In February 2003 over one million people marched in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The mass protest, one of the largest in the UK’s history, was peaceful but determined and organised in full co-operation with the authorities. An army of stewards prevented sit down protests on the march and ensured that the huge crowd was ushered, efficiently and without incident, into a pre-arranged rally in Hyde Park. Here trade union bureacrats, Labour MPs and z-list celebrity left-wingers made fiery speeches promising this was just the beginning of a militant peace movement that would stop the war.
A month later US and UK forces began a series of devastating air strikes on Iraq. The war had begun, and it would kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Marches against the Iraq war continued, organised by the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), which was now little more than a front for the Socialist Worker’s Party. The protests became smaller and smaller as the war continued. At one point, troubled by ever declining numbers, the Stop the War Coalition promised direct action – finally it seemed an acknowledgement that it would take more than marching to end the war. With a renewed enthusiasm they built a statue in Trafalgar Square of American president George Bush. Then they knocked it down. The war raged for another half decade.
Astonishingly those behind the Stop the War Coalition are now trying to re-write history and claim that the anti-war movement which emerged in 2003 was a huge success. Try telling that to someone who lives in Baghdad. The reality is that a lack of imagination, a dogged opposition to any form of real civil disobedience or illegal activity, and a ruthless top down leadership turned a movement a million strong into a handful of stragglers.
So far resistance to Tory austerity has not followed the same disastrous path. The student movement became an inspiration across the world when the Tory Headquarters at Millbank was stormed in 2010. The ferocious protests which followed may not have stopped student fees, but they won concessions and are one of the reasons for the downfall of the Liberal Democrat Party – once the third largest force in UK politics. The students are as strong as ever, several universities have recently gone into occupation whilst some students at UCL are currently on rent strike.
UK Uncut, whose occupation of Fortnum & Mason’s in 2011 resulted in mass arrests, managed to force all political parties to at least pretend to take tax-dodging by the rich seriously. The Occupy protests shone a spotlight on the financial alchemy and greed that dominates the City of London in a way not seen before. London’s growing housing crisis has caused a wave of occuptions, squatting and direct action which has halted evictions and even forced greedy property developers to sell their investments in the case of the Poor Doors protests and the New Era Estate.
Resistance to Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms has thrown his policies into disarray. Mass workfare has been halted by repeated pickets and boycotts of businesses and charities who use forced unpaid workers. The vile welfare-to-work sector, the companies paid to run workfare schemes, has been repeatedly under attack leading to their spokeperson eventually conceding that the current benefit sanctioning policies are ‘bonkers’. There are now less people on workfare schemes than there were at the end of the last Labour Government.
Disabled People Against Cuts, and other disabled people’s groups, have changed the conversation abut benefits and disability in the UK. The disabled people’s movement is now a potent political force, repeatedly coming back time after time, blocking roads, causing disruption and even occupying the DWP. Claimants and disabled people have recognised that a government that privatises everything creates weak spots. The militant campaign against Atos, who carried out the despised assessments for out of work sickness and disability benefits, forced the company to eventually withdraw from the scheme. In May 2010 60% of people who went through these tests were found ‘fit for work’. By June 2014 that had dropped to 21%.
We know what works. Direct action, civil disobedience, disruption and defiance. That does not mean that marches are always a waste of time, but if the last five years tells us anything it is that a diversity of struggle is required – including online action which has proved powerfully effective against workfare. New times and new technologies need ever evolving tactics. Tactics which cost them money and frighten them. Not the same old stale methods of the past from a redundant left.
The People’s Assembly demonstration called for June 20th originally seemed to be on the right track. The venue, outside the Bank of England, is the kind of precision targeting that is required. It provides space for other groups to use other ways to resist in the heart of global capital, the City of London. Unfortunately it now seems the People’s Assembly want us to march away from the bank, to an as yet unspecified rally. This mirrors the doomed approach of the Stop the War Coalition who in 2003 marched away from Parliament, to gather safely tucked away in Hyde Park.
This is not the only similarity to the failed anti-war movement. Throughout the fight to end the Iraq war, those not aligned to the StWC were repeatedly frustrated by attempts by the Socialist Worker’s Party to dominate any resistance to the invasion. When anyone attempted to hold a protest or meeting without StWC approval, they would try and organise a bigger one, on the same day, with Tariq Ali, or George Galloway, or some other boring hasbeen they hoped would draw a crowd.
Almost immediately after the election both Class War and the student group National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), announced protests on the day of the state opening of parliament – although there is some confusion about when these should begin (with the smart money being on 11am when the actual opening of parliament is taking place). Shortly afterwards the People’s Assembly also announced a march, leaving at the same time, and from the same place, that the students had planned to meet. Except that their event isn’t really a march at all, it’s a short walk down Whitehall to an indoor rally. This could be coincidence, it could just be carelessness. But it will come as no suprise that some of the individuals behind the Stop the War Coalition have now assumed roles as unoffical leaders of the People’s Assembly.
There is some fantastic work being done by campaigners involved in the People’s Assembly around the UK, and the spate of protests in towns and cities hastily organised after the election is a more than encouraging sign. But we do not need leaders, we need a fucking mob. What takes place over the next five years cannot be a repeat of failures from the past. The People’s Assembly must resist the temptation to use their muscle – in the form of links with the Labour Party and main trade unions – to monopolise resistance to both Tory rule and the neo-liberal cuthroat capitalist agenda that all of the main political parties support. And we must not let them because that means certain defeat. That doesn’t mean we have to have a big row. It just means people organising themselves, to do what they want, without interference from those who say they are on our side.