How Stop the War learned to stop worrying and love Labour

  1. Who are Stop the War?

Stop the War (StW) are a campaign group that, in recent years, has campaigned against some military action (not backed by Russia) and supported other military action (that backed by Russia). Occasionally they branch out, and things go really wrong.

2. Seems unlikely.

Doesn’t it?

Fine, let’s start with a little history. Stop the War are a campaign group started after 9/11 in order to campaign against military action in Afghanistan.

The first meeting of StW was held on September 2001, and attracted over 2,000 people. The meeting was chaired by Lindsey German — still the National Convenor of Stop the War — and then active in the Socialist Worker Party (see below). Coverage of the meeting was carried in the Socialist Worker, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Worker Party.

Speakers at the first meeting included Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North. Corbyn was elected as the chair of Stop the War in 2011 and remained in role until September 2015 when he stepped down in the wake of his election as leader of the Labour Party. In speeches and at public rallies made over the past four years, Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly referred to himself as ‘one of the founders, as well as the current chair, of the Stop the War Coalition.’

At that first meeting, Stop the War looked for, and found the reasons for the 9/11 attacks in the broader economic context. From Jeremy Corbyn’s speech:

‘The Vietnam War ended after the death of millions of Vietnamese people because of the resistance of the Vietnamese and the revolt against the war across the US and Europe. I’m so pleased that thousands of people across this country and around the world are opposed to this war. The meeting is a call for action-no blank cheque for Bush, no to bombing, no to revenge. We have to look to the causes of this act. A quarter of the world’s population is in poverty. Global corporations dominating the world is not the solution. The world could be run differently. It could be a fairer place. It is up to us to remember those who have marched and met for peace. Stop us descending into Armageddon, because that is what is on offer if George Bush is allowed to get his way.’

3. That tricky first meeting.

StW’s first meeting took place as strikes seemed likely — the mutual defence clause of Nato had been invoked — but before the beginning of air strikes on October 7th. The official aims of Stop the War were agreed in this context. They are as follows:

‘The aim of the Coalition should be very simple: to stop the war currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism.’ We condemn the attacks on New York and we feel the greatest compassion for those who lost their life on 11th September 2001. But any war will simply add to the to the numbers of innocent dead, cause untold suffering, political and economic instability on a global scale, increase racism and result in attacks on civil liberties. The aims of the campaign would be best expressed in the name Stop the War Coalition.

You might agree with every word. But at the time there wasn’t a war. There was 9/11, the possibility of further attack, and the framework of international law, which is based on the principle of mutual defence.

At least, it’s fair to point out that the foundations of Stop The War were laid down by organisations that were ideologically pacifist and ‘anti-imperialist,’ and not, as is often believed, as the response to military action in Iraq, or in Afghanistan after the attacks on the Twin Towers.

4. ‘Anti-Imperialist.’ Lol.

Easy tiger, that’s the key ideological underpinning of the hard left you’re talking about there. Ideologically. for the hard left anti-imperialism is where it’s at. Mainly because it sounds a bit modern (foreign places) whilst actually being a deeply embedded bit of Marxist theory. Who amongst us doesn’t own a well-thumbed copy of Lenin’s ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism?’

In modern Marxist theory, anti-Imperialism is about national sovereignty. It’s hands-off theory, and in the darker corners of the internet, often comes with a side order of ‘Anti-Zionism.’ It’s also very Che. The following quote- from his ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ of 1967, sums it up . (Remember that word ‘Tricontinental. It’ll come in handy).

‘We must bear in mind that imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism — and it must be defeated in a world confrontation. The strategic end of this struggle should be the destruction of imperialism. Our share, the responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world, is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capitals, raw materials, technicians, and cheap labour, and to which they export new capitals — instruments of domination — arms and all kinds of articles; thus submerging us in an absolute dependence.’

Ever wonder why acts of foreign horror— terrorism for example, are explained as the fault of those who sell weapons to people who can’t help but to use them?

It’s because under really hardcore Marxist theory, if you live in any Western country, it’s your fault.

5. TLDR. And what does this have to do with STW anyway?

Anti-imperialism is the intellectual underpinning that brought the officers of Stop the War together and connects them today. Stop The War was hard left in 2001, and it is hard left today.

