#GE2017: Lessons For The Anti-War Movement
Andrew Murray: Labour’s campaign was a triumph for the politics of mobilisation, of which Stop the War has been a 21st century pioneer
The general election result was a triumph for our movement and for progressive politics generally. While the Tories were very narrowly re-elected, May’s early-election gamble failed and her government is now broken-backed and disoriented.
It has left British politics in a place where we can argue, without the slightest danger of sounding hubristic or absurd, that Jeremy Corbyn, a former Chair of the Stop the War Coalition, could shortly be Prime Minister.
I do not need to dwell here on the details of the result, which were all familiar with by now. I would just like to draw attention to three lessons coming out of the election, before turning to the specific implications for the anti-war movement.
The first is the importance of voter registration. 1.7 million people signed on to the electoral register between the election being called and the closing date for registration. That is equivalent to about 24 parliamentary constituencies. Most of them, I am sure, did so in order to vote Labour. There is a clear point here – the more people are involved, the more democracy there is, the better things go for us.
The second lesson is this – no progressive politician need ever go in fear of the Sun or the Daily Mail again. They could not have done more to smear Corbyn, McDonnell and Labour generally. The net result was a rise in Labour’s share of the vote from 30 per cent to 40 per cent. The Tory tabloids now look like paper tigers.
The third is – Labour’s campaign was a triumph for the politics of mobilisation, of which Stop the War has been a 21st century pioneer. The voter registration drive, the mass rallies, the armies of canvassers, the huge social media networks – none of these were present in the election campaigns of the recent past, with their emphasis on a safe centrism directed towards small segments of the electorate by an even-smaller cadre of professional campaign specialists. Mass campaigning works – Stop the War is a testament to that, and it is great that some of its spirit has now infused the general election.
Let me now focus on how the campaign and the result impact on the anti-war movement. The “war on terror” intruded into the general election in the worst way possible, with the terrible atrocities in first Manchester and then London. There was perhaps a general assumption that these attacks would work to the advantage of the party in power. That it did not work out that way was due to two things.
First was Jeremy Corbyn’s response when campaigning resumed after the Manchester attack. He treated the electorate as adults and addressed not just the attack – which he of course condemned as we all do – but the causes of it. He pointed out that after sixteen years of the disastrous “war on terror” Britain is still subject to terrorist attacks; and he connected these attacks to the failures of British foreign policy, among other reasons.
This was a courageous thing for him to do. It would have been far easier to simply condemn and leave it at that. But that would have not been levelling with the public. He said there has to be a serious debate, with everything on the table. He presented the case in a measured way, acknowledging that there are other factors at play in terrorist attacks beyond foreign policy failures, and avoiding declamatory slogans. But he grasped the nettle, despite some apprehension that this might prove risky.
Certainly the Tories and the tabloids leapt on him at first – but they had to drop the attack pretty fast, since polling on the day of his speech showed that around two-thirds of the public agreed with Corbyn that there is a connection between British foreign policy this century and the continuation of terror attacks in Britain. In so far as no party political leader has dared make this linkage publicly since 2001, we can say that Rubicon has been crossed.
Jeremy had earlier developed these themes in his excellent Chatham House speech on foreign and defence policy, but it was undoubtedly the response to Manchester which resonated, coming as it did after a murderous attack which took so many lives.
The second factor at work was without doubt the campaign that Stop the War has waged down the years to shift public opinion against the wars of intervention which have been the centrepiece of British, US and French policy towards the Middle East and beyond this century. The 2003 demonstrations against the Iraq aggression were the high points. Our opposition to the Libyan intervention ordered by Cameron and Sarkozy in 2011 may have been the low point. I remember a demonstration outside Downing Street that barely reached three figures, and only 13 MPs voted against in the Commons – Jeremy Corbyn being one of them, of course.
Yet it is now clear that Stop the War was right when it was swimming against the tide in 2011, as well as when it was swimming with it in 2003. Libya has collapsed into anarchy, and is now – like many other states subject to western intervention – now a home for jihadis where there was none before. Not only were we right to condemn the intervention – basically another regime-change war as it was – but also right to warn against the addiction the British state has to using jihadis to help secure its foreign policy objectives, heedless of the longer-term consequences for the British people of assisting such activities.
So we can now say that Stop the War policies are much more nearly embedded in the mainstream of Labour Party thinking and indeed public opinion more widely. While there was little dissent in the Labour Party over domestic policy – few are still really arguing for support for austerity – the divisions over Corbyn’s foreign policy positions were much sharper. There is now a definite basis for changing that and developing the lines of the Chatham House speech into a new consensus for a different approach to the world, one worthy of the description of “internationalist”.
The Impact on Government
As far as the government’s foreign policy goes, it will be weaker in this field as a consequence of the election result, as in almost every other.
One sign of this is the obscurity now surrounding the visit of Trump to Britain. This was a gamble for the Tories before the election, it would seem like pure recklessness now. The spectacle of Theresa May holding Trump’s hand in Washington is one of the abiding images of her premiership. I cannot believe she will want to risk more of that, as Trump’s personal standing continues to fall, dragging public perceptions of the USA with it.
Certainly the government is scarcely well-placed to be the Trumpian representative in Europe which it had been setting itself up as prior to the election – a reactionary outlier on one issue after another. Should it be ill-advised enough to follow Trump into new conflicts in Syria, as Johnson was indicating when the Tories still thought the election was in the bag, or elsewhere it will pay a heavy price politically.
There are other signs of a government with a failing grip on international matters. The United Nations vote referring the case of the Chagos Islands to the International Court of Justice – a cause dear to Jeremy’s heart, incidentally – was one indicator. The legal rebuke over its attempts to criminalise local authority support for BDS initiatives in support of the Palestinian people - is another. The tide is running strongly against neo-conservatism and Tory imperialism.
