The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq

by Ian Sinclair

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.


‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’ is published by Peace News Press. Copies can be purchased from http://peacenews.info/node/7085/march-shook-blair-oral-history-15-february-2003

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First published: 04 April, 2013

Category: Activism, International

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26 Comments on "The Stop the War Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party and Iraq"

By Jane Kelly, on 04 April 2013 - 20:14 |

Another problem not noted above is the way the SWP dominated local groups. In the 1980s I was involved in a local CND group which had played a role in organising local feeder marches from Southwark in London to the main demonstrations. Far from being interested in listening to anything I suggested SWP members ignored me and then went on to tell everyone what StWC was to do next. In the end the local group decayed and disappeared until the next StWC event was to be organised when they resurrected it until after the demo. This meant that local groups had no life of their own. If they had been organised differently the Coalition as a whole would have had more impact.

The other problem was the way they refused to allow Socialist Alliance speakers on the StWC platforms. Instead of linking the two they saw them as separate and each suffered as a result.

By Rees's Pieces, on 04 April 2013 - 21:24 |

What ‘different tactic’ do you suggest would have stopped the war then?

And please consider we are talking about the reality of what we could muster.

By Andrew Murray, on 05 April 2013 - 07:50 |

This is a disappointing piece.  I say so because Ian Sinclair’s book is actually pretty good within the limitations of any oral history project.  He interviews a wide range of those involved in Stop the War and gives space to the views of most of those centrally involved and captures much of the spirit of the period.  In that context, the space he gives to critical issues - the role of the SWP, the politics of ‘direct action’ - is not just defensible but essential.  I agree with his point that a critical self-examination of any movement’s strengths and weaknesses is a political necessity.  My main beef with his book is that too much space was given not to critics, but to people who didn’t play all that major a role in the events of and around February 15 2003 to begin with.  the article here, of course, goes much further in that direction in only expressing their views.  First, Mike Marqusee.  For the record, again - Mike was involved in Stop the War from the start until September 2002, when he quit as an officer to write a book about Bob Dylan, something I thought and think was a curious sense of priorities.  Be that as it may, at no time was there any poltiical issue, on either side, behind his resignation.  None of the criticisms of the role of the SWP did he make when he was involved, or at any time afterwards until he had a major unrelated falling-out with the SWP in the Socialist Alliance.  He then subsequently read-back that entirely separate row into his time in StWC - but in any case he played no role of consequence at all in the build up to February 15 or for months previously.  Regarding James O’Nions, I scarcely remember him attending more than a couple of meetings and all I can say is that the vast majority of those who did attend Steering Committees would not recognise his caricature of their proceedings.

To be a “loose cannon” is not a crime but not a virtue in and of itself either, unless one is indifferent to the danger of friendly fire.  Carol Naughton does of course deserve to be taken more seriously, as CND Chair at the time, and I am am sure she strongly felt the views quoted at the time she wrote them.  There were indeed clashes of the sort that are unavoidable in organising immense mobilisations on the scale of of February 15, and I am sure that some things could have been handled better or at least more emolliently by myself and others.  However, when I last spoke to Carol she herself acknowledged that it was all a bit of a storm in a teacup and what StWC and CND achieved together was vastly more significant.  her comments at the time should also be read in the context of arguments within CND in 203 over their relationship with StWC, a debate ended decisively in favour of the closest continuing cooperation.

Ian’s choice of voices is here highly unbalanced and unrepresentative of those involved at the time. Two final points - while the debate about direct action is a worthwhile one, and I strongly refute the idea that StWC tried to suppress it, for Ian to simply assert what is an unarguable hypothetical propostion that different tactics could possibly have produced a different outcomewithout specifying what or how is, after ten years time for reflection, less than helpful.  And to insinuate that there is something sinister about myself, Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson being strong allies of Lindsey German, John Rees and Chris Nineham is silly.  None of the three former knew any of the three latter at all before the formation of StWC, so the suggestion that this wa a self-selecting group of SWP leaders and their stooges is nonsensical.  if we have worked together well over many years as we have, and unusually for people on the left from very different traditions, it is because of both the importance of the cause and because we have learned to build on our mutual strengths and recognise that weaknesses are best addressed in unity, rather than being the point of departure for a new split. 

