Thursday, April 30, 2009

Saturday's Stop the War Coaltiion conference

A little bit late but I thought I should get round to writing a report on Saturday's Stop the War Coalition's AGM. You can read the official report here, and I've seen three other reports; from Joseph Healey, Weekly Worker and Craig Murray. It's not all complimentary I'm afraid, but I'll come on to that.

In general it was a very good conference I thought, certainly better than I feared it might be. Smaller than the last one I went to two years ago certainly and, to my mind, slightly directionless but in some ways that's much better than being too narrow in scope.

For me one of the best speakers, among some very good contributors, was Daud Abdullah (from the MCB) who was very softly spoken and moderate in tone and was wickedly funny on the idea that the West has "common values" when some of us thought bombing countries was a good idea and others thought it was a touch mistaken. That might indicate a slight difference in values.

Another excellent speech was from Seumus Milne who was very convincing on the fact that US bombs and troops don't represent the strength of its imperial power, but in fact its failure. I should say there was an undertow of friendly disagreement on the new regime in the US which was never explicitly tackled.

Speakers like Tony Benn and George Galloway tended towards seeing this as some sort of positive shift and others, like Sami Ramadani and Jeremy Corbyn, seemed to see little difference between the administration of Obama and that of Bush. A broad movement should have space for both of these positions even though, frankly, I think the latter is more a product of dogma than anything else.

Never-the-less there was an unacknowledged, but correct, shift away from the "don't attack Iran" slogans towards a re-emphasis on what's happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was an excellent and very funny contribution from an Afghan journalist, Mohammed Asif, who was particularly damning of how the aid money gets spent.

The Green Party was ably represented by Joseph Healey who was squeezed onto the platform at the last minute after some difficulty getting someone onto the platform at all. Joseph talked about the recent Nato demonstration in Strasbourg and the role that the coalition has here in terms of influencing and communicating with anti-war movements elsewhere in Europe and the world.

In particular I thought he was very good on the need to move away from a society where we are producing arms for sale and use towards renewable technologies and sustainable economics.

There were a number of motions, the majority of which were completely uncontroversial - which you can read at the Stop the War website. There were excellent ones on women and war, on the EDO demonstrations, and Pakistan for example. Sadly the affiliation of Hands off the People of Iran, an organisation that opposes war and sanctions as well as providing solidarity with Iranian trade unionists, feminists and other progressives, was again blocked.

The speeches against came from the chair, in his capacity as chair (where else does this happen?), and a particularly vacuous individual who actually said that if Hopi wanted to support the progressive movements against the Iranian regime they should hop on a plane and do it in Iran. But where do they campaign against sanctions or invasion from?

I've been told to go back to Russia a number of times in my life but this is the first time I've heard go back to Iran. I look forward to this person denouncing those who provide support to anti-occupation movements in Afghanistan and Iraq and demanding these people go to these countries if they want to fight the regimes there. No? Thought not.

What was the longest and most controversial debate? The members database! I think a few members were a bit frustrated by the fact that they weren't able to raise organisational points at their AGM and I have some sympathy with them as the conference did seem organised in a rather hap-hazard fashion. For example we were told that we couldn't amend motions and then the chair started amending motions - very confusing. However, in general the day went very smoothly considering it was organised on a shoe string budget.

I think the concept of a broad movement that brings in people of all kinds of political positions under one tent is absolutely essential. The coalition supplies this, albeit imperfectly. It does let itself down though, and not just on Hopi.

I refer here to the esteemed Craig Murray who has been an invaluable resource in exposing the hypocrisy of the British State's foreign policy. In what amounted to an excellent speech he made a rather misguided remark. Sexist even, but not something you'd be surprised to hear in any workplace or cafe. Brace yourself, he said;

"You know, I make no claim to being politically correct. So I can say that, if I were married to Jacqui Smith, I would probably use a lot of porn too."
Now, the moment he said it I thought "Oh Craig, you've let yourself down there" and there was a frisson that rippled across the hall, directly after the laugh. Now in my opinion the thing to do was to ignore it. It's one small remark that amounted to, probably, less than 1% of the speech. A remark that should not have been made, but let's keep it all in proportion.

