Time for politics

Peter Manson reports from the September 23 'Time to go' demonstration in Manchester

'Time to go' was the theme of the September 23 demonstration in Manchester, scene of this week's Labour Party annual conference. Of course, this phrase has recently been used in reference to the occupation of Iraq (and had been criticised by ourselves for that reason - when was it not the time for UK troops to leave?), but the Stop the War Coalition leadership have taken great delight in directing it at Tony Blair himself. A case of killing two pigeons with one stone.

Not only did the slogan feature on STWC placards: it was also reproduced in large letters on those of Respect and the Muslim Association of Britain. Socialist Workers Party marchers were amongst those leading the chanting of "I said, hey (hey), ho (ho), Tony Blair has got to go." And STWC chair Andrew Murray closed the rally in the late afternoon sunshine with the call to "wave Blair goodbye" - most of those still present obediently raised their hands.

Of course, it is a safe bet that the slogan's second wish will actually be granted earlier than the first. So the STWC, and the SWP comrades in particular, think they struck the right chord (which is presumably why the phrase, or a slight variant, appeared on the front page over three consecutive issues of Socialist Worker in the lead-up to the demonstration).

But it is not just a question of backing a winner. The comrades are also keen to take the credit for Blair's premature departure. Comrade Murray, a member of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, explained why the government was "in chaos" - it was because "this movement has harried it for the last five years. We have set this agenda for politics. We have caused this crisis."

SWP central committee member Lindsey German was equally upbeat - "We're the people who finished Blair off." The STWC has "warmed the hearts of millions of people", she said. "We stay on the streets." Fellow SWP leader John Rees (introduced as someone who had been "active in Stop the War from the start") echoed her sentiments - "We are still here, but he is on his way out."

It is no exaggeration to say that the anti-war 'movement' - in its widest sense - is responsible for forcing Blair to quit before he would have liked. After all, it is largely as a result of the invasion of Iraq that he has been transformed from Labour's biggest asset to its biggest liability. Mr Nice Guy was exposed as a cynical liar who could not be trusted. Weapons of mass destruction really did it for Blair's reputation.

Another important associated factor was the split in the ruling class over Iraq, reflected in the anti-war upsurge that reached its peak in February 2003. Liberal Democrats, Ken Clarke, sections of the secret state, The Mirror, The Independent, even former foreign minister Robin Cook all came out strongly against attacking Iraq.

Yet, while others drifted away, moved to support the war once it began or reconciled themselves to the occupation of Iraq, the STWC continued its work organising numerous demonstrations, rallies, marches and conferences. So it is true that the STWC has played a major part in maintaining the anti-Blair sentiment.

But where has the STWC taken the anti-war movement politically? Does it have a programme of not only getting rid of one liar but the UK constitution - the presidential prime minister and his enormous powers of patronage, MI5 and MI6, the dictatorial armed forces and unlected judges, the royal prerogative and the whole array of checks and balances against democracy. Only through politics can the working class, a clear majority in Britain, train itself and successfully challenge the system of capitalism which in this, its declining phase, generates one war after another. In short to stop wars we must stop capital.

Sadly, but predictably, after February 2003 the STWC has declined. This is not due to a boycott by the bourgeois media. Eg, Saturday's demonstration merited a few seconds on BBC news reports and a few paragraphs in some newspapers (others blanked it out completely). Fundamentally, it is a political failure.

Numbers have from the beginning been the main criterion for the STWC. To achieve the maximum turnout was everything, even if that meant limiting, blunting or reducing politics down to one or two anodyne slogans. So in the 2004 general election it was unable to urge a challenge to pro-war Labour MPs. Allies had to be kept on board no matter at what cost.

This strategy of broadness for the sake of broadness has failed. It produces Grand old Duke of York demonstrations which despite the hyperbole tend to get smaller and smaller.

September 23 was no exception. Comrade Murray declared from the Albert Square platform, on our return from the march around the city centre, that it had been "the biggest demo in Manchester for 150 years" (just like last month's London protest against the Israeli assault on Lebanon was the "biggest ever demonstration in August"). He claimed "at least 50,000 - far more than we were expecting". Socialist Worker dutifully reported "between 50,000 and 60,000", while the Morning Star plumped for the upper figure.

The march took 50 minutes to pass my vantage point on the way to the G-Mex centre, where the Labour conference was to begin the next day. Obviously that means, if we are to believe the 50,000 throwaway, the demonstrators were passing me at a rate of 1,000 a minute. But the march was proceeding at a slow pace - occasionally it stopped dead. People were lined up no more than 10 or 20 abreast across the road. In other words, there was no way they were passing at such a phenomenal rate. In fact I would say that BBC estimates of "up to 20,000" were on this occasion much nearer the mark.