And Stalin didn’t airbrush Lenin out of Soviet history.  Someone is confusing Lenin with Trotsky.  Mike M should not be confused with neither.

By Ian Sinclair, on 05 April 2013 - 09:24 |

Hi Jane. Thanks for raising the issue of the SWP’s influence on local anti-war groups in the run up to and after the 2003 Iraq War. I didn’t mention it in the article and unfortunately I didn’t have enough space to go into it in the book but several people I spoke to highlighted the negative impact the SWP played in their local groups, particularly after 15 February 2003, which they said was an important contributory factor in the dissolution/disempowerment of the group after 2003.

Hi Ree’s Pieces. It’s not really about what I suggest but what people told me when I interviewed them for the book. And many people I spoke to argued that direct action and civil disobedience should have been pursued more forcefully by the anti-war movement – Stop the War Coalition in particular. I should point out that in the book itself I give space to people on the two sides of the debate about whether this was a realistic possibility at the time and/or would have been effective. And I also give space to the STWC leadership who argue STWC did pursue direct action, aswell as many other people, including people involved in STWC in 2003, who said they did not. I think another important voice in the ‘what else could have been done’ debate is Milan Rai who argues in the book that the anti-war movement’s focus in late February/March 2003 should have been 1) lobbying MPs to influence the vote in parliament 2) arguing for the continuation of the inspectors within the framework of the debate that was happening at the UN at the time. He explains this far better than me in the book.

Ian Sinclair

By Red Squirrell, on 05 April 2013 - 10:01 |

Andrew,
Implying that the opinions of those people ‘who didn’t play all that major a role’ are invalid, or lesser, is like saying the general public can’t have an opinion on the behaviour of the British government. Absurd considering that’s exactly what the anti-war movement and StWC was all about.

By Yasmin Khan, on 05 April 2013 - 11:45 |

I’ve not read Iain’s book but since I’m quoted in the article just thought I would comment. Quotes taken out of context so some clarification from me… 

For the record I think that the people at the core leadership of STWC have done an amazing job keeping an anti-war campaign going in the UK at a time when other activists have moved on. I think this is nothing short of commendable. It has frustrated me over the years to see people who slag off the leadership of the STWC then do little to continue anti-war activity themselves. I need to remind no-one reading this about the fact that we are still at war in Afghanistan, wreaking havoc for generations to come. I have continued to work closely with the STWC leadership and respect them as dedicated activists for the role they have played in keeping the issue alive.

I do think Andrew’s response raises the very tension between the leadership and the grassroots activists though. Just because one was not part of the STWC leadership does not mean that one was not central to the movement. Thousands  of people, up and down the country, worked week in, week out in their anti-war activity over a period of years. I’ve not read Iain’s book yet but I feel that it is an opportunity to hear from those voices and that their experience of anti-activity is not less valid than people in HQ in London. A movement is a sum of its parts and the thoughts and experience of these anti-war activists is valid, it was their experiences after all!

I’m sure this book is a welcome addition to the other books and films that document one of the most vibrant and exciting movements I have ever had the pleasure to contribute to.  It also offers an opportunity for all of us, putting out political allegiances and egos aside, to learn from our mistakes (we all made them, I know I did, welcome to being human!) so that we can grow as a movement. The fight we are up against deserves that we continually learn, reflect and grow so we get stronger and stronger. I look forward to continuing to work with all comrades from whichever political persuasion in keeping the anti-war issue alive.

Peace

Yasmin x

By Ian Sinclair, on 05 April 2013 - 12:55 |

Hi Yasmin. Thanks for your comments. Perhaps I should make it clear that the people I quote in this article obviously often had lots of other things to say in the face-to-face and email interviews I conducted for the book. So, as you point out, just because I quote you being critical about the SWP doesn’t mean you didn’t also praise the STWC leadership (you did, as you mention). Happy to post your whole answer to my question ‘Some people have criticised Stop the War Coalition for being dominated by Socialist Workers Party members. Did the SWP dominate the Stop the War Coalition in 2003? If so, did this have a negative or positive effect on the Stop the War Coalition?’ if you like. And thank you for contributing to the book. Ian

By Mike Marqusee, on 05 April 2013 - 16:13 |

Andrew Murray’s post is a sad example of the leadership methods criticised in Ian Sinclair’s article. Though I am intensely reluctant to get drawn into this discussion, Murray’s personal statements about me are false, and I’m compelled, not for the first time, to set the record straight.

