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What now for Stop the War?

On a busy Saturday afternoon in September in the small town of Carmarthen, West Wales, Dyfed Powys police were alerted to a suspicious looking package in a shop doorway. They quickly called in the bomb squad, who evacuated a part of the town centre for four hours to carry out a controlled explosion.

November 1, 2003
7 min read

But this wasn’t your usual act of terrorism. A local peace and justice group was holding a mock arms exhibition just as Europe’s largest arms fair, the DSEi, was taking place at the same time in London. The suspect package was a dummy “cluster bomb” – a tin of baked beans wrapped in cardboard.

Welcome to the new face of the anti-war movement. Far from disappearing, it has taken root in the most unlikely places. And with the latest national demo drawing tens of thousands compared with the million who marched on 15 February, the local groups have become the movement’s heart and soul.

The continuing bloody occupation of Iraq, the disintegrating road map in Israel and Palestine, the threat of future wars, the lack of WMD and the public’s distrust of the government following the Hutton Inquiry all provide impetus to the local anti-war groups. Dorset Stop the War Coalition (STWC) organiser Lucy Carolan says that while some groups affiliated to the coalition packed up at the beginning of the summer “new ones are starting up as we speak”.

“Now,” says Carolan, “it’s about ending the occupation and addressing issues at home.” During the Labour Party conference Dorset anti-war activists gathered outside the Bournemouth convention centre to heckle unsympathetic delegates. Just before Blair’s big speech, they toppled a Saddam-style statue of the prime minister and performed a funeral march in the street.

Individuals who have met through Dorset STWC have gone on to campaign together against the BNP. Some stood as anti-war candidates against the fascist party in May’s local elections.

What’s happening in Dorset is a telling example of the continuing creativity of the anti-war movement on the ground. The challenges then become: how does the national movement harness this energy, what should its strategy be to prevent future wars and how can it campaign against the ongoing occupation?

From its outset, the STWC has played a major role in galvanising a diverse group of people – many who otherwise would not have been engaged with activism at all – and has brought them together as a united opposition. Along with CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, the STWC organised the largest demonstrations in British history and has made it almost impossible for the UK to remain committed to Bush’s war on terror.

Just Peace, a group that promotes Muslim participation in the social justice movement, was formed immediately following 11 September and became part of the STWC steering committee. Just Peace chair Shahed Saleem says the group benefited from the coalition’s experience and its quick formation: “The achievement of the STWC is that it enabled a stratum of people not previously politicised to channel their new radicalisms. For such groups, like ours, a stable STWC leadership with a clear focus, with resources and with experience in political organisation was essential. If a lack of democracy in the first 18 months was the price of this stability, then I think it was necessary.”

But Saleem says we”re in a different phase now. “It may now be the time to start unpacking the STWC, perhaps because its very success threatens it with institutionalisation and ineffectiveness. If for the anti-war movement to remain meaningful means that it has to be opened up and handed over to a more diverse array of groups, then that should be allowed to happen.”

Saleem has hit on a major dilemma: although the anti-war movement has moved on, the STWC’s national structures and strategies haven”t always kept up. The coalition was successful at mobilising, but what happens now?

There is a debate underway which is of wide significance and needs public airing without weakening the underlying unity of the movement. At the heart of it are questions fundamental to how the left opposition to New Labour pulls itself together as a coherent force. What is the most effective and most democratic relationship between local and national organisation? And how can we build a genuinely pluralist alliance in which everyone restrains their desires to be in control?

The activities of the STWC tend to be largely events-based. Right now, for example, it’s preparing for George W Bush’s stay in Buckingham Palace later this month. Maybe this is the specific job of a national organisation. But then what about the kind of work that needs to be done regularly and is beyond the capacities of any single local group? One resolution at an STWC people’s assembly expressed the need to “disseminate information about the realities of life under the occupation” and to “support and participate in Occupation Watch” (an international organisation based in Baghdad that monitors casualties and the activities of the occupation forces).

These kinds of things are important. At present they tend to fall by the wayside. This is partly because the national coalition is overwhelmed by the work involved in organising national demonstrations (-no one should underestimate the amount of work required,” says STWC officer Jane Shallice), and partly, some would argue, because they do not conform to the approach of the dominant political grouping in the coalition – the Socialist Workers Party.

With direct action, too, it is the local groups that have taken the lead. Critics have charged the STWC with a lack of imagination and variation in its tactics. STWC officer Asad Rehman realises with hindsight that the national coalition should have organised military base demonstrations to try and stop US B52s from flying, or at least given strong support to the local groups who did organise such action.

At present the STWC’s national officers keep in touch with local organisations through the exceptionally high number of meetings they attend (they speak to four or five groups a week) and the hundreds of emails and letters they receive. They largely gauge what action to take through these activities. One of those officers is Andrew Murray, who points out that it’s impossible to act on every single idea that the coalition receives, and that most events are not centrally organised by the coalition. “The coalition will evolve. It’s not a hierarchical thing; we don”t control what local groups do and don”t do.”

Many people feel that there would be even less hierarchy if more was known about what was decided at meetings and who attended them, and if there was more support given to local groups attempting to organise with each other. Some STWC affiliates and other individuals, for example, are currently setting up Grassroots Opposition to War (Grow). The impetus for Grow came from the perceived need for bottom-up structures through which local activists could meet up and share ideas that they could then take back to their respective communities. Grow organiser Jesse Schust says: “It’s a way for local activists to speak with each other so it’s not the same people talking.”

Schust argues that Grow complements the STWC. At an inaugural conference to discuss Grow’s future there were workshops on subjects like “anti-war campaigning in the dead times” and “anti-war electoral action”. Collectively decided actions will be posted on the network’s website. The conference would have been better attended if the central STWC had publicised it as a supplement to the national demo that happened the same weekend and circulated the details to its extensive email list. Grow’s organisers insist that no matter how difficult it is to practise democracy, it’s critical to have a group that supports what its members are doing, gets them together on a regular basis face-to-face, enables them to build relationships and share ideas, and provides a means for them to feel that they are part of the movement. Only then can the movement go forward.

Bush’s visit will be an important test for the anti-war movement. Much has been achieved, but the movement needs to build in the democracy it so yearns for and demands from other institutions. Otherwise, it will lose an extraordinary opportunity to shape the political landscape and 15 February will become a distant reminder of what could have been.

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