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Thoughts on the Anti-War Campaign

Bob Pitt

THE CAMPAIGN against the imperialist war on Afghanistan has resulted in two big demonstrations, on 13 October (called by CND) and 18 November (called by the main anti-war campaign, the Stop the War Coalition). According to their organisers, these protests attracted 50,000 and 100,000 people respectively. Even if these figures were perhaps overestimates, they were impressive demonstrations by any standards, drawing in forces well beyond the usual left wing suspects, with young people and Muslims in particular strongly represented. But this did not mean that there was anything like an anti-war majority among the general population.

On 10 October, three days after the bombing of Afghanistan began, a Guardian/ICM opinion poll found that 16% disapproved of military action by the US and Britain, compared with 74% who approved. By 28 October, in the face of mounting evidence of civilian deaths resulting from the US bombing raids, approval of the war had fallen to 62%, although this decline was mainly to be explained by an increase in the number of “don’t knows” – those opposing the war had risen only slightly, to 20%. On 18 November, after the fall of Kabul and the effective defeat of the Taliban regime, support for the war had recovered to 66%, while opposition was back down to 17%.

With between one-sixth and one-fifth of the population against the war, it was possible to organise big national anti-war demonstrations. But from the standpoint of putting pressure on the government, this level of opposition was totally inadequate. Blair was able to back Bush’s war secure in the knowledge that a large majority of public opinion was behind him.

To have inflicted any real political damage on Blair’s war policy it was necessary to win a majority against it. This was by no means an impossible task, given the evident softness of pro-war sentiment. The 28 October poll found that 54% of those questioned were in favour of suspending the bombing to allow aid through, while on 18 November only 51% agreed that the use of cluster bombs and daisy cutters against the Taliban forces had been justified. Experience of high street leafleting and petitioning against the war also confirmed that a gung-ho warmongering mood affected only a minority of the British people. Yet the Stop the War Coalition had no success at all in winning over those who were hesitant in their support for the war.

Why has the campaign had so little impact on the consciousness of the general population? I would say that at least part of the blame lies with the political methods employed to build the Stop the War Coalition.

Although the Socialist Workers Party should be given credit for taking the initiative in launching the Coalition, from the start the SWP made the mistake of placing itself, along with its friends in the Socialist Alliance, at the centre of the campaign. While trade unions, mainstream political parties and peace organisations have been at best poorly represented within the Stop the War Coalition, far left groups such as Socialist Outlook and Workers Power, neither of which has an active membership that even reaches three figures, have been given places on the national steering committee.

Equally misconceived was the SWP’s initial obstruction of attempts to get the Coalition to condemn the 11 September suicide hijackings, and its insistence on adopting the formulation that the Coalition did “not condone” the attacks. The SWP’s position was formally correct, in that condemnation of the hijackers diverted attention from the real cause of the deaths of thousands of innocent people on 11 September, namely US foreign policy. But it was a tactical blunder, because it alienated those forces who opposed the war but were unclear about the role of US imperialism. And, without them, it was impossible to build a genuinely broad anti-war campaign.

With the exception of ASLEF, no national trade union has affiliated to the Coalition, despite the fact that a number of union executives came out in opposition to the war. The peace movement has kept its distance, with CND refusing to join a campaign dominated by the far left. Though the Green Party was involved in the Coalition at its inception, it soon withdrew because of the refusal to condemn the 11 September attacks. Neither Plaid Cymru, which adopted an official policy of opposition to the war, nor those dissident Liberal Democrats who rejected their own party’s pro-war line, have been attracted to the Coalition.

Given that the Stop the War Coalition is the actually existing national anti-war campaign, it would be foolish not to work with it. However, as the US extends its war aims to further countries, we will need to construct a much wider alliance, based on the labour and peace movements. In this respect, the successful meeting at the House of Commons on 10 December, jointly organised by Labour Against the War, CND and Labour Action for Peace, points the way forward.