I did not quit as an officer of the StWC because I thought writing a book about Bob Dylan was more important. I stepped down from the particular position of press or media officer because I couldn’t afford to keep doing what had become a nearly full time but entirely unpaid job. Unlike Lyndsey German or Andrew Murray, I was not in receipt of a regular wage from a political organisation or trade union. I was under contract with a publisher to complete a book and failing to do so would have had serious consequences for me, professionally and financially, as I told Murray at the time.

For a full year following 9/11, I had devoted myself nearly full-time to the anti-war movement, without any payment, subsidy or expenses. There came a point when my personal situation no longer allowed me to do that. I’m a free-lance writer and if I don’t publish, I don’t earn.

However, stepping down from my post as media officer was by no means the end of my anti-war activity. Murray has made this demonstrably dishonest claim before, in an article he wrote with Lindsey German in 2003, which I answered at the time. See:  http://www.labournet.net/other/0308/marques1.html

Between the end of September 2002 and the 15th February demo 2003 I spoke at a number of anti-war meetings, took part in local anti-war events, wrote articles and did my share of leafleting, etc. For the two weeks running up to 15th February I was actually in New York, where I was involved in a series of meetings and events in the build-up to the half million strong New York demo, at which I spoke, officially, on behalf of the StWC, as had been previously agreed.  All of this I reported back to the StWC steering committee in written form.

Murray’s post reveals that he continues to believe that the anti-war movement was coterminous with the StWC steering committee, and that all the vast and varied efforts of the time are known to him personally.

After 15th February, I withdrew from the Steering Committee for reasons that were, contrary to Murray’s claim, deeply political. I’d become dissatisfied with the methods used by the StWC leadership and their attitude of proprietorship to the movement as a whole. My fall-out with the SWP over the Socialist Alliance (for details of which see http://www.mikemarqusee.com/?p=1360 ) was not “unrelated” to StWC, for two reasons: first, personnel who’d played a critical part in wrecking the SA were playing a critical part in guiding the StWC, using the same methods as in the SA; second, the issues for me were essentially the same: about unaccountable and manipulative leadership.

For some nine months, until July 2003, I chose not to make public my growing disagreement with the StWC leadership or my criticisms of the SWP. I had no intention of saying or doing anything that could be used to divide or discredit the anti-war movement at this crucial moment. I’m sorry to see that self-restraint so grossly misinterpreted.

In my time as an StWC officer, I did on several occasions raise concerns about the way the organisation was run, including concerns about high-handed and secretive decision-making. Murray may not recall the various clashes and tensions between us during this period but I certainly do. My regret, however, is that clearly I did not make my mounting concerns clearly or forcefully enough. I had the curious idea that when working on a broad campaign of this kind divisions and disagreement should be dealt with politely and respectfully. Something not reciprocated by the StWC leadership.

This is the first and will be the last time I make any comments on Andrew Murray and I stress that I am only doing so now in order to defend myself against a series of offensive personal allegations.

Murray’s right about one thing. I’m definitely no Lenin or Trotsky, but unlike some I never aspired to or claimed that status. Like many others I know, I’ve dedicated the bulk of my adult life to socialist and anti-war activity, mostly at grass-roots level and mostly without hope of payment or reward. Murray’s contempt for people of my ilk, like his loftily dismissive reference to James O’Nions, says far more about him than me.

Mike Marqusee

By Anna Chen, on 05 April 2013 - 16:34 |

“... 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.” Ironic, much? 

It’s a shame that Ian is selective and doesn’t tackle the problem of the left not protecting its activists from the careerists in the movement.

Murray’s assertion regarding Marqusee leaves me speechless. 

Here are two pieces (which Ian has seen) from an insider on the front line who witnessed what was happening: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-lefts-invisibility-bomb-hows-that.html and from 2003: http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/politics/chen.html There’s a third that goes into detail regarding some of the obstacles that anti-war activists had to deal with: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/more-swp-rape-accusations-dangerous.html

By Anna Chen, on 05 April 2013 - 18:39 |

As the links above aren’t clicking through, here’s the gist of my experience (there’s lots more as I can’t get it all in here) as the establishing press officer for the STWC immediately after 9/11 and until February 2003, from my article at:
http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/more-swp-rape-accusations-dangerous.html

Mike Marqusee stated at the time that, for the SA, I’d done single-handedly the equivalent of the Countryside Alliance’s 6 full-time paid press officers and their support with “flair and imagination”. Weekly Worker called my unprecedented press successes “uncanny”.

