The Stop the War Coalition: A Monumentally Successful Failure

Around the time of the huge demonstrations of February 15 th 2003, the Stop the War Coalition had emerged as one of the biggest protest movements in British history, yet it failed to achieve its goal of preventing war in Iraq. Moreover, within weeks of the February protests, the STWC had gone into decline with startling rapidity. Its core activists were unable to capitalise on the huge groundswell of support they had received prior to the war in Iraq , and it was to become dogged by poor leadership and vulnerable to hijack by political and religious extremists.

The Stop the War Coalition had been formed on September 21 st 2001 in London , in the wake of the September 11 th attacks. The aim of the Coalition was, to stop the war currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism’. We condemn the attacks on New York and we feel the greatest compassion for those who lost their life on 11th September 2001. But any war will simply add to the numbers of innocent dead, cause untold suffering, political and economic instability on a global scale, increase racism and result in attacks on civil liberties.[1]

The Coalition was at first concerned with campaigning against the war in Afghanistan . However, when the focus of US military intentions switched to Iraq , the Coalition began to develop a new prominence in British civil society. Public support for war in Afghanistan had been much stronger than for that in Iraq . Afghanistan had been a war with a clear casus belli (the September 11 th attacks by al Qaeda, and the Taliban‘s subsequent refusal to expel al Qaeda from Afghanistan), whereas Iraq had no such clear grounds for war. Upon being asked to support war based on little more than vague claims about intelligence of WMD production in Iraq , it is unsurprising that the public was sceptical. The Stop the War Coalition grew at an unprecedented rate as grassroots organisations developed local networks, and its spokespersons and events became increasingly prominent. However, there were clear flaws in the STWC’s organisation that would prevent it from making effective use of the support it received at this time.

The main flaw in the STWC was that, although the demand it was making in late 2002 and early 2003 was a fairly moderate one (“Don’t Attack Iraq ”), a significant chunk of its leadership displayed extreme-left views that moderates would find repugnant. For example, the appointment of Andrew Murray, who sits on the politburo of the Communist Party of Britain, to the chair of the STWC was to cause PR problems for the STWC when it emerged that he had written an article in Morning Star to commemorate the 120 th anniversary of Stalin’s birth. Murray had dismissed as “hack propagandists” those who “abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others.” These comments drew particular criticism from Observer journalist Nick Cohen, a left-winger who argued in favour of war on humanitarian intervention grounds. Cohen pointed out, quite rightly, that “there were 20 million reasons”[2] (the number of people killed by Stalin) to abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others.

Moreover, Andrew Murray was not the only figure in the STWC’s leadership to show a certain wistful nostalgia towards history’s greatest mass murderer. George Galloway MP, the renegade Labour MP who became Vice-President of the STWC and who was expelled from the Labour Party in the aftermath of the war, was asked in 2002 if he was part of the Stalinist left. He replied, "I wouldn’t define it that way because of the pejoratives loaded around it; that would be making a rod for your own back. If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union , yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life. If there was a Soviet Union today, we would not be having this conversation about plunging into a new war in the Middle East, and the US would not be rampaging around the globe."[3]

Just as Galloway indulges the regimes of tyrants of the past, he has also done so with more recent dictators. He describes Fidel Castro as “the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met”.[4] Once a vehement opponent of Saddam’s regime, he now classes Saddam’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz as a friend, saying of him, “I admire Tariq Aziz, very much. He’s a sophisticated and interesting man…He was a great Shakespeare man, a great Sinatra man. If Saddam Hussein had listened to him more, Iraq might not be in the mess it’s in today.”[5] Most notoriously, in 1994 he travelled to Baghdad , stood before Saddam, the man he had once protested against, and said, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Small wonder then, that Nick Cohen commented that, ‘It was as if the supporters of fox-hunting and village post offices had allowed the British National Party to run the Countryside Alliance.'[6]

Also prominent in the Stop the War Coalition leadership were the activists of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a Trotskyist organisation wedded to the principle of protest politics. Lindsey German of the SWP is the convenor of the STWC, and John Rees, also of the SWP, sits on the STWC’s steering committee. SWP activists have contributed to a significant part of the STWC’s organisation in many local branches as well as at the national level. Because of the strong influence of the SWP on the Coalition, the STWC has inherited some of the SWP’s strengths (notably the ability to organise and coordinate protests on a large scale), but also many of its weaknesses (crass dogmatising, reducing complicated issues to a banner-sized slogan, kneejerk anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment, unwillingness to criticise totalitarian regimes that suit their ideological outlook). One particular weakness of the SWP that came to be inherited by the STWC is its bizarre tolerance of Islamic fundamentalism, an ideology that is antithetical to socialism. This appears to stem partly from the SWP’s stance on the Israel/Palestine conflict, which is aggressively pro-Palestine and anti-Israel. Also, the SWP appeared to be aware of the potential for Muslim activists to be mobilised via the mosques of Britain . A consequence of this was the involvement of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which, along with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, would co-sponsor the Stop the War protests. The involvement of the MAB in the STWC has been controversial, especially when it emerged that the organisation is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist organisation that operates in Egypt , the Sudan , Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East , where it has pursued an agenda that is thoroughly anti-democratic, anti-secular and anti-feminist.[7]

