Papering over the cracks

The annual conference of the Stop the War Coalition was an illuminating affair. Despite the best efforts of chair Andrew Murray to impose a drab Stalinist uniformity over the proceedings, the cracks and divisions were all too evident. Of particular sensitivity was the question of the forthcoming general election and our attitude to candidates - an issue over which comrade Murray's Communist Party of Britain is, of course, especially vulnerable. The agenda for the February 12 conference, held in London's Friends Meeting House, had obviously been carefully contrived to conceal differences. All controversial motions were saved until the late afternoon and the morning passed off without incident. This was helped by the inclusion of a large number of keynote speakers as space-fillers - seven in the morning sessions, not including those from Military Families Against the War. Some of these speakers spoke at considerable length. In contrast the time allowed to the discussion of motions was highly restricted. Movers were limited to three minutes, as were the speakers in the minimal debate allowed. The sessions were therefore extremely truncated and the motions rushed through. Worse, few of those called from the floor bothered to address the motions they were supposed to be speaking to, but talked instead about their own local campaigns or took the opportunity to announce forthcoming events. As the speaker's slips required delegates to specify what they were going to say in advance, one has to wonder what was going on behind the scenes. Comrade Murray began the day confidently by announcing to the 250 or so delegates: "We have set the agenda in British politics. We have twice taken huge numbers onto the streets and organised vast meetings. Through our intervention we have seen the collapse of arguments for the war." He begged us to "conduct our debates over the day with a view to maintaining our unity" - we must do nothing to "undermine the broadest possible unity we have built". He was followed by a range of speakers, including Tony Benn, Kate Hudson and John Rees, espousing a similar line - don't rock the boat!. Next a session on the 'war on terror' - with motions against recent repressive government acts, uranium weapons and the situation in Nepal and Colombia. Then speakers and motions in support of Military Families Against the War, followed by yet more guest speakers - this time trade union leaders Bob Crow and Keith Sonnet. Crow was in militant mood, damning the government for the occupation and pledging the RMT to a high-profile campaign in the forthcoming general election. Sonnet was far less hard on Blair, describing the Iraqi war as a "major mistake". Hassan Juma'a Awad, president of the General Union of Oil Workers in Basra, then took to the platform to describe the situation in Iraq. He declared his union's defiance of the occupation forces and said that he and his comrades were "prepared to stand against the Americans until the last of our blood is spilled "¦ the days of their occupation are numbered." He concluded by appealing for solidarity: "We urge you to support democratic rights in a civil society in Iraq." The afternoon session began with the Socialist Workers Party's Lindsey German stressing the continued need for a "broad coalition". She said that the role of the STWC would be that of a lobby and information campaign in the run-up to the general election. It would publicise the responses to a questionnaire sent to all parliamentary candidates asking where they stood on the war and any further US acts of aggression. This was a pre-emptive announcement of proposals contained within the steering committee motion, to be taken later under a session on the general election. There followed then another uncontroversial session with resolutions on campaigning work in the period ahead. The approach of the steering committee was to encourage demonstrations and teach-ins, as well as lobbying MPs who voted for war to change their minds. A motion put forward by Iraq Occupation Focus called for links to be made with progressive anti-occupation forces in Iraq and calling for money to be raised for them and their struggles publicised. This went through on the nod - allowing me to hope that perhaps the expected opposition to the CPGB motion (calling for practical solidarity with democratic, secular and socialist forces in Iraq) would not materialise after all. How wrong can you be? The RMT moved a motion in this session condemning "unequivocally" the assassination of IFTU international secretary Hadi Saleh and all other attacks on trade unionists in Iraq. This was passed without any debate, but without the votes of the SWP, whose comrades abstained. The only visible Muslim Association of Britain presence on the day was in the form of a guest speaker, who told us that the MAB would "be maximising the impact of the muslim vote in the forthcoming elections and would not be voting for pro-war MPs". Andrew Murray reassured him that "we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with MAB". However, despite reserved places for MAB on the steering committee, there seems to be little interest from them. Comrade Murray relinquished the chair for the next session, as he was to be the mover of the steering committee motion on the general election. He recommended it on the basis of "continued unity within the STWC". This was to be achieved by urging people to "take into account" the voting records and opinions of candidates on the war and related issues, and committing the STWC to publishing the results. Local campaigns should hold hustings, but "are advised to bear in mind the cardinal importance of maintaining the unity of the anti-war movement during the election campaign, recognising our multi-party character". For example, it is more important to keep the trade union bureaucracy on board and preserve the existing fragile unity of the coalition than use the election to actually campaign against the occupation. With this in mind he urged movers of motions that called for the STWC to support anti-war candidates or refuse to support pro-war MPs to withdraw them, so that there would be "no disunity". Elections, he warned us (as if we had not got the message by now), "are extremely divisive and could cause splits in the STWC". We "must not endorse any particular candidate and must be careful not to cause difficulties in the period up to the election". Rather than the election being viewed as a great opportunity to vigorously challenge the government and put forward a coherent and clear opposition, it was regarded by Murray and his SWP co-thinkers as a big problem for the STWC. While the SWP favours Respect, the CPB is for a Labour vote apart from in a handful of constituencies where it calls for "the worst" of the New Labour warmongers to be opposed. Not to be discouraged, however, Paul Ingram of the Green Party moved an amendment to the steering committee motion, calling for support for anti-war candidates. He argued: "If the coalition is to mean anything at all, it needs to take a stance in the elections - if it is not prepared to use its weight at such a time, then we must question what it is about." He