John Rees described my work as being like turning a tanker around mid-ocean and mining for diamonds.

Following the 9/11 attacks, among other things, I broke the back of media resistance with only the help of Marqusee writing most of the press releases (as Andrew Murray knows full well), managed to wrest the anti-war brand from the CND in favour of STWC, and got Richard Sambrook, Head of BBC News, on the back foot concerning severe under-reporting of numbers at a series of our anti-war demonstrations.

Now, you can write as many long screeds as you like but without someone yelling at the media to pay attention, you may as well send it up the chimney. Not that you’d know that from the sources who are claiming press credit in the histories while giving me a Stalinesque airbrushing-out — naughty!

To have done all that work when no-one wanted to know and then watch Certain Parties fall over themselves to lay claim to it once something was up for grabs is not an edifying sight. No sirree, not by a long chalk. As an exercise in capitalist expropriation, this class (and gender and race) act on the part of the comrades is a wonder to behold. 

The personal is political even on Planet SWP

Surely, Anna, I hear you say, it was worth it for the greater good what you done? Well, no, sadly. Head honcho took an axe to the Socialist Alliance to get into bed with the Birmingham mosque and then Respect. Then he did ... er ... more stupid things in Respect and, several years after I’d pointed out some questionable behaviour and been stuffed for it, he and his mates had to leave the SWP to form Crossfire or Counterfire, whatever the splinter’s called. But I get ahead of myself. And the class should never be premature for then down comes the big Monty Python foot.

Even the big anti-Iraq war demo ten years ago in February 2003 wasn’t immune. What a backstabbing palaver that turned out to be. Head honcho’s SWP side running the STWC were alarmed by the magnitude of the anger over the coming war and during a critical period instructed their members in the SWP via Party Notes not to build the demo, leaving it to the Socialist Alliance to mobilise (with the notable help of some/a few/several honourable SWP members in the provinces who effectively blew a big raspberry and carried on regardless).

Then Birmingham, the biggest and strongest STWC branch, was purged. The hippies who put together the amazing Peace Not War CD as a fund-raiser and cultural response to the impending war were screwed over. When a Jewish socialist group requested platform time to speak against the war, they were refused on the grounds that their presence would alienate Muslims. The guy who’d made their case protested and was told that “you people” were “too sensitive.” I was banned from doing the press on the day but went ahead and worked from home, getting Bianca Jagger and Americans Against the War followed on the march by ITN, doing what I’d been doing all along ... Oy veh, it got FUGLY. 

That huge demo was built on the spine of the SA and yet the SA chair was denied a place on the platform while Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was welcomed with open arms ... and then promptly supported “our boys” once action started.  And where’s it all gone, anyway? If the SWP, Counterfire and STWC claim 1 to 2 million were on the march, then they have to give a good account of where they’ve all gone, ‘cause it’s not into the left movement. 

All that energy and good will from the biggest demonstration in modern British history should surely have led to action in the tradition of the Greenham Common cruise missile protests or the Faslane sit-ins. Independently, two train drivers stopped an ammo train and students held a protest, but the STWC’s leading SWP Rees/German axis declared direct action and civil disobedience to be “elitist”. Nothing further bar the usual march came from STW. They just sat on it while many thousands of innocents died, Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed and JP Morgan led the syphoning off of the nation’s assets.

What a waste. What a monumental dereliction of socialist duty. If only they’d put more energy into achieving our goal instead of acquiring personal power, status and all the capitalist baubles we’re supposed to reject, we might not have stopped the war but we’d have made it a harder ride for pro-war forces and come out of this with a strengthened left.