In the meantime, a lot of very lovely not-at-all hard left people have worked with, and supported StW — particularly over their opposition to the Iraq war. But the underlying organising capability?

Hard left.

6. Prove it.

Ok, let’s have a look at people who brought StW together.

The steering committee agreed at that first meeting included representatives of the SWP, the Communist Party of Britain, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee). They didn’t all make the committee, but they were there.

Let’s start with the big one: the SWP.

For a long time, the contention that StW should be regarded primarily as an SWP front was accepted without comment. Former SWP activist Mark Thomas was one of those to recognise it, casting the SWP’s involvement, and the organisation of StW’s famous marches in the light of political activity, designed to soften the SWP’s appeal to potential supporters.

If you want to know about that, then I recommend an article called ‘Mark Thomas has had enough of the SWP.’

It was not surprising that the party dominated the Stop the War Coalition; its leaders are old hands at controlling “popular fronts.”

Thomas thought the relationship between StW and the SWP dangerous, warning that the SWP’s priority when organising peace marches was ‘recruitment.’ He closed with the conclusion that, ‘the peace movement could do a lot worse than start to organise a coalition free from SWP domination.’

And in a way, it got one. The two key SWP members of StW, founders Lindsey German and her partner John Rees, left the SWP in 2010 — so that’s only the nine years of organisational cross-over. It’s a long story. The summary version is that after 37 years of membership, the SWP had got mixed up with Respect, the political party spun out of Stop the War and notably mainly for George Galloway. German’s popularity and that of Rees and their ally Chris Nineham, suffered. It showed at the 2009 conference, when German and co missed their pick of the SWP positions. They quit, but stayed at Stop the War.

Nineham was also present at that first ever meeting of Stop the War by the way. Like Linsey German and John Rees, he remains an official.

7. What happened to the SWP after that?

After years of hanging around the edges of Labour like that weird friend of your cousin, the SWP imploded in 2013 in a shower of rape-apology, and distorted thinking.

The short version is this. In 2013 something called the ‘Disputes Committee’ convened at the SWP conference and heard a complaint of rape and sexual assault made by a young female activist against a senior colleague, ‘Comrade Delta.’ The complainant was asked a number of intrusive and very unpleasant questions, and the complaint — like others made against Comrade Delta before it — dismissed. The transcript of the meeting was leaked, and the SWP fell apart. Many ex-members, including the writer China Mieville, went to Left Unity and a softer, more hipsterish form of hard-left socialism.

Interestingly, this isn’t just being misogyny, or a terrible example of what happens when groups get smaller and more concentrated, and turning in on themselves, lose a sense of connection to the world. No, this is an actual hard left thing.

It is called ‘Democratic Centralism’ and Wikipedia says it is Leninist.

No, me neither.

Anyway, democratic centralism is the idea that members of a political party can talk about and debate the direction and policy of a party all they like, but that once the direction has been made by majority vote, all members are expected to uphold that decision.

The police are irrelevant you see, because the SWP had debated, and they had decided that Comrade Delta had no case to answer. At that point it became the duty of everyone else — including the alleged victim — to fall into line.

And if you are thinking, ‘but surely that leads to ever smaller groups of people being recognised as having a voice,’ then, yes. That is exactly what has happened in 100% of countries that have adopted DC as a principle, and yes, it leads toward tyranny.

And if you are thinking, ‘Oh no, ew, gross. Do not EVER let these people near the Labour Party; also very much yes.

8. And the other groups represented on the StW Committee?

Let’s turn to the Communists. Also present at that first meeting: the Communist Party of Britain and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee). The CPGB failed to make the cut for the committee.

9. That’s two Communist parties

A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of highly individualistic Communism.

10. Lol. Splitter.

If only it were funny. Actually, the CPB isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds. Senior Unite official (and former Stop the War chairman) Andrew Murray is a current member. A former member is Kate Hudson, the chair of CND from 2004–2010 and a Stop The War officer since 2002. Hudson left in 2011 to join the Galloway’s Respect Party, and then subsequently left Respect to join Left Unity.

Common positions include a love of former MP and professional misogynist George Galloway — Murray once argued strongly to throw in with the SWP and Galloway — and of the Soviet Union, a victim of what the CPB call ‘the world-wide campaign of lies and distortions.’

