February's historic demonstration has produced mixed feelings - vindication because the anti-war position seems bolstered as never before and frustration at the realisation that War would proceed despite this. Caught between these two sentiments it is difficult to know precisely how to interpret the march itself. What significance can be drawn from its sheer size? How are we to interpret the sometimes bizarre coalitions which its apparent inclusivity threw up? While it is tempting to see the march as offering the promise of a reinvigorated left, the presence of UK Independence Party placards alongside those of Socialist Worker must temper any unqualified optimism. Part of our response to February 15th needs to be a serious consideration of contemporary possibilities for mass political organisation. What does it say about our ability to mobilise opinion and to generate political change through a mass movement?
These sorts of questions were raised in the media the day following the march, where coverage of the demonstration mixed a somewhat awed surprise at its scale with strong speculation about what the huge number of protestors actually stood for and how to gauge the real extent of public opposition to the war. The media response reveals a good deal about the differing perspectives on war but it also reveals certain common themes that cut across these positions, which indicate a fairly consistent attitude towards popular protest in the media as a whole.
The most obvious difference in the reporting of the march were the familiar disagreements about its size. The headcount proffered by each paper neatly reinforced its position on the war so that while the front page of the Sunday Mirror carried the headline '2M Say No: Are you deaf Mr Blair?', the News of the World reported 'Blair tells 750,00 peace marchers You're Wrong'. Unlike every other paper the News of the World did not give the march priority on its front page, devoting greater space to a story in which 'Eastender Kat goes topless'. This seems consistent not only with the general priorities this paper affords to different types of news but also with its belief in the necessity of war. As its editorial candidly tells 'Saddam': 'Your twelve years of playing for time are coming to and end'
In the broadsheet press the estimate was generally at or around a million marchers, although the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times demurred with 'at least 750,000'. Perhaps most surprisingly, The Mail on Sunday offered a more generous estimate, running the headline '1,500,00 Say No To War on Iraq'. This comparatively large figure soon became explicable, both as a means of attacking Tony Blair, whose views were negatively contrasted with the Anti-war marchers', and as a form of boastful nationalism, staking a claim for Britain as the location of the world's largest protest: 'Britain', it declared, 'found its voice yesterday and led the world in the march towards peace'.
Despite these differences in presentation, however, the reporting of the march in virtually every paper shared certain characteristics. They all recognised that the size of the march, whatever its true figure, was large beyond historical comparison. More significantly, they all identified it as consisting of many people who did not usually march or who did not belong to the political organisations usually involved with this type of protest.
The Mail on Sunday ran an opinion piece with the headline 'People of Britain vote for Peace'. This carried the accompanying teaser, 'This was a demo for people who never go on demos', a line which appeared in the article in order to distinguish 'the pantomime loons... the London School of Economics Socialist Workers Students' Society... Tony Benn... [and] Tariq Ali, the jobbing protester from the seething sixties,' from 'the countless members of the rank and file who now feel bitterly betrayed.'
This type of rhetoric is to be expected from the Mail which disdains everything that Blair has stood and will stand for and which has for some time asserted that - as Melanie Phillips had it in Monday's paper - 'Blair has ridden roughshod over democracy'. According to this argument, the march was only partly about the war and more coherently about the frustration of ordinary Britons over Blair's refusal to listen to the will of the public. It may be that Blair's Glasgow speech strengthened this impression, even among many of his own party, and the sight of George Bush canonizing Blair on the Wednesday following the march, with his usual contempt for democracy, will have done nothing to diminish this impression.
Significantly, however, the position of the Mail was more moderately reiterated in other immediate coverage of the march. The Independent on Sunday told us that 'Middle England marched with the militants' echoing the Sunday Times which claimed that 'Middle England Masses in London'. Here, the Sunday Times trots out the already tired comparison of 'a huge bearded SWP apparatchik' or the 'condescending and preening' Tony Benn with the 'English county types' of 'Middle England'. The true meaning of the march's 'sheer demographic diversity' is, it transpires, the 'end of Blair'. 'People on this march' it claimed 'are obsessed with their conviction that Blair does not listen, that he seems unreachable. I must have heard "he doesn't listen" a hundred times. They have lost patience, they want him out, and soon.' In less forceful terms, the Independent on Sunday narrated a similar disillusionment from first-time marchers Guy and Erica Butler of Surrey, who concluded:
'Tony Blair is a populist,' ...'He seems to want to take people with him. Now he's got to know that he's losing our support. The march will send that message loud and clear.'
Taken out of context this statement could have been made at virtually any time over the last five years by the pro-hunting lobby, the fuel protesters, the Sarah's list demonstrators, the BNP, by members of Blair's own party, sometimes even cabinet. By any one, in other words, who dissented from his particular brand of conservative social democracy.
Even in The Observer, Euan Ferguson reported that:
There were, of course, the usual suspects - CND, Socialist Workers' Party, the anarchists. But even they looked shocked at the number of their fellow marchers: it is safe to say they had never experienced such a mass of humanity.