By duen, on 05 April 2013 - 19:38 |

“If it had been up to the traditional peace movement to organise the response, they might have had a candlelit vigil with 200 people.”
How do you know that? There were huge demonstrations in scores of countries organized by ‘the traditional peace movement’. The Feb 15 2003 protest in Britain was part of an unprecedented, world wide mass phenomenon - not spontaneous, but damn near. It was also one off, not just in Britain, but internationally.
One could argue that the marches in England would have been even bigger if there had been no ‘SWP members in a leading role’ who saw the movement as an opportunity for its aging cadre to help school girls explore their sexuality. Laurie Penny has it right,  the SWP “has been at the forefront of every attempt to scupper cohesion on the left over the past decade”. Dominate or destroy -  what vanguardista control freaks do best.

By Ian Sinclair, on 05 April 2013 - 20:26 |

Hi Andrew
Thank you for your comments on my article.
I just want to start by reiterating something I repeat twice in the article - I think the STWC leadership did a brilliant job in growing and leading the largest social movement in recent British history, and played a central role in the many achievements of the anti-Iraq War movement.
As you say my article almost solely looks at criticisms of the STWC and SWP. This is because, as I say in the introduction, I am responding to objections that have been made at a couple of the talks I have done around the country. These objections concern some (I would say fairly mild) criticisms I raise about the STWC and SWP in my talk. I should point out this part of the talk is probably no more than 15 percent of the whole talk, with the rest of my talk largely made up of looking at the achievements of the anti-war movement.
Regarding your thoughts about Mike Marqusee, I think his response above deals with this. I would only add I am aware he has previously responded to these criticisms (in 2003 http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/politics/marqusee.html), so I find it a little odd that you completely ignore his previous response and choose to make the original criticisms again. I also find it amusing that your criticisms of him follow an article in which he is quoted as saying “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.” Finally, I would like to make it clear I considered my interview with Mike Marqusee for the book to be a watershed interview in terms of the quality of his analysis and insight and the breadth of his knowledge. The accuracy and broad thrust of his testimony was backed up by many other interviews I conducted and wider reading I undertook for the book.
I agree with you that the testimony from Carol Naughton – the head of one of the two groups STWC was in a formal coalition with in 2003 - deserves to be taken seriously. I also agree Carol Naughton may well have a different take on the issue today. But the question remains: Considering the serious nature of her criticisms of the SWP leadership, which you agree are serious, why then was it completely absent from your co-authored history of the STWC or Chris Nineham’s new book? Were you aware of her concerns in 2003 or before you wrote your book?
Regarding the STWC relationship with direct action and civil disobedience, I think I give space to a fairly wide spectrum of opinion from the anti-war movement in the book. I’m not sure it is useful to go in to it in detail here. I’m sure people can make their minds up after reading the book or from their own personal experience from the time.
I don’t really see how me stating that you, Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin are close allies of Lindsey German, John Rees and Chris Nineham is sinister. To recap I write: “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.” My understanding is Andrew Burgin and yourself became involved after 9/11, as you note.
Thanks again for your comments.
Ian Sinclair

By Ian Sinclair, on 05 April 2013 - 20:31 |

Hi Anna. Thanks for posting these links. I am aware of your testimony, as you say. However, I wanted to use evidence from my book - because I know it is accurate and therefore I can personally vouch for it. Hopefully people will read your firsthand testimony too. Thanks

Ian Sinclair

By Ian Sinclair, on 06 April 2013 - 09:20 |

Hi Duen.

I thought I’d made it clear in the article but Gabriel Carlyle’s quip about what the traditional peace movement would have done was not entirely serious. Actually something else he said is also relevant here. When I asked him aboutt he role of the SWP he answered “I think for all of us, the primary focus of our criticism should be our own activity.”

Thanks.

Ian

By Anna Chen, on 06 April 2013 - 11:11 |

Ian, I appreciate that you have to do some nifty arse-covering to do — I believe the phenomenon is referred to as “mansplaining” — but had you done your research, you would know the accuracy of my testimony and would want to correct your omissions. A serious conscientous historian would surely want to present the most complete and three-dimensional account possible. 

By Charles Shaar Murray, on 06 April 2013 - 11:12 |

Ian, having seen the STWC press-officer work Anna Chen did on a day-to-day basis from the start, and observed the effect it had as the media slowly responded and swung around from a position of hostility; witnessed how pleased many of your interviewees were with the results — notably John Rees and especially Mike Marqusee, who got the starring roles in all the press releases she sent out — I’m shocked with the way she has been Stalinised out of existence in your accounts.
I’m even more shocked by your brush-off. If you were any kind of historian (as opposed to a mere propagandist), you’d've wanted to include the ‘testimony’ of a major player who’d been airbrushed out, despite — or even BECAUSE OF — the eagerness of so many other players to eradicate her contributions from the record. 
As it is, your response serves as yet more validation of what she has to say. Ain’t it funny how these things work out?

