Obscene apologia

Anybody expecting a debate at the annual conference of the Stop the War Coalition was to be disappointed, writes Anne Mc Shane. The last thing the leadership wants is a challenge to their 'Don't criticise Iran' line

Last year's conference debates revealed differences and tensions among the leadership despite the best efforts of STWC chair Andrew Murray - a leading member of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain - to keep them hidden. He and his cronies in the Socialist Workers Party were taking no such chances this time round - less than two hours out of a 10-hour 'conference' was allowed for 25 motions.

The event was actually a very long rally, with a break for workshops that were themselves dominated by top-table speakers. By filling out the agenda with guest speakers - more than 20 in the main part of conference - they ensured as little debate as possible took place and, thanks to the ranks of SWP comrades and allies, maintained their stranglehold on the coalition.

In his closing speech at the end of a very long day, George Galloway congratulated all the delegates present, declaring that he was "glad that the movement was in such fine heart". He was thrilled and delighted to be at such a democratic meeting. Not like the Labour Party conference, where "delegates are forced to endure hours of top-table speeches with little participation from the floor". I wondered if he had been at the same event as I had. He did say he had "popped in and out of the conference throughout the day". Perhaps if he had stayed for the duration he would not have talked such rubbish.

Unlike the pinched three minutes allowed for movers of motions, guest speakers were given plenty of time to talk at us. Tony Benn, Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn, Craig Murray - the speeches just went on and on. Everything from their views on the war to which football team they support in the World Cup (Craig Murray is for Ghana and Jeremy Corbyn for Trinidad - anybody but England). Delegates were treated in a shameful fashion. There to listen, as the great and glorious droned on and on, while keeping their own mouths shut. In essence not dissimilar at all to a New Labour affair.

The only part of conference where it seemed there would be debate was a section on Iran in the morning. People lined up enthusiastically to have their say. A great pile of speakers slips were handed to Jane Shallice, who was at that stage in the chair. This provoked some frantic behind-the-scenes conferring between her, Alex Callinicos and other SWP tops. Suddenly, after just six three-minute contributions from the floor, she closed down the debate. An unscheduled guest speaker was brought to the platform. Then Louise Christian was unexpectedly called to the podium to move one of the afternoon's motions on behalf of the leadership - on a completely different issue. Finally - and incredibly - she closed the session 10 minutes early.

The reason for the clampdown was clear. The leadership thought they could control the debate on Iran, but found that criticism was coming from unexpected quarters. Perhaps also they were even a little embarrassed at the unashamed defence of the Iranian regime put forward by the platform speakers. According to SWP member Elaheh Rostami Povey from Action Iran, "the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the most democratic event of the 20th century". The years following saw "the lives of millions of Iranians genuinely improved". Today women and those who struggle for democracy have made great headway. The islamic state is in the process of reforming itself. The "system in Iran has given priority to working class people". Therefore they should be left to get on with it and "we should not line up with the imperialists in criticising the regime".

Even more obscene was Dilip Hiro, author and supporter of Action Iran, who argued that the islamic state had proved itself extremely democratic when compared to some in the west. The "number of elections and referendums in Iran are a testimony to the growing democracy there". Again we should not criticise the regime, especially as "it gave real choices to people in the recent election". Such views are also contained in the broadsheet produced by Action Iran (which is actually run by the STWC) and distributed at conference.

These arguments were strongly opposed by comrade Jamshid from the Committee to Defend Iranian People's Rights (CODIR), who was one of the few people allowed to speak from the floor. He argued there was "a great need to distance ourselves from any support for the regime". It was dangerous to argue that the islamic state was becoming more democratic and by doing so we would undermine the struggle for democracy. Instead, we needed to campaign both against an attack on Iran and in solidarity with the struggle of the Iranian people against the state. He urged the STWC "not to act as a cover for the Iranian state". His contribution was greeted with loud applause by sections of the hall. Obviously many other delegates agreed.

I believe his contribution came as a nasty surprise to the leadership. Still more the support it received. Andrew Murray has recently quoted CODIR in his blog as evidence that the Iranian democrats do not want the US to invade (www.commentis free.guardian.co.uk/andrew_murray).

The campaign is supported by his own CPB (that is, it is supported by the traditionalist faction in the CPB, but then comrade Murray is in the minority innovator faction). Now a leader of CODIR was arguing a position obviously not to the liking of Murray or Kate Hudson of CND, who both made the absurd claim that any criticism of the Iranian state is tantamount to supporting the imperialists. Rather sadly, but typically, they decided that there could be no further contributions of this kind and bureaucratically guillotined the session.

Speaking to delegates over lunch, I found that a number were appalled by the position of the leadership on Iran. Even some CPB comrades were shamefaced about it, and mumbled about the need not to interfere, while agreeing that Povey and Hiro were apologists for the regime.

The only other issue worth remarking on was the response and attitude towards Military Families Against the War. This campaign has grown substantially in the last year and there are now 100 families signed up. A number of mothers whose sons are currently serving in Iraq argued that the troops should be brought back. While acknowledging the significance and courage of such people, it is also important to criticise the current limitations of their politics and win them to a more principled position on the occupation. Not so the STWC - no, it actually waters down its slogans to accommodate them.

Rose Gentle and the other speakers from Military Families Against the War said that they had been in support of the invasion, but were against the occupation. There were just wars, but this occupation was not one of them. According to one speaker, Danni Hamilton, "Our proud army is being used and abused" and must be brought home.

The banner behind the stage called for 'Time to go'. As a delegate from Oxford STWC put it in the section on resolutions, "this implies that there was a time when it was right to be there". Instead he proposed that the main slogan be 'Troops out now'. This motion was passed by the conference with the support of the leadership, who obviously see no contradiction between the two. George Galloway referred to this in his closing speech - "Who are we to turn converts away, just because they once thought the war was right?" It is not "that we hate the British armed forces. They are our sons and daughters sent into this war. We say it's time to bring our troops home." The point, of course, is that there is a big difference between the two slogans - one implying that the British had previously played a progressive role and the other a call for an immediate, unconditional pullout for an occupation that never had any legitimacy.

The penultimate part of conference was given over to motions. Comrade Murray rattled through at a speed of knots. Proposers had just three minutes to move their motions and no amendments had been allowed. Although it is true that the majority were uncontroversial, the only 'debate' permitted came in the shape of one speaker, if anybody wished to oppose a motion. With one exception, the only ones who did were those speaking on behalf of the leadership itself - it was essential to defeat any resolution not inspired by themselves and their allies.

Both of the Socialist Party's motions were opposed by the leadership and defeated. The second of these was a bland call to recruit and organise youth in a more effective fashion. The opposition from Murray and co seemed to be motivated simply by spite towards the Socialist Party rather than any political differences. Obviously the SP has made itself unpopular for its mild criticisms of the coalition.

But then Murray, Lindsey German et al run the show and insist on calling the shots. To save time comrade Murray 'guided' the conference in the absence of debate by announcing the steering committee recommendation for each motion. As the voting reached its conclusion, though, he felt forced to admit, "When I say the steering committee, I actually mean the officers. The steering committee has not met and discussed the motions." But by then the voting was almost over and the passivity of the delegates guaranteed. SWP and CPB members are obviously used to being treated as bums on seats. Elections went through uncontested with the usual slate put forward. It was a fait accompli.

So there we are. Another conference in the life span of an increasingly rightwing and undemocratic coalition. It is a marriage of convenience for opportunists who seem intent on defending the Iranian state while at the same time softening up their politics on the role of the British army in Iraq. While this clique maintains leadership of the anti-war movement, we can only expect worse.