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Can Blair win the peace?

No other politician on the planet, save George Bush and maybe Donald Rumsfeld, staked their career so irrevocably on the victory of the Anglo-American coalition in Iraq as Tony Blair. As the war enters its final stages HANNAH SELL looks at the likely political fallout for Britain’s prime minister.

THIS BRUTAL WAR has thrown the world’s problems into stark relief. From the conflicts between the US and European blocs, to the hatred of the Arab masses for US imperialism, to the alienation of the working classes of Europe from their governments – every long-simmering tension has erupted onto the surface. Tony Blair has stood in the midst of this turmoil, often looking more than a little lost.

Despite the enormous difficulties, however, Blair remained steadfast in his support for the war, at least publicly. Confronted with the accusation that he is Bush’s poodle, Blair replied, ‘its worse than that, I believe in this war’. Without doubt he does. Blair has the messianic zeal of the convert or, to be more accurate, the converter. Having converted the Labour Party from a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ – with pro-capitalist leaders but a democratic structure and mass working-class base – into a neo-liberal capitalist party, he seems to feel it his duty to support the most right-wing capitalist policy on offer. This when other neo-liberal politicians, such as Jacques Chirac in France, took a different position.

In the run up to the war it seemed that Blair might wreck his career over his support for Bush’s plan. He was desperate for a short, relatively easy war because anything else could have seen him thrown out of office. For the people of Iraq, and for the ordinary British soldiers who have lost their lives, this war has been anything but easy. The number of Iraqis killed, injured and made homeless by the Anglo-American onslaught is undoubtedly far higher than any of the figures that have so far been released. Many in Britain are angered by the brutality of the war – the use of cluster bombs, the deliberate targeting of journalists, the bombs dropped on marketplaces and ordinary homes – all have been met with outrage.

An ‘Iraq factor’?

NONETHELESS THE WAR is now reaching its end stage in a relatively short period of time. According to opinion polls opposition to the war has fallen considerably. Does this mean that Blair is ‘home and dry’? Far from it. Blair would be making a mistake to believe that he has ‘got away’ with this war. He has been wounded by the massive scale of opposition and will be far more vulnerable to attack on the many domestic issues which receded into the background during the war – from the firefighters dispute to the introduction of further privatisation in the NHS through foundation hospitals. Such opposition is unlikely to come primarily from New Labour’s back benches – only 45 MPs voted against foundation hospitals – but it will come from workers and young people, many of whom became politically active for the first time by taking part in the mass demonstrations against the war.

Underlying all other issues is the state of the British economy. The latest projections suggest that Brown will face a £20 billion deficit by the end of this year. This will require further tax increases of 4-5%, even without the costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Writing in The Guardian, Larry Elliot raised the prospect of a deficit of £40-£50 billion by next year’s budget which would result in further tax increases alongside cuts and privatisation of services (7 April). Compared to likely future tax increases the 1% hike in national insurance contributions that is being introduced this tax year is quite modest. Even this, however, will hit those on low and middle incomes and, combined with failing services, will increase anger with the government.

Such could be the opposition to the government it cannot be ruled out that under mass pressure, New Labour MPs will once more find enough backbone to vote against their pagers and oppose Blair. After all it was only when up to two million had taken to the streets on February 15 that the majority of New Labour MPs decided to vote against the war. Under mass pressure all kinds of unexpected events can happen: if New Labour MPs felt it was the only way they could save their own careers they could even vote Blair out of office.

Blair will be hoping for an ‘Iraq factor’ to save him from such a scenario, at least for a period. In other words he hopes that a widespread perception that the war has succeeded in its aims will increase support for New Labour on other issues. The Economist magazine, for example, has argued that there is often mass opposition before a war, but that once it has started the nation swings behind military action. It cited the example of the Falklands war, when "early on MORI found that 52% believed that retaking the islands was not worth the life of a single British serviceman. After the war was won", however, "at a cost of 250 British lives, 76% thought it had been right to fight". (1 February) Once the ruling class is set on war it mobilises all the resources of the establishment – its control of the workplaces, media, the legal system, etc, and especially its supporters in the workers’ organisations – to face down any opposition at home. As hostilities begin, the capitalist class is generally able to swing public opinion behind its wars, at least in the initial stages. The Anglo-US invasion of Iraq has been no exception. In the first week of the war a majority supported it, according to ICM. In the second, more difficult week of the military campaign, support for the war fell below the 50% level again, although support for the immediate withdrawal of the troops only increased from 11% to 16%.