By Ian Sinclair, on 06 April 2013 - 11:55 |

Hi Anna and Charles Shaar Murray.

Thanks for your further comments. Sorry - I did not mean my reply to be a “brush-off”. Just to be clear I was not aware of Anna’s contribution or testimony until after my book was published. No one I spoke to - over 70 face-to-face interviews and 50 written interviews - mentioned her. I do not recall seeing her name mentioned in any of the written documents or articles I read in my research. Of course a historian and/or journalist should be aware of as many facts and views as possible. Unfortunately in this case I was not. However, as I say above I hope people will read Anna’s firsthand testimony to gain a broad understanding of the time.

Anna - to be clear I am not suggesting what you are saying is not true just that the article was consciously an attempt to summarise the evidence I present in my book.

Thanks.

Ian Sinclair

By Andy Newma, on 06 April 2013 - 17:55 |

IIan you say

“However, I wanted to use evidence from my book - because I know it is accurate and therefore I can personally vouch for it”


That seems a bold statement, given that this is oral testimony from individuals who base their own perception upon their ideology, and experience.
From my experience, as both someone who was for a while on the STW national steering committee, and as the organiser of marches at RAF Fairford and RAF Brize Norton, that many of the people in the STW inner circle , even where they disagree, or have fallen out, share an exaggerated belief in the agency of centralised leadership.  And you should also be aware that the whispering campaigns to delegitimise and sideline people are quite effective; and even when people later themselves fal out i of the charmed circle, they often fail to reevaluate what they were told while they were still part of it

By stating the obvious, on 07 April 2013 - 02:01 |

Part of the criticism of  the SWP in the rape crisis is that they operate like a cult.  The intolerance of dissent, and lack of openness to other views, obviously puts people off.  Obviously alienates people.  It can’t  be denied.

By Ian Sinclair, on 07 April 2013 - 12:32 |

Hi Andy.
Sorry, I haven’t been clear. What I mean when I say “I know it is accurate and therefore I can personally vouch for it” is that I know the testimony reflects that person’s view (at the time of the interview at least) and is not taken out of context of the general interview. Sayingt that I am also fairly confident that the arguments I make in the piece above are accurate - in the sense numerous people I spoke to made them. And various secondary sources back them up.

I agree personal testimony is full of bias - both intential and unintentional - so should be treated with scepticism. I discuss the pros and cons of oral history in the introduction to my book.

Thanks for your comments.

Ian

By Charles Pottins, on 04 May 2013 - 22:10 |

Just a few points.

It was when STWC was under fire from some dubious critics for holding its main rally on what happened to be the Jewish New Year that some members proposed having a specifically Jewish speaker on the platform. I don’t know whether any Muslim groups objected, but I was told that Muslims in STWC thought it was a good idea. Lindsey German apparently did not, or said no Jewish organisation was available. When people suggested the Jewish Socialist’s Group(JSG), which was affililiaited to the Coalition and taking part in its marches, she objected that it was not “representative”  enough. (Who was she expecting on Rosh Hashana, the Chief Rabbi?)
The JSG took part in the demonstration, and a synagogue group called Beit Klal Yisroel arranged traditional apples in honey in Trafalgar Square, earning tribute from George Galloway who at least had more nous than the woodentops of the SWP/STWC. But no speaker. Mind you, considering the way the Socialist Alliance was relegated to oblivion, perhaps it was the “Socialist” part of the JSG’s name that was considered embarassing!

Worse was the treatment of a group of Iranian left-wing refugees and asylum seekers who set off from Birmingham, on foot, to join a STWC demonstration in London. Helped and accomodated by supporters in Oxford en route, they called the STWC office to ask if they could say a few words from the platform about why they were there. They were asked about their attitude to the Islamicist regim, from which they had fled, then told they could not speak. I expect someone in STWC thought we were all too thick to understand that someone might be against the regime but equally opposed to war on Iran.
Had those comrades been allowed a few minutes on the platform I am sure it would have raised both the spirit and awareness of the crowd. Instead, we only got to hear about this if at all after the event. I think this was a shameful episode, and maybe those who were in the STWC leadership agree, as unlike other aspects no one has claimed responsibility for it. If it was just a mistake, it was one the leadership might have rectified with an apology and invitation, instead it was compounded by the continued irrational exclusion of Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI).

