Association of Britain [MAB] has agreed to these demands and, via the mosques, has mobilized tens of thousands on antiwar demonstrations. MAB is an absolutely central and vibrant component of the movement to stop the war that makes it very different from others in this country. It is essential that the Coalition keep these people on board if it is not to allow conservative Muslims to take over the leadership of the youth from the Muslim communities. The antiwar coalition has to unite around the broadest and simplest antiwar demands and slogans and keep the coalition based on an orientation that is inspired by and from within the labor movement. This must include trade unionists, socialists and also members of the Labor Party who are moving into opposition to the Blair government.

Many Labor Party members were ashamed and shocked to see the government say that no extra money can be found for the firefighters, who are prepared to risk their lives to save others, whereas at least a billion pounds were immediately found to bomb innocent women and children in Iraq.

Taxpayers money should go for jobs, heath care, housing, education, public services, not for war.

Recently, the mainstream press announced that pensions would fall by a third. Meanwhile, the government is ready to spend billions on a war that can trigger unpredictable consequences for the population of this country and around the world. It is unacceptable.

A recent letter sent by Labor Party members to Premier Blair states the following:

“As Labor Party members, affiliated trade unionists or Labor voters, we stand in the tradition of peace, justice and democracy that set the solid rock on which the labor movement was built in this country. That is why we say the government’s support for war is not in our name.”

Mike Calvert is Assistant Secretary of Islington Unison, London. (Unison is the largest UK union and concentrated in the public sector).





Write us