I can remember the big demonstrations of the 70s that featured literally hundreds of union and Labour banners, as well as those of the left. On Saturday there were a few dozen from union branches (many carried by SWP comrades) but none at all from official Labour Party organisations - the nearest we got were the two held up by 'John for Leader' and Labour Against the War supporters.

What I am saying is that a realistic assessment of the anti-war movement's strengths and weaknesses is called for. Surely such an assessment could not fail to conclude that it is directionless - the cause of diminishing mobilisations. It is true that each march attracts a proportion of first-time supporters, but they are increasingly outnumbered by those who can no longer see the point and stay at home. If two million on the streets did not stop the invasion of Iraq, how can 20,000 end the occupation?

Unless the movement goes beyond being 'single issue' and is armed with a democratic and anti-capitalist programme, it will keep going round in circles.

On our return to Albert Square, the speeches continued. Another by-product of the SWP's obsession with numbers and 'broadness' for its own sake is that nobody has the time to say anything serious. Three minutes per speaker reduces the best to platitudes and soundbites.

For example, Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan correctly stated: "It's not just Blair." If he is replaced by Brown what difference will that make? For Murray Manchester was about to see the "biggest gathering of war criminals in British history". It is time not just for Blair to go, but "the whole damn Labour Party". Which begs the question (assuming for a moment that the blame for British imperialist crimes ought to be placed solely on the current governing party), what will replace Labour?

Perhaps in response to Murray's point that it was "not just Blair", George Galloway assured us he was well aware of that fact: after all, said comrade Galloway, he himself is the author of the phrase, "Blair and Brown are two cheeks of the same arse". Continuing the reference to body parts, Galloway noted that "Tony Blair is about to fall because of his wars, lies and the special Monica Lewinsky relationship he has with George Bush."

Someone who certainly disagrees with Craig Murray that Labour should be kicked out is Michael Meacher, who was doing his best to show his leftwing face - not very successfully, it must be said. British troops in Iraq are "making things worse", he stated. So they should get out "within the next year". TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley put him right: "The troops should come out now - and I mean now."

While Meacher is no doubt contemplating throwing his hat in the Labour leadership ring, for some reason John McDonnell, who has announced his candidacy, of course, was not a speaker - although Andrew Murray read out a message from him towards the end.

Another Labourite to address the crowd was STWC president Tony Benn, whose speech was interrupted by a comrade from the Worker-communist Party of Iran, Reza Moradi. Comrade Moradi was protesting, with the aid of a megaphone, at the pro-islamist content of some speeches and the fact that there was no-one on the platform who condemned the repressive Tehran regime. This 'counterprotest' was understandable. But we also have to say it was mistaken. The rightism of the STWC and the SWP produces such leftism.

Ghada Razuki, a loyal SWPer, tried to snatch away his megaphone and he was eventually manhandled out of the square by stewards. More to the point, she and her fellow comrades justified themselves not so much because of the need to keep some kind of order and discipline. They accused comrade Moradi of being "pro-imperialist". A disgusting slur.

In fact there were no blatantly pro-regime speeches - just a cowering refusal to criticise such 'anti-imperialists' as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even Sumeya Rashid of the British Muslim Initiative, who began his speech, "Brothers, sisters, comrades "¦", did not demand support for Iran. He contented himself with a call for a "world of freedom and justice".

Tommy Sheridan, who headed the small Solidarity contingent from Scotland (I did not see evidence of any Scottish Socialist Party presence), made easily the loudest speech, but he was just as vague as Rashid. After noting that our demonstrations should not only be about what we are against, but about "the type of society we want to build", he concluded by bellowing: "Our world is built on love, cooperation and building a new world."

And right near the end we had National Union of Students president Gemma Tumelty, who declared on everybody's behalf that we would all "keep on marching till we finally see an end to war, everywhere".

Unfortunately, in the absence of any kind of working class politics, all we got was this kind of utterly sincere but utterly useless nonsense. Marches do not end wars. Nor can they end the system that generates them. For that we need extreme democracy, a socialist revolution and the rule of the working class. Sadly, no one on the platform - neither Rees, German, Murray, Galloway nor anyone else - let the words 'revolution', 'working class' or 'socialist' pass their lips.

There was plenty of talk about "our movement" - meaning the movement against war, of course. And this is the problem. A consciously single-issue campaign cannot by definition embrace a programme. It cannot by definition, in comrade Murray's words, "set the agenda for politics".