The swing in public opinion was nothing, however, compared to the collapse in the parliamentary opposition to the war. Only a handful of Labour MPs called for the withdrawal of the troops. The Daily Mirror, which played a role in building the anti-war movement, graphically revealed why capitalist newspapers cannot be trusted. Whilst maintaining a superficially anti-war stance, in reality, it moved to a pro-war position. Its editorial on 31 March argued: "To surrender to Saddam would be an impossible shame to bear. Now the forces are there, they must continue until they have secured victory".

Ex-cabinet minister, Mo Mowlam, a speaker at the huge 15 February anti-war demonstration, put the same position even more brutally: "My awful conclusion is we must win this war quickly, and be seen to be brave, powerful and invincible. We have no choice but to adopt… more bombing and taking the war to the enemy, even if that means the dreadful level of casualties that will go with it. We will still be hated, but we will also be held in awe". (31 March) The Daily Mirror and Mowlam are both arguing that defence of the interests of British imperialism – ensuring that it is held in ‘awe’ – is primary. Their supposedly anti-war stance comes a poor second. Even Robin Cook who, after resigning from the cabinet, appeared to take a more principled stance when he said that the troops should be bought back home "before more of them are killed", immediately retreated from this position when he was criticised for it.

A war of imperialist occupation

IN THE IMMEDIATE post-war period support amongst the population for the invasion has risen quite sharply. However, there is no comparison between the ‘Falklands factor’ which was largely responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1983, and the probable aftermath of the current war. The two main differences are closely related – the nature of the war and its aftermath, and the attitude to the war in Britain.

This war has been a colonial conquest of Iraq designed to strengthen US imperialism both economically and politically (and, to a lesser degree, its junior partner, British imperialism). No other war in modern times has been so flagrantly obvious about its aims. Tens of millions have demonstrated worldwide, many under the slogan ‘no war for oil’, because they could clearly see the real reason for the war. This does not compare with the Falklands war, or to the previous Gulf war in 1991 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in both of which US and British imperialism were able to disguise their real interests behind the perception that they were defending the rights of people who had been invaded by a foreign power.

The reasons for this war may also be temporarily obscured as sections of the Iraqi population celebrate the end of the brutal Saddam regime. However the US is planning to use Iraqi exiles as stooges in a puppet regime. And already the war has meant that 17 million in Iraq who were reliant on UN food aid face starvation. Bush has promised just £5 billion, and Brown a tiny £280 million, to help with reconstruction. Conflicts between the different national, religious and tribal groupings, widescale looting and sabotage, will all create enormous difficulties for the occupying forces.

There is already disquiet among British military commanders that they may be expected to do more than their ‘fair share’ of the post-war ‘mopping up’. Much has been made of the British army’s experience in Northern Ireland but, whilst it probably means that British troops are more skilful than their US counterparts, the British forces will be utterly inadequate as an occupying force in Basra and Baghdad. British soldiers are likely to end up as military police implementing a plan to run Iraq as, in effect, a US protectorate. It will become expensive, both in the human and the economic sense. British soldiers are likely to lose their lives doing what will be widely perceived as the USA’s dirty work.

Gordon Brown has already increased the government’s planned expenditure on the war by £1.75 billion to £3 billion but this is likely to represent a tiny proportion of the final bill. Unlike in the last Gulf war the Anglo-US coalition will not be able to pressure the rest of the world into picking up the bill. Blair may be able to gain a temporary limited increase in support as a result of the war. However, this would be very shallow and superficial and over time will turn into its opposite as the real costs become clear.

At the same time, Britain’s role in the Middle East will increase the chances of terrorist attacks taking place in Britain. Whilst a horrific attack of the kind that took place in New York and Bali would lead to a polarisation of British society, with a temporary hardening of support for Blair’s war policy amongst many, it would not have the effect of 11 September. Even more than in Australia after Bali, a significant proportion of working-class people would blame Blair for making Britain a target.

The war has also further alienated wide layers of Arab and Asian young people. Most importantly, the anti-war movement has marked a qualitative change in the fabric of society. Millions of people felt themselves to be part of a mass movement. Young people, schools students above all, have had their whole outlook changed by witnessing the brutality of the imperialist powers and being part of a mass movement. The depth of opposition to this war is not comparable to any previous anti-war movement in Britain.

This is also true at a parliamentary level, with the biggest revolt of MPs for over 100 years. And that was just a faint echo of the massive demonstrations that have shaken British society. In some ways, even more significant than the one-and-a-half million plus who made up the biggest demonstration in British history on February 15, and the hundreds of thousands who took part in the largest ever war-time demonstration on March 22, are the school students who took strike action. This generation had been entirely written out of the equations of all the mainstream political parties which, if they thought about it all, considered them to be apathetic and apolitical.