I don’t know about other branches of STWC. but the Brent and Harrow STWC remains active, and SWP members among others give it loyal support and work without trying to dominate or exclude anyone else. Both Andrew Murray and Kate Hudson have come to Brent. The Brent and Harrow STWC has good relations with Brent Trades Union Council, and some years ago it submiited a successful resolution to the STWC conference calling for a conference of trade union supporters to strengthen this work. But that conference has never been held. I don’t want to blame the Stop the War Coalition or SWP for the way trade union leaders behaved, but if you are discussing the reluctance of the Coalition to endorse direct action then the failure to get any industrial action is another aspect.

It was, incidentally, Mike Marqusee who with Ewa Jasiewicz and Iraq Occupation Focus, brought Iraqi oil workers’ leader Hassan Juma’a here to meet British trade unionists and anti-war activists, and also made links with US Labor Against the War,  Whatever his disinterest like mine in Bob Dylan, I am sure that Andrew Murray, as a leading officer of my union, Unite, will acknowledge the importance in this respect of Mike Marqusee’s work

By bill jefferies, on 05 May 2013 - 07:46 |

This thread is very revealing. I was in Manchester at the time, and we always thought that the London end were a bunch of squabbling ego-manics. Plus ca change.

By heiko, on 13 May 2013 - 07:06 |

The first problem I guess is the tendency for ‘leading revolutionary comrades’, or ones who think they are, to assume that as they are ‘leading revolutionary comrades’, that their leadership abilities make them indispensable leaders of the STWC or COR. In any case the surest way to identify the ‘leading revolutionary comrades’ is to look at who sits on the platform and makes set piece speeches. Then, these ‘leading revolutionary comrades’ alienate other people (who are obviously not ‘leading revolutionary comrades’ because they don’t sit on the platform) In my particular case twice being thrown out of meetings for calling for votes on resolutions (god forbid calling for a vote!). But of course the leading revolutionary comrades are naturally endowed with an ability to see far better than those who don’t sit on the platform what the ‘movement’ that they ‘kept alive’ needs to do. (They reply (see Andrew Murray above) “And where were you at the last STWC steering committee meeting comrade? I reply “if I’d have known it was going to be the LAST meeting I definitely would have come!”) And nothing should stand in their way so they resort to undemocratic manipulation and stalinist methods, which, in turn, reinforces their own sense of power. The stop the war demo on 15 Feb 2003 was crap. There I said it, it was crap, crap, crap! There is an old english nursery rhyme, about the Duke of York, it is no different to the STWC. To blabber on about a march that jolted Blair is also crap. One march all those staged meetings and all those speeches ago. 

By Hassan Ebtekar, on 27 June 2013 - 21:08 |

The core of this articles argument is that the StWC and the SWP did a very good job in mobilizing thousands against the war, but that “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.”
Well, this “possibility” is not substantiated, and moreover other reasons for why this didn’t happen are not discussed. The most important reason was that the opposition within Labour was too weak, and MPs did depart in protest.
If indeed the potential for direct action was as big as the author suggests, and hundreds of activists were ready to engage in direct action, surely it would have developed independently of StWC and the SWP. I don’t think it is fair to blame the failure to stop the war on the SWP. 

By David Ellis, on 28 June 2013 - 13:40 |

The SWP and their CPGB allies came to dominate the anti-war movement through splits, exclusions, lies and expulsions until they had eventually turned a movement of 3 million people into 200 nutters demonstrating for the right of Gadaffi to blow up Benghazi.  They were never instrumental in getting the movement off the ground which as I recall seemed to spring up spontaneously out of the ground.

By David Ellis, on 28 June 2013 - 14:26 |

That should be CPB in my comment.  Anna Chen’s brilliant comment should be pinned to the doors of every People’s Assembly meeting.  If anybody can screw the anti-austerity movement it is the sect boss to end all sect bosses.

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