February 2003 revisited

The mass anti-war demonstrations that took place twenty years ago this month, with an estimated 30 million people marching in over 600 cities across the globe on 15 February 2003, marked a turning point in the development of broad political consciousness in the era that had begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The collapse of the Stalinist dictatorships of Russia and Eastern Europe which that event symbolised, opened up a new period of capitalist triumphalism in which US imperialism dominated the world as the only superpower. For the next decade, under the banner of ‘globalisation’ and the untrammelled operation of the ‘free market’, US corporations set the agenda for the world economy, their interests implicitly underwritten by Washington’s military preponderance.
The aura of mighty US imperialism was undermined however by the ‘low-tech’ al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, horrific terrorist atrocities with no prospect of unseating the US ruling class but nonetheless the first assault on the American mainland since 1846 and with more fatalities than at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Determined to re-assert US prestige, president George W Bush launched an invasion of Afghanistan – where the al-Qaeda leadership had sheltered – and, having quickly overthrown the Taliban by December 2001, then turned his attention to Iraq.
This was not for any claimed ‘al-Qaeda connection’ of the brutal Saddam Hussein Iraqi regime, shown subsequently – like the active weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) capacity allegations – to be completely fabricated, but with the goal of re-establishing US pre-eminence in the strategically significant oil-rich Middle East. This included the aim of cutting down to size the influence on oil markets of a growingly assertive Saudi Arabia (with the fact that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals also noted by US strategists).
This was the backdrop to the tide of protest against the US preparations to attack Iraq, which also involved Tony Blair’s New Labour UK government as the junior partner, that erupted in February 2003. The phenomenal mass character of the movement – a contemporary ICM poll recorded that at least one person from 1.25 million households demonstrated in London on February 15 – reflected a broad disenchantment, not only at the prospect of war, but with the results of the US-led new world order of unleashed free-market policies. It was a turning point in the development of political consciousness, which affected the response to the 2007-08 financial crash and underpinned the revival of basic socialist ideas seen in the movements of recent years.
But opportunities were also missed to push history forward. The leadership of the anti-war movement in Britain, including left-wing Labour MPs and trade union leaders and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), did not develop the movement beyond protests and giant demonstrations – there were six between September 2002 and March 2004 – into a mass, working class political vehicle to challenge New Labour. The lesson, that if capitalist politicians retain their power despite the pressure of a mass movement they will return again to the policies of class exploitation, division and war that their system demands, is still as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. This applies to new wars, as discussed in the article by Hannah Sell in the November 2022 edition of Socialism Today, Ukraine and the anti-war movement, but also in the developing struggle against the new austerity agenda.
These conclusions drawn by the Socialist Party are not made in hindsight but were articulated in real time as we participated in building the movement against war on Iraq. This can be seen in our publications from 2003, in the Socialist weekly newspaper and Socialism Today.
But here we reprint the text of a Socialist Party leaflet produced for a mass rally held at central London’s Friends Meeting House on 3 March 2003, with the then prominent anti-war Labour MP George Galloway the headline speaker, after February 15 but before the start of the invasion of Iraq on March 20, which shows what we were saying as history was being made. ■

Tonight’s meeting takes place just two weeks after February 15, the biggest-ever demonstration in Britain’s history. Yet, despite the unambiguous message coming from this unprecedented and awe-inspiring movement, it is clear that the New Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, is now just weeks – if not days – away from launching a war on Iraq.

Why is Blair, who has placed so much emphasis in the past on focus groups, so unmoved by this unanswerable display of the real ‘public opinion’ of the people? The answer is that the stakes are so high now, for himself and the ruling capitalist class that he represents.

This premeditated showdown with Iraq has always been conceived by US president George W Bush as a war, not for democracy or human rights, but for the economic and strategic interests of US imperialism, especially the oil companies. It really is a war for oil but now, especially with the breaking of ranks of France and Germany – in response to the mass movements in those countries but also for their own capitalist, power play interests – it has also become a struggle by Bush to re-assert the dominance of the USA on the world stage.

The US military effectively acts as ‘the armed wing of globalisation’, an ominous presence behind the US corporations that dominate the world economy. To retreat now, with Saddam Hussein still in power in Baghdad, would be an enormous blow to the authority and prestige of US imperialism – and its junior partner, Britain – with knock-on consequences. For this reason alone many of the current establishment critics of Blair (such as the Liberal Democrats) are likely to rally round once the course to war has been set, especially if a UN resolution can be cobbled together.

This does not mean that ‘resistance is futile’, that wars cannot be stopped. It does mean, however, that unless Blair’s rule, and the interests of the capitalist ruling class that he represents, are put at greater risk from a movement at home than they would be by not now going to war, Blair will not be deflected from his path.

In the past wars have been stopped by mass action, including wars of intervention by the British ruling class. The Guardian journalist Seamus Milne, for example, recently pointed out that when the British government sent troops and arms to Russia to try and overthrow the new workers’ government established after the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, they were stopped by British workers threatening a general strike.