The repressive measures and threats made against school students for taking strike action is a reflection of the capitalists’ fear of the audacity and determination of the school students. This was demonstrated in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when school students organised a sit-down protest in the road. The police announced that, if they didn’t move in two minutes, they would start to arrest the ringleaders. First one school student, then another, then all of them, shouted ‘I’m a ringleader, I’m a ringleader’. This was echoed by school students up and down the country on Day X (the day after war started), and in the days preceding it. Something like 100,000 took strike action, with many more being locked inside schools by police and teachers. They are the first generation for over a decade who, on a mass scale, felt themselves to be part of a powerful movement. This will undoubtedly increase their hatred for New Labour and the capitalist politicians and their willingness to take part in future political action.

Once the war had started the anti-war movement inevitably receded. Nonetheless, there has never been such a large-scale movement against a war in its early stages. Temporarily, the movement will shrink, it may even appear to have evaporated, but it has left a deep imprint on British society. It marks an important development in the consciousness and combativity of wide layers of society, including sections of the working class. At a certain stage this will be reflected in the scale of movements against the occupation of Iraq and against future wars. Perhaps most importantly, out of the movement will arise the need for a mass socialist alternative to Blair for those who are moving into action, particularly the new generation of workers and young people. This is of crucial importance. The existence of such a political alternative – a new mass workers’ party threatening to replace the capitalist parties in power, capable of leading mass action against the war, and of linking that movement to the struggle on class issues in Britain – would have dramatically altered the balance of forces in the pre-war period.

For example, it would have made possible far more widespread strike action. The working class is potentially the most powerful force in society if it is mobilised. As it was, despite the enormous anger amongst wide sections of the working-class, very little strike action took place. The lack of action in Britain is a reflection of the role played by the right-wing trade union leaders and the particular difficulties created by the repressive anti-trade union laws.

The right-wing trade union leaders have used this legislation as an excuse for inaction for 15 years. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to propose that trade union leaders should rashly endanger their members’ resources by taking strike action that could be deemed illegal. It is also true that, as part of the legacy of the 1990s, many rank-and-file trade unionists feel hamstrung by the anti-union laws. They do not as yet see how easily a mass movement could – and at a certain stage will – turn them to dust.

Unfortunately, the left-wing, anti-war trade union leaders have not sufficiently assisted their members to overcome this obstacle. While they made speeches which included calls for strike action, they did not concretely built support for such action on the ground. If they had done so, the prospect of strike action on a large scale could have been raised despite the inaction of the TUC leadership. This would have been an enormous step forward for the anti-war movement, and would have gone a long way to undermining the anti-union laws.

Blair’s precarious position

BLAIR’S HOPES OF being a ‘leader of Europe’ have been dashed by the chasm that has opened up with the leaders of the other major European powers. The arguments over post-war Iraq will only exacerbate those divisions. In all probability, Blair’s chances of taking Britain into the eurozone on the back of a military ‘triumph’ have also been ruined. Indeed, even his position as prime minister could again be under threat.

The New Labour MPs who opposed the war have overwhelmingly lapsed back into their normal craven obedience to their pagers. In the main, their stance was a result of the pressure of the anti-war movement, not of their own convictions. And it is unlikely that a campaign to overthrow Blair will come from sections of the working class joining New Labour to change it. The fact is that it was easier for Tory MPs to trigger a leadership election against Thatcher than it is for Labour MPs and party members to unseat Blair! Nominations for a leadership candidate not supported by 20% of the parliamentary party (83 MPs) are invalid. Even then, an election can only take place at the annual conference in October. A recall, or special conference, is possible but can only be convened by the National Executive Committee, the same body (not facing re-election until October 2004) that voted in January by 22 votes to four to support Blair’s war policy.

And crucially, the transformation of Labour into New Labour has had its effect on how millions of working-class people see the Labour Party. The reason for low turnouts in elections is not apathy, as the anti-war movement has demonstrated. It is because unprecedented numbers of people now see no significant differences between the parties. However, the most politically conscious layers of the working class – the tens of thousands of anti-war youth and workers and the trade unionists who are entering struggle – are not, in the vast majority of cases, interested in struggling to overcome the enormous hurdles necessary to transform New Labour. In fact, most have the same attitude as the 80% of Fire Brigades Union members who have decided to pull out of the political fund which donates money to New Labour, because of their contempt for the ruling party.

But this does not mean that Blair’s position is safe. He is wounded by the scale of the opposition to him in society and, if it is necessary to save New Labour’s position, he could be forced out. Even if does go, however, New Labour will continue to be a party of big business, funded by the likes of Lord Sainsbury and British Petroleum, and acting in their interests. The need for a new political formation that represents the working class will still be posed.


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