Saturday, January 27, 2007

This war must end

Today I spoke at the School Students Against War Conference on behalf of Labour Against The War. SSAW are a pretty remarkable organisation - they're completely run by school students and have organised antiwar school walkouts across the country. A whole new generation of lifelong activists is being trained up by organisations such as SSAW - and that's something that should give our movement reasons for optimism.

As the Conference reminded me, the war in Iraq radicalised thousands of young people. Huge numbers of us took to the streets, not least on that cold Saturday back in February 2003. The antiwar movement has dispelled the myth that today's young people have become somehow depoliticised. The problem is, of course, that Blairism has so associated the Labour party with war (among so many other things) that, up until now, most young lefties would not have dreamt of joining the party. Let's be honest: if you're a young, idealistic activist committed to fighting for peace and justice, why would you join a party whose leadership has allied with the most rightwing American regime in modern history to bomb Iraq back into the Stone Age? Such is the tragic damage that New Labour has done to our party: after all, these are the very young people who would almost instinctively have joined the party a generation ago.

That's why this Conference gave me such hope. When I raised the suggestion of joining the party in order to support an antiwar candidate for the Labour leadership, I expected hisses and boos. Instead, there was applause at the idea. Several speakers from the floor made the same suggestion. This alone is evidence of the success of John McDonnell's leadership campaign. Young activists who just a few months ago would have preferred to stick burning matches in their eyes than fill in a Labour party membership form are now enthusiastically joining. If the Labour party is to exist in any meaningful sense in the years to come - and if the current terminal decline in membership is to be reversed - then we depend on winning over such inspirational, dedicated young activists.

Below is a summary of the speech I gave on the war on terror at home:

Over the past few years, the rulers of Britain and the United States have used the atrocities of September 11th and July 7th to justify an onslaught against civil liberties and rights that people have struggled and fought for over the centuries. What we've seen over the past few years is a concerted effort by New Labour to strip us of basic democratic rights.

Attacks on civil rights are not new. For example, Thatcher and the Tories stripped working people of their rights in the 80s, leaving British workers with fewer rights than anywhere else in the Western world.

Since September 11th, we've seen a series of legislation taking away our rights and giving more power to the state. In 2001, for example, new laws allowed foreigners to be detailed as terrorist suspects indefinitely. In 2003, the time that a terrorist suspect could be detained was doubled to 14 days. In 2005, control orders of alleged terror suspects were introduced – which effectively grant the ability to place people under house arrest without charge.

Last year, laws were passed allowing the state to arrest people for supposedly "glorifying" terrorism. New Labour pushed to increase the time that terrorist suspects could be held without charge to 90 days – effectively internment, and a level which would have left us with the same level as South Africa under apartheid. The government were defeated, but still managed to get away with 28 days.

Anti-terrorism laws have been used to routinely harass peaceful protesters. Most famously, Walter Wolfgang was held by police under the Terrorism Act 2000 for heckling Jack Straw at Labour Party Conference. The idea that an 80 year old pensioner could be a terrorist is of course ridiculous – as the police well know. At the same conference, hundreds of others were stopped under the Act.

As the war against Iraq approached, the police arrested protestors at the Fairford military base nearly a thousand times – purely to intimidate and harrass anti-war activists.

New Labour is also intent on introducing ID cards – which will give the state a register with details of the entire British public,
effectively putting us under lifelong surveillance at great cost.

As we all know, these attacks on civil liberties have disproportionately attacked Muslims. Since September 11th, we've seen a tide of Islamophobia whipped up by the tabloid media. At the same time, the state's harassment of Muslims and more broadly Asians has increased. After the July 7th attacks, stop-and-search of Asians increased twelve fold.

We witnessed the horrific assassination of Charles de Menezes by the police on July 22nd 2005 – who then lied through their back teeth about the events leading up to the shooting. We've also seen, for example, the Forrest Gate raid – where the police shot an innocent man and dozens of cops farcically spent a week searching a tiny house for a supposed chemical weapon.

And of course, there's Belmarsh – the British Guantanamo – where people are held without charge and are going literally insane because of their circumstances.

These attacks on civil liberties and rights are not new. Throughout history, states have used the supposed existence of a national emergency to justify attacking people's basic rights.

New Labour claims that these attacks are making Britain safer. Nothing could be further from the truth. At a time when Muslims are demonised in the press, at a time when they continue to languish in overwhelming poverty and suffer disproportionately from unemployment, these attacks on their rights – such as humiliating stop-and-searches – only further radicalise parts of the Muslim community. Indeed, it deepens the feeling of many young working class Muslims that the British state is at war with Muslims generally.

The real reasons behind terrorism are clear. New Labour's murderous foreign policy has radicalised an entire generation. In the past few years, New Labour has participated in the invasion of Afghanistan, stood by Israel in its brutal occupation of Palestine, tacitly supported its barbaric invasion of the Lebanon, and of course joined the invasion of Iraq. Young Muslims have been radicalised by the manifest injustice, and indeed terrorism of British foreign policy – in combination with other reasons, like poverty, unemployment, and a rising tide of hatred against Muslims.

The terrible truth is this – so long as the current British foreign policy remains, thousands more will die abroad and, undoubtedly, here. Attacks on civil liberties are not the solution - a change in foreign policy is.

Nothing has done more to boost international terrorism than the war against Iraq. Bush and Blair remain al-Qaeda's most important recruiting sergeants. Part of the justification for attacking Iraq was that al-Qaeda had a presence there – a lie. Following the invasion, we can now be in no doubt that Iraq is crawling with al-Qaeda – some of whom will no doubt attempt to strike Britain one day.

I also want to turn to the sheer hypocrisy of Western imperialism. We should all condemn terrorism wherever it happens. The deaths of 52 innocent civilians on July 7th was a terrible crime. September 11th – and the murder of 3,000 innocent civilians – was again a disgusting act of terrorism we should all condemn in the strongest possible terms.

But what about the even bloodier acts of Western terrorism? Before September 11th, around a million Iraqis had been killed because of Western sanctions. Since the invasion of Iraq, according to the Lancet, 655,000 Iraqis have been slaughtered. Furthermore, thousands of Palestinians have been murdered by Western ally Israel.

American terrorism has been responsible for the deaths of literally millions of civilians since World War II. The killing fields of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Middle East, testify to that.

To end with, I want to plug John McDonnell's campaign. John is standing for the Labour leadership against New Labour. He is committed to fighting against the so-called War on Terror both at home and abroad. He will restore all the civil liberties taken away by New Labour. He will end the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and stand against Israeli aggression in the Middle East – which, as we know, are the main causes of terrorism. A victory for John will mean peace in the Middle East, the restoration of our civil rights, and the end of Britain's status as an international terror target.

Therefore – and I know this controversial – I urge all of you to join the Labour party, if only to have a vote for a candidate who will end this murderous war. Thank you.


a very public sociologist said...

No doubt your bayface helped ingratiate yourself to the students too ;)

a very public sociologist said...

Doh, that should have been 'babyface'.

I'm hopeless with this typing lark.

Sitara said...

well done owen, you did wonderfully at the conference. :)

morbo said...

To be honest, I'm with the ones who would rather scratch out their eyes than join the Labour party.