Playing numbers game

A flawed Galloway and tired tactics from CPB and SWP speakers. Jim Moody reports from the Stop the War national demonstration

In good weather, around 10,000 anti-war demonstrators packed into Trafalgar Square for the March 15 Stop the War Coalition rally, and about 8,000 (I counted) marched just under two miles to a second rally in Parliament Square, looping over two Thames bridges on the way. While this may not have been quite the smallest national demonstration against the Iraq war and occupation so far, it was probably the shortest march.

At the concluding mini-rally, STWC chair Andrew Murray announced outside the houses of parliament that 50,000 had demonstrated. Apart from the self-deluded, does anyone believe such claims any more? As a member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, comrade Murray, like his Socialist Workers Party colleagues on the STWC leadership, thinks that talking up the numbers and bemoaning the lack of media coverage will somehow compensate for the absence of any viable SWP-CPB strategy for the anti-war movement.

The organisers later revised the number downwards and were quoted on the BBC’s website as claiming that 40,000 had marched. Of course, even were this assertion true, it would still represent an enormous reduction in the numbers prepared to brave bitterly cold weather five years ago and march against the invasion of Iraq. In fact, the real turnout this time amounted to less than one percent of the one to two million demonstrators on London’s streets on February 15 2003. At least the STWC website was more vague about the numbers (and therefore more honest): “Thousands of people marched in London ...”

Squandering the enthusiasm and élan that brought together so many has proved only too easy for the SWP-CPB in the intervening years. All that these supposed revolutionaries and ‘official communists’ could ever think to do was to hold yet another march. The refrain of the SWP’s Lindsey German and John Rees has always been, ‘See you at the next demonstration’ and ‘We’ll keep on marching’ at the end of each protest. In the name of retaining maximum broadness (and in this way allegedly maximum numbers), the STWC leadership insisted that arming the movement with politics that went beyond a handful of minimal slogans and platitudes would lead to paralysis.

Well, we can see how successful this has been - not only have numbers continued to fall, but by and large the mix of those attending has been predictably narrow: the organised left, some muslim groups, left-liberal pacifists ... Since the establishment has felt able to ignore the STWC, former participants have, understandably, asked what yet another march or demonstration can hope to achieve.

Activists have been used to hearing routine denunciations of Bush, Blair and Brown from familiar speakers. However, on this occasion the SWP attempted to keep perhaps the most familiar speaker off the platform - namely George Galloway. Since the Respect split the SWP seems to have taken sectarian vindictiveness to a new level. However, the outcry at this attempt to ‘no-platform’ the anti-war movement’s most well known and forceful partisan forced the Rees-German leadership to retreat. Galloway did not appear at the front of the march, as he normally does, however.

Long overdue though it is, it was to his credit that when he spoke he implicitly raised the question of the inadequacy of the STWC’s ‘Duke of York’ approach - marching its troops up the hill and then back down again. At the end of his speech to the Trafalgar Square rally Galloway remarked: “Our anti-war movement has been peaceful and lawful: maybe a little too peaceful, maybe a little too lawful ... I tell you this: if they invade Iran, as they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan before it, we need not to just demonstrate: we need to step up our opposition, so that we bring ‘politics as usual’ in Britain to an end.”

While it is far from clear what Galloway has in mind, at least he seems to be breaking with the cosy consensus of the STWC leadership that its campaigning to date has made a huge impact (despite being ignored by the media) and enjoyed great success. Consideration of new tactics - including imaginative stunts, if that is what he is proposing - would be welcome. But they cannot substitute for the adoption of a working class political programme that draws the thousands outraged by imperialism’s warmongering into a campaign that strikes at the heart of the UK state’s democratic deficit so patently exposed by the great anti-war upsurge of 2003.

Unfortunately, before his concluding remarks Galloway had already soured his own contribution very badly, when he decided that pro-Tehran apologetics demanded a dose of gay-baiting. Heckled throughout his speech, as were all the speakers, he exacerbated the lie he told on The Wright Stuff television show that no-one is executed in Iran for being gay, by declaring: “A slew of useful idiots, like those at the front, are now being dragged out to prepare the way for a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The khaki war machine now has its pink contingents and the purpose is the same. The purpose is to bamboozle the public to go along with mass murder in Iran.”