Here too, the suggestion that the march was 'not really about politics' but about 'humanitarianism' led Ferguson to quote one marcher who drifted towards an anti-Blair analysis:
...there's something going wrong in this country. No one's being consulted, and its starting to feel worrying
Of the Sunday papers, only the News of the World diverged from this position, focussing its coverage on Blair's dismissal of public protest. On Monday The Sun claimed that, despite its size, the march was 'led by the usual suspects' with Diana Blamires explaining the political pedigrees of 'veteran anti-American Tariq Ali', 'militant rail union chief Bob Crow', 'union boss Mick Rix' and Lyndsey German who 'campaigned against the Falklands War'.
The similarity in structure of these press reports - the march was impressively large and that was because it was full of ordinary people - suggests a number of things; not least that journalists are startlingly unoriginal and conservative. Beyond this it indicates a kind of anti-intellectualism which sees politics as the extraordinary pursuit of a small minority of the public. The logic of this seems to be both that people who are interested in politics are not ordinary and that if a million or more people take an interest in a political issue then, as it ceases to be a minority concern, it ceases to be political.
This perspective was easy to see in September 2002 through the comparisons made between the Countryside Alliance march and the Anti-war demonstration which took place on consecutive weekends. The Countryside march was deployed almost as a weapon with which to attack the Stop the War movement, by contrasting the ordinariness of its constituents with the politicalness of the Anti-war protesters. An article in The Observer on September 29, 2002 by the editor of Country Life, Clive Aslet contrasted the make-up of the two marches, comparing the family-based communities of the Countryside march with the seasoned protesters of the Anti-war demonstration. A significant feature of his comparison was the lack of 'regional accents' on the Anti-war demonstration. Yet, given the number of banners from the Midlands, the North of England and the East Coast this seems a deeply inaccurate characterisation of the September 29th demonstration. It seems likely that what Aslet was really complaining about was the lack of rural as opposed to urban voices on the Anti-war march. In itself, this complaint may be inaccurate but it points to an equation of the ordinary person (of the national voice if you like) with the rural. Such anti-urban prejudice has long been a feature of characterisations of the British nation. In this light, it is telling that so much of the vox pop in the media coverage of the February 15th demonstration concentrated on first-time marchers from rural locations. The Sunday Mirror carried a two-page spread on 'Protest Virgins' which interviewed a number of marchers from various locations including Bury-St-Edmunds and Somerset along side more urban locations. Even some of the London-based marchers were described as being from locations such as 'Battersea' or 'Cricklewood' seemingly transforming London into a series of localities rather than a single urban location. Similarly, in The Observer, a banner across pages 2 and 3 contained brief quotations from Bianca Jagger, Billy Bragg and, presumably ordinary, marchers from Birmingham, Cardiff and two from Devon. The construction of the ordinariness of this march may, it seems, stem from its appeal to people beyond the urban locations in which the majority of Britons live.
If the assertion of the ordinariness of the marchers on February 15th was a way of depoliticising them, a variant on this position was the suggestion that the ordinariness of the participants produced a diversity of opinion which further undermined its political significance. Nick Cohen in The Observer and David Aaronovitch in The Guardian both raised questions about the alliances which the march produced. Aaronovitch rhetorically asked whether marchers agreed with a series of statements that speakers or anti-war celebrities had voiced, while Cohen sneered at the links between the SWP and 'the reactionary British Association of Muslims' who identified 'apostasy from Islam as "an offence punishable by death"'. The assumption behind both these positions is that the legitimacy of the march depended upon the coherence of the positions that the marchers adopted. This sets an impossible standard for political movements or parties which seems quite contrary to democracy itself. No political action is possible under these terms, where we are asked to survey the complete range of political opinions of our co-protesters. It is also clear that such consistency is not universally required: the war against Afghanistan was facilitated by a potentially awkward alliance with Pakistan and rhetorically defended (by some) through the apparent liberation of women from the Taliban. George Bush can be a feminist: Tony Blair can defend war as a humanitarian act. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely the right to hold a variety of contingent positions of dissent within a democratic structure that characterises many of those involved in the anti-war march - but that this could be drawn in only the most apolitical and personalised of languages in the mainstream press.
It is noteworthy that the Stop the War Coalition has deliberately tried to avoid schism by keeping its focus tightly on a simple anti-war message (see Mike Marqusee's paper for SOTT). Aaronovitch and Cohen appear to voice attitudes which limit the possibility for mass political action, particularly outwith the structures of formal political institutions, by suggesting that such broad coalitions are too full of contradiction to be politically meaningful. By contrast, infighting within established political parties is newsworthy but is not something which is construed as undermining the political nature of those organisations.
