How the campaign to stop the war was sabotaged

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FRFI 173 June / July 2003

Supporting Labour’s imperialist war - How the campaign to stop the war was sabotaged

Whilst opposition to the war on Iraq saw unprecedented numbers of ‘ordinary’ people take to the streets all over the country, one thing was strikingly clear: the lack of any real opposition from within the Labour Party. Although a number of individual members and a handful of councillors left the Party in disgust, not one so-called ‘anti-war’ Labour MP resigned the ‘whip’. This was no real surprise for those with any knowledge of Labour’s bloody history and the left’s contortions in justifying their continuing support for it.

Labour has always been a party that has defended the interests of British imperialism.

Between 1914 and 1945:
• Labour supported the slaughter of the 1914-18 imperialist war.
• In the House of Commons, Labour MPs applauded the execution of James Connolly, a leader of the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising.
• The first Labour government used the RAF in 1924 to bomb and gas Kurds in Iraq in support of the British puppet administration.
• The second Labour government launched a brutal repression of the Indian nationalist movement, arresting thousands and killing hundreds using the army and the RAF.
• Labour supported the repression of the Palestinian uprising in 1935-39.

Between 1945 and 1951, Labour:
• Brutally suppressed the Malayan national liberation struggle.
• Used troops to restore French colonial rule in Vietnam.
• Blockaded Iran after it nationalised the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later BP).
• Ruthlessly exploited the British Empire in Africa to aid British post-war reconstruction.

Between 1964 and 1970, Labour:
• Unconditionally supported the US onslaught on Vietnam.
• Defended apartheid South Africa, blocking all attempts to impose sanctions in the UN.
• Sent troops into the north of Ireland to defend the sectarian state.
• Tortured suspected freedom fighters in Aden.

Between 1974 and 1979, Labour:
• Continued to defend apartheid South Africa in the United Nations.
• Supported the Shah of Iran as he faced a mass popular uprising.
• Began selling Hawk aircraft to Indonesia during their genocidal war against the people of East Timor.
• Ran a ruthless torture regime against Republican prisoners in the north of Ireland.

Throughout this period Labour has been a Zionist party. Its 1944 conference called for the expulsion of the Palestinian people to make way for a Zionist state. Today it says hardly a word about the escalating slaughter of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza, offering its unconditional support to Israel in its supposed ‘war on terror’. In a cynical ploy prior to the start of the war, it begged the US to publish the ‘roadmap’ for a Palestinian state, to help bolster support for the impending onslaught.

Whilst it was in opposition after Thatcher’s victory in 1979, Labour supported the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war and, in 1991, the first Gulf War. In the past six years in government the Labour Party has waged more wars than the Tories did in the preceding eighteen. No Labour MP has resigned in this period over this record of incessant imperialist aggression. The so-called Labour ‘left’, the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway want to have their cake and eat it. They want to be able to criticise the Blair government but are determined to remain as MPs representing the racist imperialist Labour Party.

But what was the strategy of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to prevent British participation in the war? It was to build a parliamentary alliance between pro-imperialist MPs who were tactically against the war unless it was endorsed by the UN because they feared it would damage British imperialist interests in the Middle East. At the heart of the alliance were the Labour ‘left’ MPs linked to STWC – George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn and Alice Mahon. To establish the alliance, STWC Convenor, Lindsey German, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), signed a letter to Blair in December of last year which appealed to him not to engage in military activity against Iraq, without the ‘explicit authority of the United Nations and without an explicit decision of the House of Commons to do so’. The letter was also signed by Alice Mahon and Jeremy Corbyn, and MPs from the Lib Dems and Scottish and Welsh nationalists. It was the basis on which imperialist MPs such as Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was invited to speak from the platform at the huge 15 February demonstration, or, later on, Michael Foot at the 12 April march. Yet this strategy was doomed to failure. The House of Commons has never voted against imperialist war, and nor did it vote against war on Iraq.

A key prop for the STWC’s position was crude anti-Americanism, which allowed it to minimise British imperialist interests in the Middle East. Hence Socialist Worker referred constantly to Blair as ‘Bush’s poodle’. In January at an STWC conference, Lindsey German, argued that ‘now is the time to put on more pressure and break Blair from Bush. If Blair comes to think war will split the Labour Party, he will have to think again about supporting Bush’ (Socialist Worker, 18 January). For the SWP/ STWC, pressure on Blair meant mobilising ‘respectable’ and therefore pro-imperialist voices to urge Labour to be more cautious in its gung-ho attack on Iraq and not to follow the US. As Socialist Worker on 15 March put it, ‘All those who oppose war including MPs, ministers and cabinet members, have to make a stand, and now. They must be pressed to make clear to Blair that he has a simple choice. That is between his survival in office and support for Bush’s war’.

The culmination of this strategy was the vote in the House of Commons on 18 March for an ‘anti-war’ amendment worded so as to appeal to any pro-imperialist MP who had concerns about a possible attack on Iraq; it stated that it ‘believes that the case for war on Iraq has not yet been proved…given the absence of specific UN authorisation’, and then went on to say that ‘in the event hostilities do commence pledges its total support for the British forces engaged in the Middle East’. Even with this craven pro-imperialist wording the amendment fell and with it fell the whole political strategy of the STWC. All that Socialist Worker could do was complain impotently about the ‘turncoat’ Charles Kennedy, leaving SWP/STWC’s John Rees to suggest on TV that one reason for opposing the war was to prevent the deaths of British troops in Iraq.

The 15 February demonstration then was historic in more ways than one; not only in its size but also more importantly in exposing the political bankruptcy of the British ‘left’. The SWP and their allies were incapable of even beginning the task of politically educating the movement on the real nature of British imperialist democracy and the role of the Labour Party. Instead, Labour MPs that STWC promoted as anti-war leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Alice Mahon used the anti-war movement to try to recruit members to their war-mongering Labour Party. At a press conference on 4 March, the Labour left launched a ‘Reclaim the Party for Peace’ initiative. Both Corbyn and Mahon urged Labour members disgusted with the war not to leave the party and appealed to anti-war activists ‘if you share our values, help us reclaim the Labour Party for peace’.

This was followed up by a conference of ‘Labour Against the War’ on 29 March with trade union leaders Bob Crow (RMT) and Billy Hayes (CWU) amongst the main speakers. Both of these union leaders had previously issued militant-sounding declarations against the war calling for industrial action, but both failed to deliver, hiding behind the anti-trade union laws to cover their refusal to confront the Labour government. Far from denouncing the way these politicians and trade union leaders touted for the racist and imperialist Labour Party, the STWC continued to promote them on its platforms!

The SWP and its allies in the STWC bear direct responsibility for the collapse of the anti-war movement, from the two million on the streets on 15 February to the 5,000 at the rally for Palestine in Trafalgar Square on 17 May. There has been no political development of the movement: the same Labour ‘left’ MPs and trade union leaders were promoted on the platform of the 12 April national demonstration as on 15 February. Tony Benn could repeat his ridiculous claim that Britain is essentially a US colony to enthusiastic applause whilst George Galloway could call on marchers to fight for him to remain in his reactionary, imperialist party. A movement that allies itself to the Labour ‘left’, that sees electoral politics as the way forward is a movement going nowhere.

The challenge that faces all those who want to build an effective anti-imperialist, anti-war movement is to break out of the suffocating politics of the Labour ‘left’ and their allies in the STWC. A new movement needs to reach out to school students, the youth and all those prepared to fight and ally with anti-imperialist forces in Palestine, Latin America and other oppressed nations confronting imperialism.

Bob Shepherd