More than a year into the war elements of the labour movement are finally starting to break away from the Tory government line writes Andrew Murray

The University and Colleges Union vote to oppose the continuing war in Ukraine, including arms sales, and to support the campaigning of Stop the War against British government policy over the war in a beacon to the rest of the movement.

More than a year into the most dangerous conflict in Europe for a generation or more, elements of the labour movement are finally starting to break with the collaboration with the ruling class and the Tory government which has hitherto hegemonised its response.

It has always been somewhat mysterious seeing unions which have spent the last twelve months striking against the Tories to protect living standards and working conditions, and marching to protect public services from Tory cuts, then line up behind the foreign policy of the self-same Conservative cabinet.

Apparently it is bad Boris Johnson when he attacks working people, but good Boris when he flies to Kyiv to snuff out any prospect of peace talks to end the war; mad Liz Truss when she wrecks the economy overnight but smart Liz when she advocates endless confrontation in preference to negotiations.

This is the myopia which the UCU has overcome.  It reflects similar trends in some other union conferences so far this year, but in none of these has the peace argument, the case for breaking with the ruling class on matters of war and peace as well as on pay and conditions, secured a majority.

The resolution passed at the UCU’s conference was clear that the Russian invasion was wrong and that Putin’s troops should withdraw.

But it was equally clear that the war is part of a bigger clash involving the USA, and that NATO “is not a progressive force” for peace.  It also urged the British government to stop arming Ukraine.

Taking any other view is, in fact, betraying the interests of all those public sector workers fighting to protect their living standards, given the huge sums being spent on flooding Ukraine with military hardware.  The UCU urged a peaceful resolution of the conflict and support for “protests called by Stop the War, CND and other anti-war organisations.”

This outbreak of political clarity comes not a moment too soon.  The British government is playing the most bellicose part in this conflict, as so often, with the full support of Starmer’s “official opposition”.

Just two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal reported: “The U.K. and the U.S. are great allies, but on Ukraine there’s a disagreement brewing. The Brits would like the Americans to be more aggressive, and the U.S. wants the U.K. to be more cautious.”

This rift is reflected in arms sales.  While Britain’s military shipments cannot match those of the USA for quantity, London is ahead of Washington in providing Ukraine with the most technologically advanced weaponry – and depleted uranium.  Furthermore:

“U.K. special forces from the British Army’s SAS and SRR regiments and the Navy’s SBS units are operating very close to the front lines…They aren’t fighting, but their guiding influence on Ukrainian special-forces activity is evident in the sabotage operations Ukraine has conducted against Russian railway, airfield, fuel and other logistical nodes.”

Clearly, this is pushing Britain to the very edge of direct military engagement with Russia.  What if any of those special forces are killed or captured in the course of the long-anticipated Ukrainian offensive?

The war seems militarily stalemated with neither side having gained any fresh ground this year.  Both armies have poured tens of thousands of soldiers into a Verdun-style meat-grinder around Bakhmut for no aim beyond trying to bleed each other white.

Yet the risk of escalation seems to be rising.  There are continuing not-very-subtle hints from Russia about nuclear weapons.  And just this month a group of what seem to be Russian neo-nazis – the New York Times’ description – drove western military vehicles into Russia in an attempt to seize territory.

So a rupture with ruling class policy is overdue.  The warmongers know they are losing political altitude.  That is reflected in their hysterical response to the UCU conference decision.  Paul Mason, the Dr Strangelove of contemporary social-imperialism, pompously tweeted: “I want to see every member of the Socialist Campaign Group dissociate themselves from the UCU position publicly.”

Amazingly, SCG members seem to have ignored this instruction from a man who, should his endless carpet-bagging – Sheffield, Leigh, Camberwell and Pembrokeshire so far – in search of a Labour seat ever be rewarded with success, will surely be on the Ministry of Defence front-bench in a Labour administration.

Doubtless Mason’s boon companions in the Foreign Office disinformation apparatus will be equally disturbed.  They will have to refashion the notorious map of the anti-war left smearing virtually every part of the Corbyn movement as Putin (or Chinese) apologists to include a big box marked “UCU”.

Of course, the UCU vote is only a start – the first breach in the wall of parliamentary-media consensus that this war must be fought to the bitter end.  But it will not be the last.  Absent a dramatic shift in fortunes on the battlefield in the near future, the case for a negotiated settlement will only grow more compelling.

Putin will have to abandon his destructive imperialistic insistence that the Ukrainian state has no legitimacy except in union with Russia.  Ukrainian nationalism will have to give up on dreams of seeing their flag flying above the Russian population of Crimea.  A democratic solution will have to be found to the issue of minorities in Ukraine.

Above all, the USA and its NATO instrument will have to give ground on their insistence on security arrangements that reflect only their desire for world domination.  The Global South has taken the opportunity of the war to blow a giant raspberry at that agenda.

While the Starmers and Masons will remain forever tied to their bloc with the bourgeois state and Tory foreign policy, most socialists will want to break with the class enemy and take their place  within this worldwide peace front.  The UCU has shown the way.

31 May 2023 by Andrew Murray

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