Such arguments had been voiced, in virtually identical terms, with regard to the Countryside Alliance demonstration in September. There was a strong sense in the reporting of the Countryside march that the disparate nature of the agendas that mobilised the Countryside Alliance undermined its efficacy as a form of protest. In The Guardian Mark Townsend reported that the issue of fox-hunting was confusing the Alliance's protests over rural poverty. The very ordinariness of its constituency, in debarring it from politics as an activity, meant that it could only stand for the co-opted voices of Middle England effectively hijacked by a conservative elite. From the outside, the Countryside march had seemed to appeal to precisely the kind of right-wing populism that is now being deployed to explain the February 15th turnout. In September 2002 it seemed possible to argue that the 'Liberty and Livelihood' march was indicative of a genuine defeat for the right. It seemed to represent the mobilisation of interests that have traditionally been served by the British establishment, and which now had to turn towards grassroots politics because the Right was unable to protect its traditional constituencies.
Now that precisely the same arguments are being turned to explain the mass mobilisation of the Left we are forced to ask certain questions. If we accept the reading of the Countryside Alliance set out above, do we have to accept that the Left is similarly disenfranchised. This would fit with many criticisms of 'New Labour' which interpret the remodelling of Labour as a means of distancing the Party from its traditional constituencies in order to broaden its appeal to include disaffected Tory voters. With no obvious alternative among the mainstream electoral parties has the Left been given no other course than the sort of single-issue mass mobilisation which we witnessed on February 15th? Beyond this, we need to ask whether there is any possibility for this type of mass mobilisation to other effect. In the aftermath of September's march the Countryside Alliance has been conspicuous by its inability to turn its, at that time, historic protest into firm political action. In the face of seemingly imminent war in Iraq is the Stop the War Coalition to face the same fate? Put another way, if we are to dispute the media characterisations of the February 15th demonstration, how do we transform the mobilisation of over a million people into political action - and engagement with democracy - of another, broader kind?
Even if we disagree with the way that the British press defined the Stop the War march as an apolitical event, does it have anything to tell us about how the Left might mobilise a broad-based movement capable of addressing a number of political issues with something close to a coherent voice? In the aftermath of the European Social Forum in Florence these questions are at the heart of the thinking about left-wing political activity. It may be that in the case of the Scottish Socialist Party we have another model of how this might be achieved. The SSP has been surprisingly successful at avoiding sectarianism and, perhaps significantly, has its roots in community-based political protests, notably around the Poll Tax. . Although it has only one MSP in the Scottish Parliament the SSP has been able to exploit the narrowness of Labour's majority (brought about by proportional representation) to make tactical alliances with others on the left over strategic issues. With the prospect of as many as five MSPs in the new Parliament, this experience has left the SSP confident that it will be able to influence legislation despite its comparatively small representation. In many ways this is precisely the model of coalition that we witnessed on February 15th.
The February 15th demonstration could easily be the high point of the anti-War movement, especially if the war in Iraq is concluded swiftly. Before the inevitable disappointment of smaller marches sets in, it seems necessary to turn our attentions to what lessons can be learned for future campaigns. February's march does not form an obvious precedent for a mass movement on the Left because the needs of the Stop the War Coalition and the needs of the Left in general are somewhat different. The Coalition has been careful to frame its message in ways that allow opponents of the war to express their dissent whatever their political inclinations. This is not a luxury that is available to a political movement that seeks change on a broader range of issues. Yet, ironically, the message that the march expressed has proven to be one quite different from those around which the march was organised. Most of the media coverage saw it as a march which articulated a disaffection with the nature of government rather than an opposition to war in Iraq or support for an independent Palestine.
If this suggests how easily a mass movement like the anti-war demonstration can be interpreted through, and co-opted for, a conservative political agenda, it does perhaps indicate some immediate priorities for the Left. If the march is to be seen as a demonstration against Blair, then what becomes important is the nature of the political alternative. Presumably, for the Mail on Sunday, this alternative would be the Conservative Party, however unconvincing this may seem to the rest of us. Arguably, the continuing portrayal of Blair as dictatorial in the coverage of the march is consistent with the Tory Party's sustained rejection of state intervention. The Left needs to start staking a claim for an alternative based upon its values of public ownership and mass political participation instead.
Again, despite its historic turnout, February's march does not obviously suggest that it can form a mass movement in support of such an alternative. Even if everyone on the demonstration felt the same about the war (which is by no means certain) convincing them that this equates to certain attitudes towards the role of the state, the funding of public services, or even our responsibilities at an international level, seem an insurmountable task. Nevertheless, some attempt to connect attitudes towards War and towards public funding has persuasively been made in recent months. If the Labour Party won the last election with pledges about public services, the Fire Brigades Union has convincingly argued that the inability to fund their demands sits uneasily with the ability to fund military action against Iraq. This seems a message that should be voiced as regularly as possible. The urgent task of the Left at this moment should be the effort to entwine its broader message with the widespread anxieties about both war and the consequences of war for an embattled democracy.
By Nicky Marsh and Liam Connell