also objected to the impression that Murray had sought to give of the steering committee standing together behind a common, minimalist, election line. On the contrary, he said, there was no unity on this motion, which was the work of those "with vested interests". It was ironic that a clear lead for using the opportunity of the election came from the petty bourgeois Greens, not those who claim to be revolutionary socialists. For them, broadness and numbers are everything, the aim nothing. Better that the STWC be consigned to impotency during key moments in British political life than risk minorities finding themselves in a minority and the possibility that because of that the might walk away. Of course, we do not share Ingram's view on the direction the STWC ought to take - we are unambiguously for winning the anti-war movement behind the banner of socialism and the working class. But, as he says, if the coalition is to do nothing but organise the next big demo, if it strives to avoid clarity over differences, what on earth is the point of it? Only three speakers were allowed into the debate that followed and none of them disagreed with Murray. In fact, despite formally removing himself from the chair, he played a very active and visible role in dictating who would speak. One of those approved, Steve Bell from the Communication Workers Union, stated that the CWU would be "campaigning for the return of the Labour government as the best way to ensure withdrawal". He argued that we "should not condemn those MPs who voted for the war", as the war has ended and it is now the occupation. In such circumstances he believed it "impossible to campaign or urge a vote for anti-war candidates". Predictably, the decision went the way of the steering committee, thanks to the SWP bloc vote. As the comrades raised their hands alongside CPB members, Murray must been inwardly elated - these 'Trotskyites' have been fully won to the politics of popular frontism. Hand in hand with his opportunist friends, he had delivered a small gift to Tony Blair. So much for his fiery declaration that the STWC is setting the agenda in British politics. With that little wobble behind him, Murray retook the chair for the final session on the occupation. Although time was by now running very short, there was always room for three more 'keynote' speakers. The last of these, Respect MP George Galloway, used the first part of his speech to warn against an impending attack on Iran: "We are being softened up, with talk of the oppression of women being raised by various Labour MPs as part of the process of laying the path to the bombing of Iran." He warned that if that country were to be attacked there would be a response of "uncontrollable violence in all parts of the world". Comrade Galloway moved on to criticise an unnamed motion that "wants to alter our line on the internal politics of Iraq". He was clearly addressing himself to the CPGB motion that called for solidarity with "democratic, secular and socialist forces". This should be rejected, he said, as it was "not for us to comment on any political stripe". He claimed we reminded him of those in Britain who refused to support the Irish Rising of 1916, condemning the rebels as "papists and religious obscurantists". Now that Galloway had prepared the way, it was left to the SWP's Chris Nineham to actually move the leadership's motion on the occupation. This was clearly framed within the politics of bourgeois legality: "International law and the United Nations charter recognises the rights of people to resist an unlawful foreign military occupation". The responsibility of the STWC is to ensure "the speediest possible ending of the illegal occupation". This fully accords with the pacifist-reformist viewpoint which urges some kind of phased withdrawal under the auspices of the UN. Comrade Nineham, seeming a little embarrassed, neglected to mention that the motion he was moving stood in total contradiction to his own organisation's stated aim of an immediate withdrawal with no illusions in the UN. But that is only for show. What is really "vital" is the success of a pacifist-reformist resolution because it will ensure the "continued unity" of the STWC. He set himself against "some of the other motions that explicitly support the forces of resistance", because "we have to remember that we have pacifists within our ranks". Obviously unity can only be based on the agenda of the most conservative, most timid political forces and elements. He therefore called for the rejection not only of the motion proposed by the CPGB, but others that also called for troops out now. The CPGB motion had been left to second last on the order paper. In proposing it I condemned the STWC steering committee for creating illusions in the UN and for refusing to give practical solidarity to those fighting for the democratic and socialist principles that they themselves purport to hold. I argued that the call for solidarity from Hassan Juma'a Awad and the Basra oilworkers, was being rejected because of an debilitating concern with preserving the pretence of unity at all costs. As a result the STWC seemed prepared to virtually close down during the general election - a period of greatly heightened political awareness. The response was one of fury. Nick Wright of the Morning Star's CPB came to the platform to rail against these "simple-minded slogans". Behind "the ultra-revolutionary sloganising lies a colonialist mentality - an attitude that we know best for the people of Iraq". He was followed by an SWP member who fumed that the CPGB motion "annoys and infuriates me. They are trying to impose secularism and socialism on the people of Iraq". Rahul Patel, also SWP, berated us for "divisiveness in wanting to introduce problems ... nuances should not be discussed". Once again CPB and the SWP seemed genuinely united. Despite the venom heaped on our motion, about 20 delegates voted for it - those who had enough principle and politics to stand up to SWP machine. Being 'broad' means bowing to the right wing, while the left must be stamped on and excluded. The election of officers illustrated well the bureaucratic nature of the STWC. Workers Power has had a member, Kuldip Bajwa, on the steering committee for the last two years. But after WP's demonstration against the presence of the IFTU at the European Social Forum it was now considered, according to Andrew Murray, "too damaging to be associated with". Kate Ford proposed Kuldip and argued for the ability to raise criticism and still be part of the coalition. She was booed and heckled by some in the audience who supported Murray. However, the vote on his nomination was one of the closest that day, with many delegates by now clearly annoyed at the bullying tactics. Overall the conference was a major step to the right. Not only does the coalition want to do nothing to challenge the Labour government during the general election: it now refuses to even call for an immediate withdrawal of the imperialists from Iraq. But, despite the attempts to plaster over the cracks, the tensions are growing. However, those who want to fight for solidarity with the Iraqi people should not walk away ... yet. Anne Mc Shane