The Communist Party of Britain are otherwise notable mainly for being so solidly anti-imperialist that they split from the broader Communist movement in Britain over Europe. Whilst maintaining solidarity with Venezuala, Cuba, China, Vietnam and other countries dear to the anti-imperialists’ heart, CPB helped to found No2EU, a campaign against the European Union. To this day, they consider the EU neo-liberal and anti-democratic.

A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of UKIP-approved Communism.

11. All good in the GDR. And the Communist Party of Great Britain?

The Communist Party of Great Britain prefer to spend their time trolling Islamic State-loving Socialism hipsters Left Unity for endorsing ‘Keynesian platitudes’ and for their endorsement of JeremyCorbyn4leader. On the Stalinist side of the Trotskyist/Stalinist split, the CPGB have in recent years become mainly known for smart thinking like abolishing age of consent laws.

10. Ok, no jokes about the Communist Party of Great Britain. What about the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty?

Quite sweet really. Like the worried little sister of the international Marxist movement, Trotskyist tendency.

Yes, the world of the hard-left is a place where words like Trotskyist still get used. Like the 1970s, but with extra resentment.

AWL are notable mainly for four things:

  • Having not quite been important enough to get onto the founding committee of Stop The War (see above)
  • Having been part of founding something called the Labour Representation Committee in 2004. The LRC are a ‘socialist pressure group’ within Labour and they are important. For now, it’s enough to know that the LRC is chaired by one John McDonnell MP, and that they allow MPs to affiliate. They have four. In addition to John McDonnell, affiliated MPs are Kelvin Hopkins MP, Dennis Skinner MP, and Jeremy Corbyn MP
  • Supporting a two state solution in Israel and Palestine, and therefore being rejected by the rest of the hard left. Wherever there is ‘anti-imperialism’ as the dominating theoretical framework, there is anti-Zionism. Often, undeniably, anti-Semitism comes along as a sort of free toy at the bottom of the anti-imperialist’s breakfast cereal. More of that later. For now, it’s enough to know that supporting a two-state solution has stopped AWL ever really playing in the big leagues of modern British socialism
  • Having tried to join the Labour Party. AWL supported the leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, and AWL members tried to join Labour as ‘£3 supporters,’ the new structure designed to open access to the leadership election. Under Labour’s rules, people who support other parties aren’t allowed to be members. AWL, however small and cute, still counted, and members were barred from membership. Hilariously, they reacted by having a ring around and deregistering as a political party two days after Jeremy Corbyn’s election. It was too late. Unite Political Director and Labour National Executive Committee member Jennie Formby is reported to have gone on to challenge the NEC over the membership of four AWL campaigners, including one Liam McNulty, now active in hard left new kid on the block Momentum (remember that name, it’s important). Unite say it wasn’t so, and that Formby was simply trying to clarify Labour’s membership rules. Either way, the four AWL members remain outside Labour. Bad luck AWL!

12. So Much Socialism. Wow.

Who dreamed the hard left had anything like this kind of presence in modern Britain?

13. Let’s put some numbers on it. How many people are we talking about?

A medium-sized village full. According to the expert I texted, (Phil BC)the size of the organised Trotskyist movement in Britain plus the various remnants and ragbags of UK communism amount to about 4–5,000 people. Individuals ‘who self-identify as such’ are more — ‘anywhere between 15,000 to 50,000.’ I’ve been told to add that that only applies to ‘indigenous’ left groups. Your Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian Communists in exile tend to be something different, and Turkish, Kurdish or Iranian rather than left first.

Bottom line: ‘the organised hard left in Labour… was probably a thousand, but union influence meant they punched well above their weight.’ That figure, with the eroding of the boundaries between Labour and the hard left, is now probably closer to 3,000.

For now, it’s that ‘organised’ bit that’s critical here. Because for fifteen years, the centre of Stop The War has been a hub around which the hard left in Britain has congregated. The hub.

14. But Stop the War are the march against Iraq people! My mum went on the marches!

So did I. So did everyone I know and half of the younger members of the Parliamentary Labour Party besides.

Yes, StW had a heyday, and it came not with the Afghanistan campaign, but with the demonstrations organised in the run-up to military action in Iraq, and the deposition of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. And yes, the organising work that StW did then was important.