But this example, while a positive lesson for today’s anti-war movement, also highlights an important difference with the situation that exists today. The 1920 threat to organise a general strike against a proposed intervention by Britain in Poland’s war on Russia was made by a joint council of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) executive and the Labour Party. At that time the Labour Party was a ‘capitalist workers party’, a party with pro-capitalist leaders yes, but with a democratic structure and a working class base. That mass working class support and participation in the Labour Party meant that, through enormous pressure from below, the party leaders could be forced into taking a stand against ruling class interests.

‘New Labour’, however, is now an openly capitalist party which is under the firm control of pro-capitalist leaders. Unfortunately, not even the parliamentary rebellion by 122 Labour MPs last week changes this fact. The reality is that there is no mass political vehicle threatening to replace the capitalist parties in power through which opposition to war can be expressed. Blair’s rule – now, at this moment – is not being put at greater risk from a movement at home than it would be by him not now going to war.

That is why the anti-war movement has two major tasks ahead of it now. To build upon the magnificent turnout on February 15 the widest possible mass civil disobedience, especially strike action. But also, to campaign on a second front – to seize the time to build a mass political alternative, a new workers’ party, to take on the pro-war, anti-working-class policies of Blair and New Labour, and take forward the fight for a new socialist society, free from poverty, exploitation and war.

Socialist Party member wins CWU action call

The first national trade union has come out in favour of action on Day X, the day the war starts. Last Thursday, Socialist Party member Bernard Roome successfully moved the following resolution at a national executive committee meeting of the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU):

“The CWU reconfirms its total opposition to the impending war on Iraq and will campaign for all members to take protest action on the day that war is officially declared”.

Postal workers, members of the CWU, no doubt remember that a fellow mail worker was killed in the US during the post 9/11 anthrax scare, when letters containing anthrax spores were sent to media offices and two US senators. With Blair’s slavish support for Bush putting Britain in the frontline for any future terrorist attack, that is just another reason why CWU members should oppose Blair’s war.

Now this initiative should be repeated in other unions and the momentum built for strike action on Day X. Stop work to stop war!

Stop the War ‘People’s assemblies

The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) has put out a call for a national ‘People’s Assembly’ to meet at Westminster Central Hall on Wednesday 12 March as the next step for the anti-war movement, to be preceded by local assemblies to elect representatives.

All initiatives to pull together the million plus who marched should be built for – especially the proposal to use the national assembly to call for mass action to stop the war, including industrial action. This call would not cut across but could strengthen the moves that are needed inside the trade unions to organise for industrial action – as is being done in the CWU.

But the idea of a ‘People’s Assembly’ as “an alternative democratic institution to the government” – as posed in the calling notice – should not be used to evade the central need to build a permanent political alternative to New Labour, a new workers’ party. Instead, lessons should be taken from the experience in Brazil where the Workers Party (PT), founded in 1980 as a mass, campaigning organisation with a socialist standpoint, begin its life through a series of preparatory ‘assemblies’. At these gatherings the idea of such a party was propagated by authoritative figures such as Lula, now the newly-elected president of Brazil [in 2002] but then a leader of the metal workers union. The anti-war Labour MPs, with the new left union leaders, should similarly use the ‘people’s assemblies’ to discuss what steps are needed to build a new political alternative, a move which would have a major impact on the situation unfolding in Britain.

There have been turning points before when it would have been possible for such initiatives towards a new workers’ party to have won wide support. But the possibilities to build an authoritative alternative to New Labour are even greater now and timing is the essence of politics. If just ten percent of the million plus who marched on February 15 supported this move, that would give a new organisation the same numbers as the 100,000 or so members of the Italian Rifondazione Comunista (RC), a party which is an important factor now in Italian society.

Can Labour be ‘reclaimed’?

Last week’s parliamentary revolt by 122 Labour MPs raises the question, can the anti-war movement find a channel through the Labour Party to remove Blair as prime minister and stop Britain going to war?

In times of conflict the Labour Party leaders, even when it was a ‘capitalist workers party’, invariably backed the war policy of the ruling class. Once the ruling class are set on war they mobilise all the resources of the establishment – their control of the workplaces, the media, the legal system etc, and especially, their supporters in the workers’ organisations – to face down any opposition at home.

Yet, as in domestic policy so in times of war, the character of the Labour Party in the past – with pro-capitalist leaders but with a democratic structure and mass working class base – meant that it always presented a latent danger for the capitalists, a potentially unreliable tool. In the 1960s, for example, the US president Lyndon Johnson attempted to bully the British government into participating in the Vietnam war. The Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, however, by no means a left-winger but sensitive to the consequences at home, the mass anti-war movement and its potential impact inside the trade unions and the Labour Party, refused to commit British troops.

The Labour Party today though, is completely different. Firstly, the transformation of Labour into New Labour has had its effect on how millions of working class people see the Labour Party – unprecedented numbers, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, now see no significant differences between the parties. They would not respond in significant numbers to an appeal to join the Labour Party and fight to change it.

