People's Assembly: Building for September 27 Iraq demo

Jeremy Butler and Marcus Strom report back from the 1,000-strong meeting of the People's Assembly

Against the backdrop of the Hutton inquiry and the continuing instability in occupied Iraq, the second People’s Assembly - organised by the Stop the War Coalition - was held on Saturday August 30 at Friends Meeting House, London.

The stated aim of the assembly was to “indict the government for [its] lies,” and to provide “a chance for the people of this country to voice their opinion against the war on Iraq”. Lindsey German of the Socialist Workers Party, convenor of the STWC, announced that an estimated 1,000 people had attended for all or part of the day. Numbers are often hard to gauge, but certainly the hall was packed with delegates from anti-war groups from around the country. Optimism was palpable.

There was indeed an opportunity for speakers from the floor to “voice their opinion against the war”, but from the outset it was clear that this meeting could more accurately be called a rally than an assembly. Andrew Murray - STWC chair and member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain - condescendingly stated in his opening address, the People’s Assembly would “hear from experts” and from “you, the ordinary people …” But, though time for contributions from the floor was limited, there was indeed plenty of interest from the “ordinary people”.

As at all rallies organised by the STWC, there is much that is inspiring. With the war officially over, the anti-war movement might be forgiven if it entered a period of hibernation. The People’s Assembly dispelled any such notion; the consistent message from the platform and contributions from the floor was that the STWC is not going away. Speakers made it clear that there was still much to do, pointing to the weakness of the Blair government, and the state of chaos that exists in Iraq.

Much discussion hung on the draft declaration. Speaking at the beginning, Jeremy Corbyn MP confidently declared that it would be passed unamended - and so it was. Given the illusions held in some quarters in the United Nations, it was pleasing that amendments and other motions calling for an increased role for the UN in Iraq were defeated. This did not prevent Tony Benn and others extolling the UN’s splendid democratic and peaceful principles.

Hans von Sponeck, a former UN worker in Iraq, spoke forcefully and with an obvious detailed knowledge. His contribution was a damning indictment of the government, helping to place the anti-war movement at the centre of international debate. However, he is clearly one of those who sees a way out of the mess in Iraq through the UN.

In this he was backed up by Richard Maybin from the CPB: the US/UK must “allow the UN to step into Iraq”, he said. “The Iraqi governing council is broad-based [but] needs the support of the UN”. However, John Rees condemned the UN’s role to rapturous applause. He and Chris Harman (both SWP) carried the assembly with them on this point.

However, the SWP adopted an altogether less principled approach when it came to an unsuccessful amendment from the Socialist Party, which sought to delete the plaintive demand that the British government “adopt a foreign policy based on principles of peace and social justice”. The SP quite rightly wanted this removed. Such faith in the abilities of the British imperialist state is touching, but should have no place in the demands of a progressive anti-war movement. Why the SWP chose to stand on principle on the UN (Chris Harman spoke very well on this matter), but buckle to national chauvinism and reformism on this question, is anyone’s guess.

A dominant idea at the assembly was that the US-UK invasion on Iraq was a war for oil. Speaker after speaker repeated this misplaced notion - Alice Mahon MP proudly declared: “My four-year-old grandson can say it is about oil.” Perhaps those of us who are more mature should adopt a more sophisticated approach. After all the US already effectively controlled world oil production and distribution.

One of the lightest moments came when a very posh woman in a Burberry coat announced herself as being from Farmers for Action. Her solution was quite simple. The prime minister’s powers to act on matters of war are derived not from parliament, but from the queen. Therefore her solution was that the anti-war movement “should appeal to her majesty” to overturn that upstart, Blair.

Against the wishes of the SWP and its CPB allies, the following motion from Cardiff Social Forum was narrowly passed: “This assembly welcomes the founding, since the last People’s Assembly, of the Cardiff Social Forum and the Manchester People’s Assembly. This assembly calls on coalitions in all areas to set up social forums/people’s assemblies with the aim of building an anti-globalisation movement of the scale and vitality of the anti-war movement.”

