The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
4 April 2013
In the last few weeks I have been doing a number of talks around England to promote my new book ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’. At a couple of talks a few people have raised objections to some of the criticisms of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that I make. Below, I attempt to address these objections by summarising my findings about STWC and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from the more than 110 interviews and research I conducted for the book.
STWC has been the leading organisation in the UK anti-war movement since its establishment in 2001. In particular, it was the most significant member of the tripartite coalition that led the movement against the Iraq War – the other members of which were the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Given the importance of the STWC, then, it’s worth considering one of the main debates that surrounded it – the role of the SWP.
According to many people I interviewed, STWC started out as a broad-based coalition. However, the SWP gradually came to dominate its leadership and effectively took control after 2003. Senior members of the SWP Lindsey German, Chris Nineham and John Rees (all of whom left the party in 2010) organised STWC’s founding meeting, and have made up the core leadership ever since. Importantly, many of the other senior members of STWC such as Andrew Murray, Andrew Burgin and CND’s Kate Hudson are close allies of German, Nineham and Rees.
As the chief architects (along with CND and MAB) of the 15 February 2003 anti-war march in London – the largest demonstration in British history – I applaud and am thankful to the STWC leadership for their extraordinary level of work. However, many of the people I interviewed were often frustrated and/or angry about the SWP’s dominating role in STWC. As peace activist Gabriel Carlyle told me: “I would put it this way: the SWP were probably the anti-war movement’s best asset and, in some respects, its greatest liability as well.” The SWP were the movement’s “best asset” because, as many people agreed, they were excellent organisers and extremely dedicated activists who helped to quickly build one of the largest social movements in our nation’s history. As Carlyle amusingly put it: “If it had been up to the traditional peace movement to organise the response [to the impending invasion of Iraq], they might have had a candlelit vigil with 200 people.”
In terms of the SWP being the anti-war movement’s “greatest liability”, many people I interviewed, including people previously centrally involved in STWC, criticised the SWP’s centralised style of working and methods which were felt to be controlling, aggressive and bullying. This destructive behaviour, according to activist Yasmin Khan, “played a part in the downfall of the movement.” Carol Naughton, the Chair of CND from 2001-3, noted in a ‘Strictly Confidential’ June 2003 memo that STWC “did not seem to understand or accept the culture of working in partnership once we had agreement to go ahead with joint events.” More concerning, Naughton reported that she “was on the end of some very unpleasant, aggressive and abusive phone calls from the Coalition” and that she “was lied to and misled by [STW] Coalition leadership” who she found “to be duplicitous and manipulative in trying to get my agreement when I had given them a decision that they disliked.”
STWC had a Steering Group, made up of representatives from different organisations, which met regularly. However, according to Mike Podmore, who was on the Steering Group himself in 2003, the SWP “orchestrated these meetings completely” with dissenting views “argued or shouted down.” James O’Nions, a former member of the SWP and member of the Steering Group, agrees with Podmore. For O’Nions, the Steering Group:
Was run a bit like any Socialist Workers Party conference. You had a member of the SWP central committee give a spiel about what we should think about a certain thing, and then there would be a discussion. But there was no common attempt to find a solution. Rather the solution had already been agreed, and the session was about the officers of the Stop the War Coalition winning over everyone else to what they wanted and trying to get people to mobilise them around it. That is how the SWP operate basically.
Mike Marqusee, a veteran activist and press officer with STWC from 2001-3, goes further:
They [the SWP] used methods to isolate or exclude people or discredit people who were questioning their leadership that are not acceptable, including smearing people, misrepresenting them and whispering things about them that weren’t true. There was a fear of what they considered to be mavericks or loose cannons. What is an anti-war movement without mavericks and loose cannons? I mean please. The anti-Vietnam War movement wouldn’t have got anywhere if it had excluded those people because they were doing the whole show from the beginning.
Arguably the SWP’s domination of STWC led to organised direct action and civil disobedience not being pursued fully by the anti-war movement in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. What the interviews I conducted show was that after 15 February 2003 there was an attempt to have a serious debate in STWC about how to move the movement forward, and whether direct action should be pursued. However, according to Marqusee an open discussion “was not favoured by the SWP or a number of the other leaders of the Coalition.” Instead, according to Marqusee “they began labelling people who were saying they wanted a different [tactical] emphasis as divisive.” Not only did STWC not support groups looking to carry out organised direct action, according to Naughton they actually tried to undermine it. In her ‘Strictly Confidential’ CND memo she notes:
Incidents happened that were actively countering the work that CND was doing such as the office of the [Stop the War] Coalition telling callers that the CND [direct action] event[s] in Whitehall and the Fairford and Menwith demos were all cancelled when in fact all of these were well and truly going ahead. I have personal experience of this as I received the emails and phoned myself to check it out.
Interestingly, despite multiple defections from the SWP since 2003, there seems to be agreement between current and former senior members, in that they all see the role of the party in STWC as an unqualified success. For example, Alex Callinicos, a current member of the SWP’s Central Committee, recently amused himself by noting journalist Owen Jones agreed with him that the SWP played a vital role in STWC. Despite strongly challenging the SWP leadership over the party’s on-going rape scandal, influential former member Richard Seymour broadly agrees with Callinicos on STWC. Replying to journalist Laurie Penny’s assertion that the SWP “has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade” the Lenin’s Tomb blogger praised the SWP’s role in STWC, which he described as “perhaps the most high profile campaign of the last decade… which brought together Labour party members, CNDers, members of various far left groups, and – once again – SWP members in a leading role.” Finally there are German, Rees and Nineham and their supporters, who left the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire. As noted these people were the senior members of the SWP in STWC, and still effectively control STWC. The two books they produced on the anti-war movement – Chris Nineham’s ‘The People v Tony Blair’ and ‘Stop the War. The Story of Britain’s Mass Movement’, the official STWC history of the anti-Iraq War movement written by Andrew Murray and Lindesay German – are both uncritically positive about SWP’s role in STWC. The latter book bears mentioning for another reason as well. One interviewee told me they considered this book a “joke” because it “looks like something from Soviet USSR – just like Lenin was airbrushed out of history by Stalin, key figures in the Stop the War movement were eroded out of history by the SWP.” Thus, except for one passing mention, the important role played by Marqusee who fell out with the leadership in 2003, is missing from the book.
Lastly, as far as I can tell*, there was no serious attempt to reflect critically on the strengths and weaknesses of the anti-Iraq War movement at the ‘Confronting War 10 Years On’ conference organised by STWC in London on 9 February 2013.
These considerations support the judgement of Marqusee, made after he parted company with STWC, that “the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practice. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them.”
I would like to reiterate I think the STWC leadership did a brilliant job in growing and leading the largest social movement in recent British history. However, we cannot escape the fact that while the anti-Iraq war movement had many important achievements, it was unable to exert enough pressure on the Government at the crucial time. We will never know, but it is worth noting the possibility that different organisational and tactical approaches could have led to a different political outcome regarding the Iraq war – a sobering thought.
Two on-going trends make the critical perspectives I present above all the more important. Firstly, the Government’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy means we desperately need an active and effective anti-war movement. And secondly, the same people who dominated – and continue to dominate – STWC are now leading the Coalition of Resistance, the group which seems to be taking a lead role in the movement against the Government’s austerity agenda. Surely, then, if we want to have the broadest, most effective anti-war and anti-cuts movements, we need to be aware of, and have an honest and open discussion about, the problems within STWC in the early 2000s?
*I didn’t attend the conference but have watched many of the videos of the talks from the day.