But then even those who advocate the idea of ‘staying and fighting’ in the Labour Party concede that the channels to do so are completely blocked up. Diane Abbot, secretary of the Campaign Group of MPs, admits that “the internal democracy of the party has been systematically stripped out. Annual conference has become a PR event. The national executive committee (NEC) used to be a key body and a voice for the party in the country. Under Tony Blair it has lost all its powers over policy” and organisational decisions are “effectively taken by full-time officials” (Campaign Group News, September 2002). What exactly then would people do if they did join the Labour Party to ‘fight Tony Blair’?

The fact is that it was easier for Tory MPs to trigger a leadership election against Margaret Thatcher than it is for Labour MPs and party members to unseat Blair. Nominations for a leadership candidate not supported by 20% of the parliamentary party (83 MPs) are invalid and even then, having been submitted, an election would only need to be timetabled for the annual conference in October. A recall, or special conference, is possible before then but it can only be convened by the NEC, the same body (not facing re-election until October 2004) that voted in January by 22 votes to four to support Blair’s war policy.

Of course, there were no ‘constitutional’ means available to easily remove the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, or other dictatorships in history, but that has never stopped mass movements from overthrowing ‘all-powerful leaders’ before. Yet, if the different components of the anti-war movement – the left Labour MPs, the ‘awkward squad’ of new left trade union leaders, the anti-war youth movement, the different socialist organisations etc – can build a movement powerful enough to overcome all the hurdles that now exist to prevent ‘regime change’ inside the Labour Party, they can as easily build a new party as a real alternative to Labour.

What happened to the Socialist Alliance?

A new broad alternative to New Labour must avoid the mistakes of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and what has now become an SWP-dominated ‘Socialist Alliance’.

Both initiatives, when first established, had the potential to play an important role in bringing together different socialist organisations, trade unionists, community campaigners, anti-capitalist activists etc as a ‘staging post’ towards a mass alternative, a new workers party.

The SLP, set up in 1995-96, had some early electoral successes: 1,193 votes, 5.4%, in the Hemsworth parliamentary by-election in February 1996, and 949 votes, 5.3%, in Barnsley East in December 1996. Unfortunately, however, Arthur Scargill refused to organise the SLP on a democratic and inclusive basis, a federal structure that would have allowed different groups to collaborate under a common banner, and consequently the SLP failed to take off.

The Socialist Alliance was established from this time, with the Socialist Party as one of its founding organisations. The Alliance at this point had a federal structure which allowed supporting organisations such as the Socialist Party to work within a common framework while still promoting their own campaigning methods and political ideas. It achieved some modest successes – enabling, for example, 98 candidates to stand under one umbrella in the 2001 general election. Unfortunately the SWP, late entrants into the Socialist Alliance in 2000, subsequently used their numerical majority to change its character, turning it into another Anti-Nazi League-type ‘united front’ organisation under their firm control.

Since the Socialist Party was forced to leave the Socialist Alliance in December 2001 – following the SWP’s ultimatum to us to effectively abandon our independent profile – the Alliance has failed to make headway. Ex-Labour NEC member Liz Davies resigned as chair late last year, following the departure from the executive of the only other real independent, the former Walsall council leader, Dave Church. Membership has stagnated at around 1,800 and, for a demonstration of one million plus, it was reported to February’s Socialist Alliance executive meeting that there were just eleven members prepared to staff its stalls. Last October’s Hackney mayoral election – with the Socialist Alliance’s only well-known celebrity, the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, getting 12.7% of the vote – was an exception to a string of poor election results.

Of course, electoral success is never guaranteed, even with the right policies and approach. The early pioneers of the labour movement, such as Keir Hardie and James Connolly, in their own time suffered electoral debacles. But if nothing else, such experiences should compel the SWP to recognise that the Socialist Alliance, under their domination, is not ‘the socialist alternative to Labour’ to which all other groups and organisations should defer. Genuine coalition-building, as a step to a new mass workers’ party, is required.

Former Labour MP says, ‘join the Socialist Party’

Dave Nellist was elected as a Labour MP in 1983, which was also the year when Tony Blair was first elected to parliament (when both were members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament!).

Dave, however, refused to compromise his socialist principles and was subsequently expelled from the Labour Party in 1992. He says:

“As powerful a message as the anti-war demonstration was, it alone can’t prevent this war starting or bring to an earlier end a war that is in progress.

“This requires considerable organisation, not merely the raw power of numbers, but a sustained and coordinated campaign of mass civil disobedience. It also requires a worked out strategy and a clear vision.

“The Socialist Party is a strong, cohesive and democratic organisation of workers and youth, with roots in communities in many towns and cities and support across a wide range of trade unions.

“Don’t leave your opposition to war to protests on the streets of London. Join the Socialist Party in our work to build a socialist world, free from terror and war”.