However, leading SWP member Elaine Heffernan thought it necessary to make a point of order on this and rudely demand that Murray withdraw his remark (which he didn't do, I think he was a bit taken aback by the response). It seems to me that, as a human being, if you can't let one tiny remark in the context of an excellent speech go then you're a sociopath. More to the point I suspect that the STWC will now treat Murray as a persona non-grata (they've not put his speech up on their site for example), this is quite worrying more so because it stems from a minor remark that took less than a second to say and was outside the main scope of the speech.

If the coalition wants to be broad and inclusive it should be aware that haranguing people who are not conversant with the ins and outs of left-speak then it will limit it's own growth. This kind of attempt to insist that people do not speak like the rest of the population is far more misguided than the initial sexist remark. If the coalition is to build on the excellent work it has done so far and renew itself for the challenges ahead it does need to throw off some of these dangerous habits of trying control what people say and how they say it.


Mr Andy C said...

What were the arguments for blocking Hands off Iran?

Jim Jay said...

They were astoundingly weak.

The speaker against said that you couldn't oppose the Iranian regime without making the case for war and sanctions (which isn't true), that it was up to Iranians to make these decisions (which has an element of truth to it but if taken to its logical conclusion means that solidarity work is impossible, including the work of the stwc), that argument also makes the assumption that solidarity work is the same thing as overthrowing the regime from the outside - which seems facile to me.

Most of his speech was taken up with saying why the stwc shouldn't take up the policies of hopi - which is a complete irrelavance to the debate.

Andrew Murray's arguments were equally weak. They centered around the fact that in 2006 Mark Fisher of the CPGB said nasty things about the stwc. It was jaw droppingly thin - but delegates were pre-disposed to vote against hopi affiliating i think - and having heard some of the bizarre things people come out with about it sometimes I think there's a whispering camapign against it, which is probably where that vote was really won.

Aaron said...

How disappointing, HOPI should be fully involved with the StWC. Btw, do you remember the name of the woman who spoke at the HOPI fringe at Green Party Conference?

Jimbob said...

Interesting report.

I went to a couple of the STWC conferences a few years and found them horribly undemocratic, pretty much a joke actually.

There was just the single slate of candidates for their executive, with the same figures standing as before and the delegates basically asked to ratify this pre-agreed decision. Some delegates objected to this and halted proceedings and there was a tremendous brouhaha, followed by a viciously sectarian speech by Chris Harman that is particularly memorable.

In addition, there was no real discussion of oganisational points or how the STWC conducted itself permitted. It felt more like a pointless rally rather than a genuine conference.

From my experience in the anti-war movement, many activists I met were completely alienated by STWC and didn't really identify with it. The fact that there are the same people pulling the strings - and up to the same tricks - five years later only underscores how superficial is the organisation's internal democracy. I guess it mirror's the SWP's own brand of "democratic centralism".

Why was it a job to get the Green party speaker on to the platform?

Aaron said...

Got it, it's the excellent Yassamine Mather!

Jim Jay said...

Aaron - glad you enjoyed it!

Jimbob - yeah, I've got sympathy for a lot of what you say there and you're right that many anti-war groups do feel alienated from the coalition but also feel that they need to take part.

For me I think that the concept of the organisation is 100% right, but the practice of it has got too bogged down with old guard who've been in charge from day one.

I don't think we need to scrap it and start again - I think generally (minor criticisms over this or that decision aside) the Gaza operation was good. However we do need a process of renewal and to draw in all those anti-war voices who've not felt able to engage with stwc. Which is partly why the Craig Murray thing is worrying because it means another good person who'll be keeping the stwc at arms length from now on - and there quite a lot of them.