This conjunction of the SWP and the MAB led to the STWC drawing a clear link between war in Iraq with Israel/Palestine. At protests such as those on February 15 th 2003, middle-of-the-road liberals who had turned up to voice their disquiet at a reckless military adventure in Iraq were bemused to find themselves being handed placards that said not just “Don’t Attack Iraq” or “Not in My Name” but also “Freedom for Palestine.” The MAB in particular seemed to be giving out almost as many “Freedom for Palestine ” as “Don’t Attack Iraq ” placards. The Socialist Alliance went further, subtitling their “Freedom for Palestine ” placards with the words “Victory to the Intifada”, at a stroke turning middle-class Guardian readers into standard-bearers for suicide bombers.

Despite claims to the contrary by STWC leaders, there was little to link the Israel/Palestine issue to Iraq , other than their being geographic neighbours. Although the Israeli government strongly supported the US in its stance on Iraq , Israel remained a neutral country during the Iraq War. Most of the arguments claiming to link the Israel/Palestine issue to the Iraq issue tended to be simply comparisons – the malign effect of US foreign policy in the Middle East , a perceived oppression of Muslims by the West, track records on failing to observe UN resolutions – rather than actual concrete links between the two countries and conflicts. By deliberately blurring the two issues of Iraq and Palestine , the STWC arguably did considerable harm to its own ability to make a coherent, well-argued case against war.

Whatever its organisational flaws, the STWC grew at an exponential rate as war loomed, mostly developing through blossoming networks at local levels. It is difficult to trace the exact path of development of the STWC during this period, as the grassroots, DIY ethos of the organisation was something that did not encourage meticulous record-keeping. The extremely fast rate at which the coalition was developing also make it difficult to retrace the paths of its growth, or to estimate exact numbers involved. However, the impression gained from the inside was that the main conduits of its development were hard-left groups such as the SWP, the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party and Workers Power, Islamic groups and mosques, trade unions, peace organisations such as the CND, environmental groups such as the Green Party, and the left wing of the Labour Party. In my own city, the local STWC had grown to such an extent by the start of the war that they were able to organise branches, not just on a town-by-town basis, but on a suburb-by-suburb basis – an impressive achievement for an organisation less than two years old.

The most visible outward manifestation of this huge growth was the massive demonstration that took place on February 15 th 2003. Between 750,000 and two million people (depending on whose estimates you believed) marched through the streets of London . Many of these were so-called ‘protest virgins’ – moderate, politically non-aligned people who did not normally take part in protest marches. The march culminated in Hyde Park , where the vast crowd was met by an impressive array of speakers, including the Revd. Jesse Jackson, the London mayor Ken Livingstone, the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, and the pop star Ms. Dynamite.

The effect that this march and other protests had on politicians is unknown, but what is known is that on February 26 th , later to become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’, 135 Labour MPs either abstained from or voted against a government motion for action against Iraq.[8] Despite this huge rebellion the motion was passed due to the overwhelming size of Labour’s majority in the Commons, and also due to the support of the Conservative Party.

It is impossible to gauge exactly how many of those MPs who rebelled were influenced by the STWC’s protests. However, a number of factors suggest that the STWC’s influence was actually probably very weak.

First of all, it was arguably a mistake by the STWC to focus on protest marches as the main technique of campaigning. Protest marches are somewhat limited in their effectiveness as a campaigning tool. For one thing, whilst protest marches may tell an MP that a decision will be unpopular , they do not necessarily inform him or her whether this decision is rationally justified . A more effective technique might have been to produce well-researched, well-argued critiques of the arguments for war, which could then be presented to MPs and journalists in large-scale lobbying efforts and media campaigns.

The STWC was probably incapable of doing this. Organisations such as the SWP have a horrendous record in publishing politically biased, ideologically slanted tomes riddled with bad pseudo-logic and pseudo-journalism; not balanced, well-researched analyses. Furthermore, most MPs know this, and a report bearing the stamp of the Socialist Worker’s Party would not be worth the paper it was written on in political circles.

Certain British NGOs were able to produce rigorous analyses. For example, the Church of England produced an excellent review of the arguments for and against war.[9] Likewise, the aid agencies Caritas Internationalis and Save the Children UK produced their own reports detailing the likely humanitarian consequences of war.[10] However, established bodies such as the Church of England and Save the Children were not part of the STWC, and were unlikely to join when one takes into account the explicit or implicit support to totalitarian regimes given by some of its key figures.

