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[John Rees]

Editorial comment

(Spring 2003)

From International Socialism 2:98, Spring 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The scale of the movement against war on Iraq has reached a historic and epic scale. The weekend of 15 February saw not only the biggest ever demonstration in Britain, but tens of millions protesting in all corners of the globe in a co-ordinated attack on Bush and Blair’s war drive. An international movement which has swept through the world, seeing demonstrations in over 60 countries, was a unique experience. In virtually every country the demonstrations were either the largest ever or ranking among the largest. The rulers of the ‘new Europe’ should feel particularly chastened: Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar all had millions marching against them; their Australian counterpart, John Howard, saw several huge protests at his own version of pre-emptive intervention.

Governments of the world are now on a collision course with their peoples if they insist on going to war. Nowhere is this more the case than in Britain. Tony Blair faces a crisis in taking Britain into a war against the wishes of the vast majority of people in Britain, and against the wishes of the majority of ordinary members of his own party as well as an unprecedented number of his own MPs.

The issue has ceased to be just the war, but has now also become a question of how people express their democratic will in the face of a government clique which ignores them. This crisis of representation and legitimacy is now at the centre of British politics. The convening of an alternative ‘people’s assembly’ and a campaign of mass civil disobedience, including strikes, are on the immediate agenda.

The success of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain in creating this situation cannot be overestimated. The coalition was launched at a meeting in central London just days after the events of 11 September 2001. Around 2,000 people turned up, and 500 people attended the organising meeting the following week. It was clear that the feeling against the so called ‘war on terror’ ran very deep. The coalition mobilised for a CND demo against the bombing of Afghanistan in October, and called its own demo for 18 November. Although the war looked to be nearing an end, this 100,000-strong march was remarkable for its mix of peaceniks, socialists, trade unionists, young people and, crucially, Asians and Muslims. The success of the march marked Britain out as one of the leading ant-war movements internationally.

As Bush and Blair declared the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan a humanitarian victory, it was clear that the war on terror was not going away. The coalition maintained itself by calling a protest at the Israeli embassy over Palestine, and calling for a national anti-war demonstration in March. Many peace campaigners thought this would be tiny as there was no war on at the time. The fact that the coalition was able to bring 20,000 out onto the streets was testimony not only to the respect the coalition had won, but to the depth of anti-war feeling in society.

The strong movement in Britain has had an impact across the world. The 400,000-strong march on 28 September 2002 led the Stop the War Coalition to argue at the European Social Forum in Florence that 15 February – the date of the next major London demo – should become a global day of action against the war on Iraq.

The strength of the coalition lies in its grassroots organisation. This is a movement of firsts – towns like Swindon and St Albans have reported the biggest political meetings in generations, if not ever. Equally as important is the democratic ethos of these meetings. There is a strong feeling – one that has been building for some time, as this journal has noted [1] – that most working people are disenfranchised from ‘official politics’. Labour Party members who have been drifting under Blair are throwing themselves into the anti-war movement and looking round for a new political home. Since 28 September, and magnified now after 15 February, the movement is providing an alternative to the establishment. The ‘democracy’ represented by parliament – which is unwilling to listen to 2 million people voting with their feet – can be challenged by a movement which has a historic opportunity to stop this war. The movement gives people a taste of the real democracy that they lack in everyday life.

But the scope of the movement extends beyond the war on Iraq. People connect the war drive with the war at home – attacks on firefighters, tube workers, a crumbling NHS and a transport system on its last legs. People also have an increasingly global picture. Globalisation has created a world-wide movement in which the same concerns – privatisation and war – are taken up by workers in all continents. Social democratic parties have so wholeheartedly embraced the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era that the gap between their agenda and the consciousness of most workers is becoming a gulf. This is not a passing glitch, but points to a more fundamental shift in attitude to ‘official politics’ manifested in the historically low turnout at the 2001 general election.

The millions who voted Labour in 1997 did not do so to see a continuation of the warmongering and privatisation of the Tory years. As George Galloway MP has put it, ‘The Labour Party is in the process of declaring itself politically bankrupt.’ [2] This raises crucial questions for the labour movement in Britain: how much longer can the trade unions continue to fund a party which has so systematically trampled on them? Is it time for a new workers party?

The issue of the unions’ political fund will be a key one over the coming months, as conferences debate whether to democratise the fund by making it available only to those candidates and parties which support the union’s aims. Around 40 percent of the Labour Party’s day to day funding comes from trade unions and individual union members. Records of donations to political parties show that from July to September 2002 Labour received £2.3 million from trade unions – some 89 percent of the total donations.

We need to strengthen those forces which are prepared to challenge the New Labour project. Parties like the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance have begun to tap into this mood. The anti-war movement has produced a sea change in British politics. Now is the time to deepen and broaden the scope and type of activities, especially to look at action taken by the organised working class. The 7 million trade union members in this country will be key to the success of the movement. The renewed confidence already apparent in some sections of the trade union movement can spread to other workers and reshape class politics in this country. The anti-war movement has definitely swept away any notion that collective action is ineffective. The people’s assembly can help to provide an alternative political focus which expresses the depth and breadth of the movement.

Calls for civil disobedience have been taken up around the country in the form of college occupations, walkouts, roadblocks and banner drops. But the key here is mass involvement. Some peace activists have advocated small actions by individuals representing everyone else. The only way to build a strong and lasting movement is for every individual to be a leader in their workplace, street, estate or college, and to involve the maximum number of people in action. In that way the movement can be truly democratic and decisions about its future tactics can involve thousands of activists.


1. See J. Rees, Anti-Capitalism, Reformism and Socialism, International Socialism 90 (Spring 2001).

2. Across the Tracks, no. 8, February 2003.

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