"This movement today, not Tony Blair, is speaking for the British people," declared Aslef member Andrew Murray, opening the Stop the War national conference. 800 activists came from local coalitions, political parties, trade unions and peace groups, along with some new young people getting active for the first time.
AS THE US and Britain begin to mass their forces on the borders of Iraq, the Stop the War Coalition held its national conference on 11 January. PAULA MITCHELL reports on this stage in the development of the anti-war movement in Britain.
Building a mass anti-war movement
In a rousing speech, Tony Benn 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 US 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% of the population in poverty and dependency." He called on the British anti-war 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 councillor Dave Nellist called on the recently elected left trade union leaders to plough at least some of the money they currently give to New Labour into the anti-war 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 are more frightened of us than we are of them."
The Socialist Party is organising stalls, leaflets, posters, meetings, local protest actions and stunts all to help build up momentum for the demo on 15 February.
But when war starts we want to see mass occupations, walkouts and strikes at schools, colleges and workplaces all over the country. We are using pledge sheets, ballots and resolutions to help build the confidence of workers and students to take action.
On behalf of the Socialist Party, Dave Nellist argued that "demonstrations alone won’t shift a capitalist government like New Labour, wedded to the political and economic interests of the US. Only sustained, organised 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, led by the Socialist Party (then called Militant), which was rooted in estates, schools, colleges and workplaces, and was organised 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. 26 resolutions were debated, plus two composite motions on policy and trade union work. All three resolutions put forward by Socialist Party members were passed.
However, unfortunately it was very difficult for ordinary delegates to intervene in conference discussions unless they were moving resolutions. The Socialist Party will be putting proposals forward on this and other issues to try and ensure future conferences are more inclusive.
To build a successful anti-war 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.
Clare James from International Socialist Resistance (ISR) was elected (despite a recommendation against her from the officers of the Coalition) because the majority of the conference wanted more young people involved.
Socialist Party delegates voted against the tiny number of delegates who argued that the Muslim Association should not be asked to co-sponsor activities. The Stop the War Coalition is a broad coalition based on support for three minimal demands: stop the war, no to a racist backlash and defend civil liberties.
The Muslim Association has agreed to these demands and, via the mosques, has mobilised tens of thousands on anti-war demonstrations. This has strengthened the anti-war movement and has also, from the Socialist Party’s point of view, given an opportunity to reach a wide layer of Muslims with socialist ideas.
We supported the resolution which "unreservedly condemns terrorist attacks", which was opposed by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and was defeated at the conference. We think it is a serious mistake for the coalition to take this position.
We understand that it is brutal conditions and imperialist oppression that lead some to turn to terrorist acts in desperation. However, such attacks are completely counterproductive, particularly when they involve the killing of many innocent people – as with the September 11 and Bali attacks.
Surely it is clear by now that September 11, far from undermining US imperialism, made it possible for Bush to dramatically step up US oppression of the neo-colonial world.
If we are to build a mass movement in Britain against the war, it is imperative that anti-war activists condemn attacks which directly harm working class people, deepen divisions and provide imperialist governments with an excuse to step up repression. The way to fight not only war but the system that perpetrates such injustice is mass action, not individual acts of terror.
Socialist Party members will now be out campaigning to make the 15 February demo a massive success; building in every section of the community for mass action against the war.