The largest of these demonstrations may well have been the largest in our history, with between 750,000 and 1m people present. This, and a successive national and many regional marches were organised by StW in partnership with CND and the Muslim Council of Britain. Speakers included then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, then Labour (now Respect) politician George Galloway, ‘top intellectual’ Tariq Ali, and former MP Tony Benn.

The marches organised by Stop The War were a formidably expression of public feeling, and a remarkable organisational feat, and they deserve credit for that. So do the thousands upon hundreds of thousands of people who helped, marched or just cared enough to go. When it mattered, the marchers stood up and were counted. It was a remarkable moment in the UK’s political history.

It was after 2004 that StW became not an organisation working for a cause,but a hard-left organisation in search of one.

15. Rebels with a primarily historical cause!

Perhaps the way to see it is this. Iraq was StW’s great moment — the moment when their underpinning anti-imperialist ideology and history came together, and they connected with a remarkable outpouring of public feeling. For five years, the after pull of the wave — the concern and debate over Iraq’s desperately sad and violent fragmentation into a state of war, and the growth of terrorism in the void of both Iraq and its neighbours sustained StW.

But then, it didn’t.

From 2005 to 2010 Stop The War membership and the level of their ambition shrank together. StW became a generalised protest movement, and with the heat of the first action in Iraq turning to the slow grind of transitional government, lost their audience. The year ended in terror in Iraq, with the growth in sectarian attacks and civil war, but it started in optimism and the news that the US troops who had had tours of duty extended would soon be sent home.

In March StW organised another march to demand that troops be sent home, and for the first time, they broadened their platform to include internal UK politics. Demands included an end to erosion of civil liberties, and less racism in the UK. The police estimated the number of marchers at 45,000.

Also in 2005, Stop The War tried to join the Make Poverty History coalition. They were prevented, on the grounds that to confuse campaigns for war and economic justice would be to weaken them. In 2006 Stop The War organised a protest outside the Labour Party conference. 20,000 people attended.

In 2007 StW organised a joint demonstration with CND, the theme of which was ‘No to Trident’ (the UK’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent) and Troops Out of Iraq. No reliable figures on attendance are available online. Best guess? 2,000–3,000 people.

16. Anti-war movement tails off without war. Huge if true.

Oh no, because without actual military intervention to campaign on, StW fell back to consider the war that terrorists fear most of all: the battle of ideas.

17. The battle of ideas? Have a word.

Just nicking language from the Green Party. In 2015 and in the wake of the appalling attacks on civilians in Paris, the Green Party released an actual statement saying that the way to tackle genocidal Islamofascist terrorists Islamic State was by ‘using the weapon these terrorists fear most of all: peace talks.’

18. Sounds legit

Actually Green Party MP and former leader Caroline Lucas is one of the committee of patrons listed by StW on their website, and is listed by the Green Party as a former ‘Vice President’ of the organisation. In a page which appears to have been last updated in 2014, Lucas is listed as Vice-President alongside George Galloway, Tariq Ali, Kamal Majid and others. Compared to the rest of that list, Lucas is the respectable face of Stop the War. She should be challenged on her backing.

19. Get back to the victim-blaming.

Ok, while the Greens try to negotiate, the hard left socialists of StW have a different framework to explain terror and sectarian violence, and one taken straight from the Girl Scouts Compendium of Marxist Anti-Imperialist Theory. As Iraq descended into violence, and terrorism exported, they looked for and found the rationale in the countries who had gone to war.

20. I’m interested.

Victim blaming has become the sort of ne plus ultra of Stop The War. They are good at it and they put the hours in. Let’s go back to 2005, and the response to the dreadful 7/7 bombings in London, in which a co-ordinated wave of suicide bombings in London killed 52 people, and injured more than 700 more.

At a meeting held ten days after 7/7 SWP National Convenor Lindsey German spoke against the bombings, adding that ‘the only way to end the bombings is to withdraw from Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. When we have justice around the world we will have peace as well.’

Just like that, the new purpose and rationale of Stop The War was established. Anti-imperialist, ‘anti-Zionist,’ and isolationist.

We can go into detail another day, but it’s this framework that dictated StW’s response to Libya, Ukraine, Syria… and Paris.

13. So summarise. What’s good about Stop the War?

The name.

14. What’s wrong about Stop the War?

Everything else.