Instead of clear arguments backed by proper analysis, the STWC gave incoherent ones. Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories were touted as hard fact. Muddling together Iraq and Palestine into one issue might have been popular when appealing to the membership of the SWP and the Muslim Association of Britain, but had little influence with policymakers looking for clear arguments. Likewise, shouting “no blood for oil” might have played well when preaching to the choir, but was unlikely to sway the opinion of a middle-of-the-road Labour or Conservative MP trying to make sense of the arguments and counter-arguments. Had the arguments by the STWC not been so incoherent and badly argued, it is conceivable that the Commons rebellions over Iraq might have been much larger, and just might have caused Britain not to participate in the Iraq War.

Just over a month after the giant march of February 15 th – arguably the STWC’s greatest achievement – came its greatest failure, and one that sent the organisation into terminal decline. On March 19 th 2003 the Iraq War began. The rapid growth of the STWC before the war was followed by an even more rapid shrinkage. Just as there are no accurate figures for its growth before the war, there are also no statistics for its near-collapse during and immediately after it. However, an anecdotal examination of the protests in my city give an illustration. On the day war broke out, hundreds of people gathered in the city centre to voice their anger, and main roads were blocked by large crowds both at midday and in the evening. A week later, the local STWC was able to amass a crowd that was smaller in size, but still numbering in the hundreds, to march through town. The following week saw marches that were little more than a collection of hard-left groups selling their newspapers to each other – a pitiful sight for an organisation that, less than two months earlier, had buried the streets of London under a sea of people. This pattern seems to have been repeated in other cities across the UK .

As well as reducing in size, the social makeup of STWC protests also changed radically. The ‘protest virgins’ were the first to go. Having failed to prevent the outbreak of war, those moderates who had joined the marches simply melted away, causing the STWC to implode onto its core constituency of extreme-left and Islamist groups. This caused something of a chain reaction as STWC protests came to be seen as extreme-left/Islamist events, providing a further disincentive for moderates either to stay with or join the STWC. Many were repelled by sights such as Socialist Worker-sponsored placards bearing the words “Victory to the Resistance”, a repugnant sight to anyone who had marched against the war out of a principled opposition to what they perceived as an unnecessary war, not to become cheerleaders for Saddam’s fedayeen .

Since then the STWC has enjoyed occasional mild resurgences around such events as the Hutton Enquiry and George W. Bush’s visit to London , but in general the trend is one of an organisation in decline, destined to remain stuck in an extreme left/Islamist ghetto. On March 20 th 2004 the STWC held a march to commemorate the first anniversary of the beginning of the war. The crowd was estimated at 25,000 people by the police, 75,000 by the STWC. 11 A nominally impressive figure, but a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands who gathered the previous February. Even supposed allies of the STWC, such as the Communist Party of Great Britain, were driven to complain that ‘The Stop the War Coalition can still mobilise tens of thousands onto the streets, but politically it offers little more than populist platitudes.’ 12 Attempts to transform the STWC into a political party, the Respect Coalition, have materialised into little more than George Galloway, the SWP, a few other extreme-left groups, a few trade union branches, plus some informal links with the Muslim Association of Britain. The Respect Coalition appear to be belatedly discovering that socialist and Islamists don’t necessarily believe the same things, and at some point will probably have to decide whether to retain the support of the Muslim Association of Britain or whether they want to undertake any meaningful campaigning on gay rights or women’s rights. At the time of writing, the Respect Coalition are gearing up for the European and London mayoral elections of June 10 th , but are not expected to perform well.

At its height, the Stop the War Coalition was the biggest protest movement in British history, but it utterly failed to achieve its objectives. Given its institutional weaknesses and its failure to generate coherent arguments, this was probably inevitable.

Phil Doré is a former activist in the Stop the War Coalition and author of the Stop the Stop the War Coalition website.

1. Stop the War Coalition: About Us .
2. Cohen N. (2003) Pretty Straight Guys . London : Faber and Faber. p. 132
3. Hattenston S. (September 16, 2002) The Monday Interview: Saddam and Me. The Guardian.
4. Mueller A. (November 2003) George Cross: George Galloway MP. The Independent on Sunday.
5. Ibid.
6. Cohen N. op cit. p. 131.
7. Alliance for Workers Liberty (October 2003) Briefing on the Muslim Association of Britain .
8. House of Commons Library. (March 19 2003) Commons Divisions on Iraq : 26 February and 18 March 2003 .
9. Church of England. (October 9 2002) Evaluating the Threat of Military Action Against Iraq .
10. Caritas Internationalis (November 1 2002) On the brink of war: A recipe for a humanitarian disaster ; Save the Children UK (September 4 2002) The Humanitarian Implications of Military Intervention Against Iraq.
11. BBC News Online. (March 20 2004) Demo marks Iraq war anniversary.
12. Neira M. (March 25 2004) Leadership still lags behind the led. Weekly Worker 521

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