High spirits, low numbers

Simon Wells reports on the surprisingly small June 24 demonstration in Manchester

Neither the rain nor the poor turnout dampened the spirits of those on the June 24 demonstration in Manchester. Having assembled at Albert Square they marched to the Labour Party conference, scene of Gordon Brown's coronation, with the demand to get British troops out of Iraq now and renounce any thoughts of attacking Iran.

John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party and Stop the War Coalition told the marchers: "There will be no end to the demonstrations, there will be no end to the protests." However, if there is to be no end to this formulaic method of the SWP, then numbers are going to remain low. There were well under 2,000 on this occasion (we counted) - although Socialist Worker claimed "more than 5,000", while the Morning Star contented itself with the vaguer but more positive-sounding "thousands").

But the STWC will not change its tune. Comrade Rees said: "We broke Blair over the Iraq war, and the message to Gordon Brown is simple: we have the power to break you." The SWP likes to claim that it was the STWC that forced Tony Blair out of office before his time and that if Gordon Brown does not get the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the STWC will "use that power" again. In truth, of course, it was not the STWC, but the ever worsening objective situation in Iraq that did it for Blair. That and Saddam Hussein's non-weapons of mass destruction.

Before the demonstration set off on its march to the conference centre and back, the names of 100 of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were read out. One of them was fusilier Gordon Gentle, whose mother, Rose Gentle of Military Families Against the War, was among the delegation permitted to hand over a letter condemning the ongoing war in Iraq at the conference venue - the rest of us were kept 100 metres away by the police.

Despite the continuous rain and the police's obstructive tactics, the demonstrators were noisy and enthusiastic. Young comrades from Students Against the War, following the lead of an equally noisy Chris Nineham (SWP), chanted, "No justice, no peace" and "What do we want? Troops out now!" The short round trip from Manchester town hall and back was halted several times by the police for no apparent reason and marchers were kept waiting for at least 10 minutes on each occasion.

When all the demonstrators returned to Albert Square, it became even clearer that the numbers were highly disappointing. What was the reason for this? Factors suggested by SWPers and others we talked to were the weather, the fact that the demonstration was held in Manchester, not London, and the claim that, since Blair was leaving office and the war was associated with him, it was hardly surprising that there was a loss of impetus.

Convinced? If not, how about this for a better explanation? - the STWC has proposed no strategy for stopping the Iraq occupation or an attack on Iran - apart, that is, from yet more demonstrations, marches and pickets. For the SWP the mobilisation of numbers is the be-all and end-all as far as strategy is concerned. But without a coherent political programme that aims not only to stop the latest act of imperialist aggression, but to impose democratic change on our rulers in the interests of the majority, even a two-million-strong demonstration (as actually happened in February 2003) will not call a halt to their bellicose schemes. The truth is, people have learnt that marching alone changes nothing. As a speaker from the local Green Party told Sunday's rally, "Our arms are tired from holding up placards and banners."

Yet for those who did turn up and brave the pouring rain - which included the welcome presence of Remploy workers in dispute and a handful of union banners - the message was the same as on all previous demonstrations: in the words of Lindsey German, "Let's keep organising, let's keep demonstrating." She acknowledged that it was not the biggest of protests, but claimed it was one of the most important - a new Labour leader meant an opportunity to press for new policies. If not, there would be "more marching until we win".

Some of the Albert Square speeches will not be reproduced in Socialist Worker. For example, Eddie Hancock of Military Families Against the War, who lost both his sons in Iraq, blamed their deaths on inadequate equipment - the army needs more resources for the "most humane soldiers you will ever meet", who have defended "our land and freedoms for 1,000 years". The politicians should "look at our national flag and respect it".

While such patriotic sentiments might upset certain brittle leftists, Eddie Hancock is more than welcome to the anti-war movement as far as we are concerned. Our problem is not with him. Rather the fact that the Ress-German leadership of the STWC is demobilising the movement through their blinkered Grand Old Duke of York strategy.