While not the panacea that many, such as Workers Power, think it is, such a resolution does attempt to build on the successes of the anti-war movement and give it some momentum. Moves to this end are under way, with the formal launch of the London Social Forum (www.londonsocialforum.org.uk), set to take place on October 4 at the London School of Economics. Other forums have also been set up around the country.

Throughout the day, people’s experience of the anti-war movement produced many inspired as well as many bizarre ideas. One person argued we should all go down to the local nick to file a criminal complaint against Tony Blair. This suggestion seemed to enthuse a section of the audience.

It is inevitable that comparisons be drawn with the first People’s Assembly, held on March 12, less than a month after the historic anti-war demonstration of February 15. A great deal has happened in the relatively short time since then. At that time the anti-war movement was growing rapidly, politicising many in the process - people were angry that they were not being listened to. The gulf between the desires of the British people and the war aims of parliament clearly exposed a gaping democratic deficit. That first assembly had a real cutting edge.

Six months on, US-UK forces now occupy Iraq. However, the death count is rising daily and no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Blair’s government - visibly shaken by the mass opposition - now faces the consequences of all its lying and spin. Not only in the form of the Hutton inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, but the precipitous fall in popular trust. People simply do not believe what Blair says any more.

Nevertheless, this is patently not the same anti-war movement as six months ago. Many who were active then have faded from the scene - at least for the moment. The numbers of young people involved seem to have dwindled (the average age of delegates was noticeably older this time). Perhaps of even more relevance is the fact that the previous diversity, so celebrated by the STWC, seems to have been replaced with a trend back towards the so-called ‘usual suspects’: leftwingers of various hues, seasoned peace campaigners, those mobilised by mosques and the euphemistically termed ‘community groups’.

None of this is cause for any great surprise, but it does mean that many of those attending the People’s Assembly came from established political, ideological or religious tendencies. This has made for strange bedfellows.

In his closing remarks, Andrew Murray perceptively noted that the STWC had “a constituency beyond our wildest dreams … or nightmares”. The conundrum of turning that constituency into a “lasting political force”, as desired by Lindsey German, is what the left needs to consider now.

While not having the cutting edge or dynamism of the first, the second Peoples’ Assembly was worthwhile. It was not the “workshop for the way ahead”, as Jeremy Corbyn hoped at the outset. Such a dynamic could only come about if it escaped the stage-management of the SWP/CPB leadership. It served more as a rally to boost those of us organising to build the September 27 London demonstration against the occupation of Iraq.

Declaration of the second People’s Assembly for Peace

The first People’s Assembly, convened in London by the Stop the War Coalition in March, declared that the impending Anglo-American attack was unlawful, unjustifiable and lacked the support of the British people.

This People’s Assembly reaffirms its opposition to that war and further declares:

  1. That it is now clear that the government of Tony Blair systematically lied to the people and to parliament about the threat from Iraq in order to manipulate opinion in support of his aggression. In particular, intelligence information was falsified to sustain the argument that the Iraqi regime possessed weapons of mass destruction which could be used at short notice.
  2. That this conduct represents a negation of democracy, and exposes as fraudulent the diplomacy conducted by the British government through the United Nations prior to the attack on Iraq.
  3. That the government should be held to account by the public and parliament for these lies and this assault on democracy, and that all its actions be opened to full public scrutiny. We need an inquiry into the whole war policy and the thousands of deaths it caused and is still causing, not just the tragic death of Dr David Kelly alone.

This People’s Assembly further demands an end to the illegal Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, the transfer of political power in Iraq to representatives of the Iraqi people and the withdrawal of all British and US military forces from Iraq.

We demand that the British government dissociate itself from all further wars of aggression planned by the US administration under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, including any attacks on Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Libya or elsewhere, and adopt instead a foreign policy based on principles of peace and social justice.