In fact the hecklers - whose calls could not be heard at all by the vast majority of those in Trafalgar Square - were not supporters of gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, as Galloway seemed to think, but appeared to be made up of anarchists, such as those around Class War. Nevertheless, Galloway was cheered to the rafters - hopefully because of his call for changed tactics rather than for his disgusting apologetics.

Galloway was followed by former Labour leadership contender John McDonnell, one of the few MPs, even on the left, to have called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. However, he failed to reiterate that demand, preferring crowd-pleasing platitudes, such as “The workers united will never be defeated.” Comrade McDonnell was happy to echo the SWP’s preferred option of just marching on: “We will keep turning out until the last British troops are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and until the Palestinians ensure a just and peaceful settlement.” Well, 99% have stopped turning out, John.

STWC convenor and SWP honcho Lindsey German desperately tried to justify the SWP’s bankrupt tactics: “I’ve been asked today, why are we still marching five years after we occupied Iraq? Well, we’re still marching because they are still occupying. And as long as they occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, we will continue to demonstrate here.” Instead of the expected applause, there was total silence as she paused - march fatigue, perhaps.

After easy digs at Blair and Bush, comrade German descended into economistic foolishness, decrying the £3 billion cost of the war last year, “when we don’t have money for schools and hospitals here”. And - surprise, surprise - as is de rigueur for SWP leaders, she concluded: “And let’s make sure we keep marching until these governments and these ministers are brought to account.” If a two-million-strong demonstration could not stop the Iraq war, what are a few thousand marchers going to achieve except further demoralisation and dwindling numbers? It is not enough, and Lindsey, who should know better, did not address this question.

A short while after the demonstrators surged into Parliament Square, it was the turn of SWP big cheese and fellow STWC leader John Rees to address those who would listen. Demanding an apology from the MPs across the road (it was empty, being a Saturday, so maybe he was expecting an empty apology), comrade Rees declared that, on Iraq, “We were right; you were wrong.”

The SWP was big on the need for apologies at the demo: comrade German had demanded one earlier, too. Ironically, the SWP group is not so keen on admitting its own mistakes, let alone apologising for them. But, there again, it usually does not even acknowledge when it has made a turn (such as when it decided last year to provoke a split with Galloway in order to prepare to disengage the SWP from the Respect dead end). There is no need to assess tactics and strategy in front of the working class. Anyway, comrade Rees did not get his apology from parliament any more than we did from him.

Clearly the country has been going to the dogs. Or at least that was what comrade Rees seemed to be saying. In his ‘Disgusted of Gloucester’ guise he declared - twice - that, “These people can’t run our country, so no wonder they can’t run anybody else’s country either.” As comrade Rees well knows, Britain is not in any material or real sense “our country” for the vast majority of the population, but in the name of ‘broadness’ he is prepared to pretend it is in the STWC.

Hopi impact

A favourable response at the demonstration. Tina Becker reports

Supporters of Hands Off the People of Iran handed out almost 3,000 of our new leaflet which highlights our twin message: opposition to any imperialist war and sanctions; and solidarity with the workers’, radical women’s and students’ movements in Iran.

Our message was generally very well received and quite a few people who came to our stall did not actually know that the STWC refuses to stand in active solidarity with socialists in Iran. We signed up a couple of dozen new supporters. But Hopi supporters also came in for some abuse. One man assured us that “there is no problem with the theocracy in Iran - in fact, there is no theocracy”, while a couple of young people carrying a Hezbollah flag accused us of “siding with the imperialists”. Our offers to discuss the issues with them fell on deaf ears.

This political one-sidedness and narrowness is, of course, encouraged by STWC leaders. Despite our best efforts, Hopi was not allowed a platform speaker. Our requests did not even meet with the courtesy of a reply. However, this did not come exactly as a surprise: after all, the STWC officers group - which last year rejected the affiliation of Hopi and Communist Students - is effectively dominated by the SWP.

For them, it is inconceivable that my enemy’s enemy might actually be my enemy, too. Any criticism of the Iranian theocracy is interpreted as support for the imperialist’s war plans. Despite his very public falling out with the SWP, George Galloway, of course, is an adherent of this reactionary political viewpoint. His public attack on Hopi executive member Peter Tatchell and his supporters as the “pink contingent of the khaki war machine” has been strongly condemned by Hopi and criticised in a statement and a leaflet highlighting the case of Mehdi Kazemi.