“More than 1,000 people have taken part in a rally in central London to protest against the Government’s decision to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.” That was how Sky News began their coverage of the latest Stop the War march on the 13th of December. Now I appreciate Sky have form when it comes to underestimating demonstrations, but a demo that can’t have been larger than 3000 gave them ample to chance to do so this time. Even so, the grandiose phrasing seems almost to pity what is a comatose giant of an organisation. Let’s just go over that again; “More than 1,000 people” from an organisation that once boasted a mobilisation of more than a million.
Even on the march through a cold and drizzly London, and even at arrival at the rally – just short of Parliament Square – a great many of the attendees were discussing just what might have gone wrong. Was it just that naturally two weeks before Christmas, people had other places to be? Was it the weather? Was it the fact this was taking place after war had already been declared by Parliament? In small parts, these each may have had their effect, but the glaring truth of the matter is that the demo simply doesn’t seem to have been built in the same way.
Stop the War is more important than ever before.
Before I go any further I want to make this plain, that this is not an attack on Stop the War. I was one of the 1000 and am proud to have been. With a seemingly endless cycle of war in the Middle East now meaning that in another three years, when things have ‘inconceivably’ gotten worse – despite our best military efforts not to firebomb children, shepherds and wedding parties – we will, “absolutely have to bomb somewhere else to defeat terror and really this one is the one guys the war to end all wars…” Stop the War is more important than ever before.
In recent weeks the group has come under attack from all angles, precisely with the aim of hampering such attempts to hold Parliament to account. These attacks range from MPs complaining of (and in one, possibly more cases, hoaxing) “bullying” from the group’s supporters – having themselves just voted to shell a civilian population who are once again considered “inevitable” collateral – to the media pressuring high profile members of the group such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to abandon it.
Unlike Caroline Lucas; the once left, now left on the shelf, Green Party MP, who seemed only too happy to throw her comrades under the bus – Corbs withstood the storm. To much fanfare and furore, he attended the Stop the War Christmas party – to fraternise with hundreds of other traitorous peaceniks, “terrorist sympathisers”, and other ‘lunatics’ who think that blitzing innocent women, men and children anywhere in the name of peace and stability, might be an intolerably bad idea. Unfortunately, like thousands of others, he did not attend the demonstration the day after.
A love-note from Jez was read out at the demonstration, declaring it “a vital force at the heart of our democracy.” Organisers of the protest might have been expecting large crowds to march on Downing Street, partly because of his high profile support – but this simply didn’t materialise. It is all very well claiming the tide of public opinion is turning – but without the peace movement being able to show that, the pressure on our allies will become too great to withstand.
The next few months are essential for Stop the War in the wake of this. It is all very well to try to sound triumphant on a platform at a smaller-than-hoped demo – and believe me, having spoken at the final Save UEA Music demonstration to a crowd of 1, I can relate to how difficult that is – but now the work must begin to re-engage with the public. Winning the argument does not just mean making polls about the war read “against”, or to transform the Labour Party into a force for Parliamentary change. Those are part of it, but even more central to this is laying down roots in every community, and convincing people time and again to mobilise.
The demonstration seemed geared towards a rapid mobilisation of the capital itself, with less far emphasis on the ‘provinces’ than is healthy. More and more amongst the selfie-obsessed hordes of gentrified central London, this kind of ‘turn up on the day’ attitude is becoming impossible – and for every protestor on the street, there seemed to be two more gurning iPhone owners photographing the event from the side-lines. The emphasis for them was not to help stop a bombing campaign, but to show they had been to the spectacle of a protest. Several even tellingly posed between a massive art installation of two pointing fingers, supposed to promote discussion on inequality – which they stood gurning between, making everything about their personal duck-faced experience as a protest to save lives marched by.
What Stop the War needs, now more than ever, is for local involvement. Involvement that still exists in Norwich, meaning our own regional group was one of the few groups visible from outside the capital. The group not only regularly stages events to oppose war – but to show what a world of peace looks like, and to inspire people to act for that positive message. I for one will not be shirking my own responsibilities to help the group continue building in our community like this to mobilise nationally – and would encourage you to do the same here – but this is also how it has to be across the country now.
The next demonstration must be more than a Who’s Who of the dwindling London left – and the People’s Assembly, amongst other groups, show it is still possible to do that over issues like austerity, mobilising en masse year after year having spent time building across the country. Stop the War can emulate their success – and indeed it must – to persuade people outside London to help rebuild that vibrant, creative and versatile movement that saw the largest marches in human history oppose the Iraq war in 2003. We were many, we can be many again.