Messenger or message?

Peter Manson reports from the February 24 Stop the War Coalition demonstration in London

There was an encouragingly high turnout for the February 24 Stop the War Coalition demonstration in central London. Up to 40,000 people marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square to demand an end to the occupation of Iraq, no attack on Iran and the scrapping of Trident.

As usual there were widely varying estimates for the numbers attending, with the police at first ludicrously claiming only 3,000 marchers - a figure which was later upped to 10,000. By contrast speakers in Trafalgar Square declared 100,000 were present and the Stop the War Coalition finally settled on 60,000. In fact Trafalgar Square was never at any time full, although several thousand were listening to the speeches from outside the National Gallery and the surrounding roads.

Whatever the true figure, there are two major points to be made about the wrangle over numbers. Firstly it is clear from opinion polls that Blair's wars are unpopular - there is a good deal of passive opposition, and this is reflected in the continuing, albeit generally declining, attendance at STWC events.

Secondly, though, the organisers' tendency to exaggerate acts as a kind of substitute for a political strategy. Speaker after speaker told us that by marching in such large numbers we will make Blair listen "¦ won't we? According to Tony Benn, "We are the voice of tomorrow and the size of this demonstration shows that our voice cannot be ignored." Unfortunately, even the massive February 2003 march against the Iraq invasion - the most conservative of estimates at the time said one million took part and it was most definitely not ignored - failed to actually prevent war.

However, there is still this belief in the movement that yet another demo, followed by yet another 'conference', followed by yet another march will eventually cause our rulers to renounce their imperialist schemes. Anas Altikriti, leader of the British Muslim Initiative - effectively an external faction of the Muslim Association of Britain - acted as chair alongside the Communist Party of Britain's Andrew Murray and Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He concluded the rally by declaring: "Until there is peace we will keep marching" - as though marching alone will have any effect.

In truth, under the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, the STWC is running out of ideas. Sure, because of the SWP it can continue to mobilise protest - with, it has to be said, the smooth efficiency that comes with practice - but with every march its lack of direction is more and more apparent.

To mount a real challenge - not only to Blair's warmongering, but to the system of capital that constantly throws up new and more dangerous imperialist wars - the movement needs one thing the SWP is incapable of giving it - principled working class politics. Incredibly in the 2005 general election the STWC was unable even to make the minimalist recommendation of a vote only for anti-war candidates, however loosely defined.

Similarly the SWP's broader response to 2003 was Respect - an organisation that suffers from all the defects of the STWC itself - its cross-class, lowest-common-denominator character leaves it paralysed and unable to advance beyond a certain, very basic stage.

Complain as they might about police underestimations and the consequence downplaying of their demonstrations by the media, the STWC leaders still will not face up to the central fact: the main problem is not the messenger - it is the message.