The massive anti-war rally in London on February 15 reflected the deep-rooted bitterness of various sections of British society against Prime Minister Blair's New Labour and its neo-liberal policies.in London
AFTER February 15, nothing will ever be quite the same. Up to two million people marched in London against war on Iraq, a number without precedent in British history; the Chartists, the Reform League, the Poll Tax rioters and, more recently, even the recidivist fox-hunters of the Countryside Alliance nothing else came close. Only the celebrations at the end of the Second World War brought such numbers onto the streets.
The sheer scale of the march has left Britain's political class in complete disarray: Prime Minister Tony Blair himself, clearly unable to convince the British public of the case for war, left pathetically trying to claim the moral high ground the protesters would have "blood on their hands"; the Cabinet, corralled to stand by their man and against their electorate; the self-important British media, most of whose outlets have backed a war, attempting to belittle a march they failed to foresee a "fun day out" according to The Sun, as belligerently pro-war as the rest of the Murdoch press.
Tony Blair's poll rating has crashed through the floor to -20 points, whilst a clear majority are now opposed to war on Iraq, with or without extra United Nations resolutions. As we left Hyde Park after the rally, past those huddled against the bitter cold around blazing bonfires, a strange calm had settled on London; not the streets being cleared of traffic, but the thousands of demonstrators seemingly overawed by their achievement.
The call for a worldwide day of action against the war was made at the close of the European Social Forum (ESF), held in Florence, Italy, at the end of November 2002. Like the World and the Asian Social Forums, the ESF was a vast gathering of the tribes of the social justice movement for days of discussions and debates, and a collective attempt to provide meaningful alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism. The ESF call was taken up by anti-war campaigns across Europe, and then worldwide: on February 15, between 500,000 and one million demonstrated in Berlin's biggest protest since the Wall came down; 60,000 in Budapest; 100,000 in Brussels; 100,000 in Amsterdam; and 300,000 in Athens. But it was in the countries whose governments back U.S. President George Bush that the largest demonstrations took place: 4.5 million protested throughout Spain; over three million in Rome; and, of course, the London demonstration. Italian, Spanish and British administrations have gone out of their way to support Bush's war on Iraq and are equally strident in their attempts to drive through a neo-liberal policy agenda of privatisation and deregulation.
The war and the free-market have become inextricably linked in the minds of many thousands; many home-made placards in the London demonstration made the link quite explicit: "Beds not Bombs" read one, "Welfare not Warfare" read another. Speaker after speaker denounced a "war for oil". Perhaps, Blair was surprised by this: it used to be held by many that Blair was the ultimate pragmatist, constantly responding to the whims of the electorate. No one, after February 15, can seriously believe this now. It is increasingly clear that his commitment to a neo-liberal agenda and the U.S. as the dominant force within a neo-liberal world is motivated by deep-rooted conviction. They are convictions that place him utterly at odds with the majority.
What February 15 drew on, perhaps more than anything else, was the deep well of accumulated bitterness against Blair's New Labour. The hike in university tuition fees, hospital sell-offs, the chaos of the privatised railways, the appalling pay of public sector workers - step by step, Blair has eroded the immense hopes that his election victory in 1997 raised. The expectation was that, after 18 years of successive Conservative governments, there would now be a party in power that would stand by Blair's stated commitment to create a "Britain for the many, not the few". Eighteen years of collapsing public services and the increasing arrogance of a privileged minority pushed significant sections of the electorate to the Left, with Blair and New Labour as the principal beneficiaries. Certainly, the Blair government has been keen to present itself as promoting social justice, through such measures as the creation of the Social Exclusion Unit, the adoption of a national minimum wage, and the much-heralded New Deal for jobs, whilst the "Third Way" promoted by some close to New Labour was intended to marry high social ideals with the "dynamism" of the free market.
The gloss, however, has failed to cover an increasingly grim reality: social exclusion worse than ever, with over 30 per cent of children living below the poverty line; a minimum wage so low as to be worthless; the New Deal working as a subsidy for employers paying poverty wages. Privatisation has continued, reaching into areas the Conservatives were unable to touch, like the London Underground and the National Health Service. Whatever goodwill Blair enjoyed has been wholly squandered.
But these many resentments have not, until now, translated into a coherent alternative: the Conservatives, the major parliamentary Opposition party, remain discredited, divided amongst themselves, and in any case unable ideologically to capitalise on a marked shift to the Left. They are playing what they hope to be their trump card, alongside an increasingly hysterical tabloid press: constant racist slurs against asylum seekers. The government, curiously spineless, has failed to stand up to such attacks, and has, indeed, encouraged them through ever wilder promises of increasingly tough measures to defeat the "refugee problem". Blair's latest suggestion on the issue was to hint that Britain may consider withdrawing from the Geneva Convention to remove it from an obligation to provide shelter to those fleeing poverty and war.