There are several development in the Middle East which we need to address. The first is the continuing war in Syria. Civilian casualties due to bombing by the USA and allied forces in Raqaa and elsewhere are rising sharply. This is most likely due to Trump’s relaxation of targeting criteria in the attacks on ISIS.
We need to be highlighting this, since such indifference to civilian lives is, as we have learned, the seedcorn of further conflict and endless war. It is likely, and of course welcome, that ISIS will lose is territorial footholds in Syria and Iraq in the coming months, but increasingly unlikely that this will lead to peace in either country, the more so if the political outcomes are dictated by western interests.
Stop the War continues to stand against western intervention – indeed, all foreign intervention – in Syria. We stand for peace negotiations without obstructive preconditions, and we do not seek to prescribe a particular political outcome, beyond saying that it must rest in the hands of the Syrian people themselves. To move from this position towards “taking a side” would be a serious mistake.
We must also not forget the dreadful war in Yemen, where the Saudi aggression has the fullest support of the British government. Indeed, this is to some extent a British war by proxy. The suffering of the Yemeni people cries out for a ceasefire and a peaceful resolution of the divisions in their country. That is the policy we must demand the British government follows.
And then there is the new crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a crisis which is full of the possibilities of regional war and which is further testimony to the reactionary and adventurist path being followed by the Saudi kleptocracy at present. This confrontation – in which the Egyptian dictatorship has proved to be a solid ally of the Saudis – cannot of course be taken at face value.
Doubtless Qatar does assist terrorist groups in Syria. But the same is true – truer, in fact – of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indeed, Saudi-funded Wahhabi fundamentalism is the main ideological underpinning of jihadi movements across the Muslim world, including ISIS itself. Reading the demands that Saudi Arabia has placed on Qatar one is reminded of nothing so much as the ultimatum the Austro-Hungarian Empire issued against Serbia after the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914. They could not be accepted by any country without the total abnegation of its sovereignty. And many of the demands – closing Al-Jazeera, banning the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not a violent movement, and breaking links with Iran, have nothing to do with opposing terrorism at all.
We should not take sides in this row, but should be alert to the war danger, and to the possibility of the British government stoking the fires. Stop the War and, recently, the Labour Party have done a lot to highlight the crimes of the Saudi government, which is now emerging as the main source of conflict in the Gulf region, and we need to redouble these activities.
In this situation, western policy is increasingly losing coherence. On the Saudi-Qatar crisis, Trump has been fully backing the Saudis, yet the State Department, under the veteran oil industry executive Rex Tillerson, and the Pentagon, with a huge military base in Qatar, appear to have been seeking to promote a reconciliation among the regional oligarchs. As with policy towards Russia, however, the Trump administration is either divided or incapable of imposing its views on the foreign and military establishment in Washington.
This adds to the impression of events moving outside the control of the US, although we should not assume that this will not be resolved. Nor that Trump, however weakened his political position and befuddled his world view, will not embark on some act of reckless aggression. We must work to decouple British policy from that of the US, an objective eminently within reach.
In that context we must note the views of the new French President, Emmanuel Macron. Doubtless, many here would not have welcomed his election for one reason or another. Nevertheless he has come out flatly against neo-conservatism; has acknowledged that the Libyan intervention by France was a big mistake, and has shifted policy on Syria away from a flat “Assad must go” approach. Earlier, he has spoken of French colonialism as a crime. If he does indeed impose a break from the neo-colonial thrust of French policy, under Mitterrand and Hollande as much as under Chirac or Sarkozy, that will mark a significant shift which the British Tories will be very uncomfortable with.
The final issue we must address is the resurgence in Islamophobic attitudes and attacks in Britain. The immediate spike in abuse and violence may have been triggered by the recent terror attacks, but the ground has been well-prepared by the media and some politicians in recent years. This culminated in the murderous attack at the Finsbury Park Mosque a few days ago. Stop the War has of course declared its solidarity with the Muslim community, and it gives us no pleasure to say that our warnings, right from September 2001 onwards, against the dangers of a violent racist backlash emanating from the “war on terror” and its consequences, has been vindicated. We must continue to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the face of this backlash.
This new situation presents the Stop the War Coalition with several priorities.
The first is the fight for an anti-war government, a success which seems to be within reach. Stop the War is not a party-political organisation and we will always welcome support from individuals and groups of differing party outlooks or none at all. Nevertheless, an anti-war government can only at present mean either a Labour majority government, or a Labour government dependent on the support or indulgence of smaller parties opposed to wars of intervention. Stop the War’s role must be to campaign against Tory war-mongering and aggressive international policies. Who our supporters end up voting for in each constituency is a matter for them of course – I would advocate support for Labour everywhere, personally.
Second, we must continue to campaign against British support for Saudi aggression in Yemen, and in the Gulf region more generally. This is the immediate war danger to oppose. Given the degree of British establishment entwining with the Gulf oligarchies, the British position is important. Tory weakness should be exploited to impose a policy shift on this issue.
Third, we should continue to campaign against May’s close association with Trump, and against any suggestion of a state visit for the US President, should that issue resurface. Ending the “special relationship” of war and intervention has always been one of our objectives, and the combination of a diminished May and a Trump universally seen as a menace is the best possible conditions to advance this demand.
To conclude, all Stop the War’s work over the years is paying off. Support for the “war on terror” and intervention in the Middle East is diminishing rapidly. The uncritical alliance with Washington is being questioned as never before. And a former Chair of Stop the War could be the next Prime Minister. When that happens, we will not just talk of having influenced opinion, or of relative political achievements for our movement. That will feel, unequivocally, like a victory and a vindication of the work we embarked upon sixteen years ago.