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Stop the war: conference discusses strategies for winning the labour movement to an anti-war understanding

BEN CHACKO reports from Hamilton House

THE first ever Stop the War Coalition trade union conference held at the weekend looked at how to build a bigger peace movement — and how to reverse the TUC’s decision last autumn to support increased arms spending.

Multiple unions are affiliated to Stop the War, and the organisation has significant support on the left — a 2020 survey found it was the most popular campaigning organisation among Labour members.

Labour members’ opposition to militarism was also clear in the 2021 Labour conference vote to oppose the Aukus nuclear submarine pact between Britain, the United States and Australia, which guest speaker Warren Smith of the Australian Maritime Union warned was an attempt to ratchet up tension with China and assert Anglo-Saxon military dominance of the Pacific.

But the campaign’s vice-chair Andrew Murray pointed out that Saturday’s conference was also the first national Stop the War conference that would not be addressed by a single Labour MP.

“If you remember the vast demonstration 20 years ago against the Iraq war, which Stop the War led, that demonstration had the support of nearly every major union in the country — and in many cases the union leaderships had been driven there by their members, rather than necessarily by their own willingness to confront the Labour government,” he said.

Nearly 140 Labour MPs defied Tony Blair’s three-line whip to vote against the invasion of Iraq, but in the modern Labour Party the situation was bleak.

The lack of Labour MPs on the platform was not because “no Labour MP agrees with Stop the War’s position on [the Ukraine war] but because the leader of the Labour Party, revealing himself every day as more of an authoritarian imperialist, has made it clear that any Labour MP would sacrifice the whip and their seat in Parliament if they associate with the anti-war movement — something even Tony Blair did not do.

“That is a democratic outrage which our movement should be standing against loud and clear.”

Given Nato’s responsibility for the attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, the attack on Afghanistan in 2001 and the destruction of Libya in 2010, all countries which posed no threat at all to any Nato member, “to say Nato cannot be criticised is to endorse lawless aggression around the world and is a betrayal of the values of the labour movement.”

And the TUC vote to back more military spending showed the pervasive influence of reactionary ideas, he warned.

“Trade union leaders who would not dream for a second of following Boris Johnson or Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak on economic or social policy somehow imagine there is a different Boris Johnson who is flying to Kiev to sabotage peace negotiations, that there is a different Rishi Sunak who is committing more and more armaments to the battlefield. This is nonsensical.”

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had just returned from the United States where he was campaigning against the extradition of Julian Assange to that country, warned that imprisoning Assange would further silence the peace movement as journalists would be intimidated against reporting on US or its allies’ war crimes.

Further arms spending could only come at the expense of other areas of public expenditure which meant supporting it was to campaign in effect against the pay rises that unions are striking to secure, speakers argued. “We must get the TUC motion [on arms spending increases] rescinded,” Salma Yaqoob told the conference. “It is a blight and shame on a movement which is rising up.”

Unison’s Liz Wheatley said it was important to challenge the idea that arms spending was good for jobs, noting that pound for pound it created very few jobs compared with more labour-intensive areas like healthcare.

“Arms make a few people, a few companies and a few countries a lot of money but much larger numbers pay for that with their lives.”

She called for a bottom-up movement through branches to push union executives to oppose escalation of the Ukraine war and militarism. The 20th anniversary of the Iraq war march was an opportunity for union branches to invite Stop the War speakers to address them and prompt discussion on the risk of a third world war, she said.

For the National Education Union, Alex Kenny pointed out that in 2003 its predecessor the National Union of Teachers had not been a Stop the War affiliate — but “thousands of our members were on that march.”

Years of campaigning and a refusal by peace activists to give up had eventually transformed it into a strongly anti-war union that had argued fiercely against the TUC motion on arms spending last autumn. 

There was still work to do, though, with the last NEU conference a “score draw” on peace. Anti-war campaigners had defeated an amendment to a resolution on the Ukraine war that would have removed opposition to escalation and expanding Nato, but then the resolution itself had failed to pass.

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament chair Kate Hudson stressed the urgency of building a stronger peace movement given the risk of nuclear escalation of the Ukraine war and pacts like Aukus raising the possibility of war with China too, a theme elaborated by China expert Jenny Clegg, who detailed British military co-operation with Japan, which like Germany is doubling its military spending and has ongoing island disputes with both China and Russia which could spark conflict.

Hudson and Stop the War convener Lindsey German rejected an argument from one attendee from the floor, who said blaming both Nato and Russia for the Ukraine war confused the question and that Russia should be seen as a victim of US imperialism.

It was important to acknowledge the “humanitarian catastrophe” unleashed by Putin’s invasion and the aggressive expansionism of Russia, while also recognising the role of Nato expansion in provoking the war, German stressed.

Looking at the balance of forces in the trade union movement, Murray pointed out three positive qualifications to the TUC’s passage of a pro-arms spending resolution.

For one, the win was very narrow and required a card vote. Second, even some unions which backed it — prominently Unite, as well as the TUC general council — had expressed serious reservations about parts of it, showing there was still considerable unease about backing militarism. 

Third, since Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership’s impact on public finances, even the government was downplaying earlier vows to increase arms spending and the TUC had in consequence not campaigned on an issue that would put it to the right of the Tories.

Winning unions against militarism had to contend against the tendency of most unions to align with the Labour Party, especially in the run-up to elections.

It was especially difficult in unions representing arms industry workers — GMB and Unite.

Arguments should stress that as a means of using public money to create jobs, arms spending is very inefficient — it is “very high on the constant capital, technology and machinery, but very low on the variable capital, which is labour,” Murray argued.

But that wasn’t enough because while it was true that equivalent investment in the health service would create far more jobs, they would not be equivalent jobs — the workers currently employed in the arms sector would not be likely to see those as plausible jobs to transition to.

That was why the movement should revive discussion around defence diversification and increases in other forms of high-tech manufacturing — something most plausible if part of a wider economic plan, which is why the arguments against militarism tie naturally to pushing for socialism and a planned economy.

From the floor, a Unite branch secretary in the road haulage sector called for confidence in winning members to an anti-war understanding, pointing out unions had supported members in the tobacco industry without becoming advocates of smoking.

“We’re not about putting [arms industry workers] on the dole but we don’t have to support the products. We need to argue with confidence and not tame what we’re arguing for for fear of some mythical right-wing reaction from our members — the right-wing reaction will come from employers and the press.”

The conference vowed to organise for a bigger, stronger peace movement in 2023, to win the TUC to an anti-war policy and to mobilise for a demonstration for peace talks on Ukraine to be held in London on February 25.

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