The principal beneficiaries of this process have been the squalid fascists of the British National Party (BNP), now holding four council seats in the north of England. They have been more than willing to extend the racist abuse hurled at asylum seekers to Muslims in particular, with the convenient cover of the "war on terror". Just prior to the march, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan - another victim of the wars of Bush and Blair - was beaten to death in Southampton. The bitterness in British society runs deep, and not always to the Left.
THOSE millions in London displayed, however, the increasing confidence and coherency of progressive forces in Britain. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, a minor parliamentary party currently opposed to war, spoke at the rally after the march. His lukewarm words against a war not sanctioned by the U.N. met with an equally lukewarm response from the crowd. Against that, Tariq Ali, a veteran peace campaigner, called for the overthrow of the Blair government; Billy Hayes, leader of the huge postal workers' union, demanded strikes in the event of war breaking out; Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition, called for mass civil disobedience if Iraq is attacked - all three were cheered to the skies. This was no "little England" demonstration either. The demonstrators were a snapshot of an increasingly multicultural country, and a sign of the determination of those present to defend the minorities in Britain from attack - angry young Muslims from Birmingham marched alongside terribly respectable pillars of Home Counties communities. The second slogan of the march was "Freedom for Palestine"; the Palestinian flags and the kaffiyeh on display, in their thousands, were indicative of how seriously this anti-war movement takes its internationalism and its commitment to justice.
Little by little, the Left in Britain has been rebuilding itself: premonitions of the February 15 demonstration were available to those less far removed from ordinary Britons than the New Labour government. One hundred thousand demonstrated for Palestine at the time of the Jenin massacre; over a million low-paid council workers struck work during the summer, with immense popular support; and, most significantly, the national firefighters' strike seriously rattled the government whilst, once again, enjoying huge support from the general public. Smaller, local protests against hospital closures or council house sell-offs have grown from and fed into the anger that February 15 displayed in such abundance.
The Labour Party itself, alongside the Labour government, is in deep crisis. The party has been haemorrhaging members since Blair's 1997 victory; polls of party members suggest that they are wholly opposed to a war on Iraq, and significantly opposed to much of the government's programme. Patrick Seyd, an academic from Sheffield University who has specialised in studying the Labour Party, suggests that around 40,000 members will leave the party immediately if war is declared on Iraq. Such has been the Labour Party's dominance of the Left that no alternative home exists for the majority of those leaving its constricted space. The ideological gap between the far-Left in Britain who played a significant role in establishing the Stop the War Coalition after 9/11, and building for the demonstration and those seeking a Left-of-Labour alternative (what Andy Gilchrist, leader of the firefighters' union, called "Real Labour") remains large. Such protests and demonstrations that have occurred including the latest one have taken place outside the confines of traditional party lines. Even where parties have engaged with this process, a pattern mirrored by the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements globally, broad coalitions from many different sources built the protests in Seattle and Genoa, and the Social Forums.
What exists in Britain, for the first time in 80 years, is the opportunity to establish a credible Left opposition to a Labour Party many now think is beyond redemption. George Galloway, Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow Kelvin and a redoubtable opponent of U.S. and British aggression, all but said as much in his speech in Hyde Park, to immense cheers. For Left Labour MPs to be speculating about leaving the Labour Party, "building out of the ashes" as Galloway put it, backed by thousands of Labour Party members and ex-members, and the thousands more opposed to war on Iraq and New Labour's neo-liberal project this, too, is without precedent.
Tony Blair must be a worried man. He is considered to be finished by his own parliamentary colleagues, for all their timidity. One Labour MP told British newspapers recently that this was the "firm view right across the Labour Party". Blair is in the unenviable position of being unable to retreat on the war this would be political suicide; but equally unable to weaken opposition to his war. He can only push onwards, and hope for a swift and decisive victory in Baghdad that would demolish the anti-war movement a victory, senior military figures think, that is unlikely. The anti-war protestors are now more confident than ever that this war can be stopped, with only a much-weakened Blair standing in their way. As Tariq Ali said, without Britain, Bush would suddenly find much increased opposition at home and a complete discrediting of his foreign policy abroad.
It would be brave indeed to try and fight such a war in such conditions. It remains to be seen how far the radicalisation of British politics will spread. Britain on February 16 was not the same country as on February 14.
James Meadway is a graduate student at the London School of Economics and a member of the Socialist Workers Party.