The Guardian DECEMBER 12, 2015 - by John Harris



Tristram Hunt's definitely not going, Brian Eno definitely is - but it's Jeremy Corbyn's planned attendance at Stop The War's party that has churned up the most fuss. As the pressure group comes back into the spotlight, its chair explains how it needs to adjust - and why airstrikes on Syria are wrong.

The morning I sit down for a long chat with Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop The War coalition, British politics is a mere thirty-six hours away from what some people would have you believe is one of the most controversial events of 2015.

It is scheduled to happen at a Turkish restaurant near Southwark tube station, and will involve food, the presence of the former Roxy Music member Brian Eno, and music from one Dmitri van Zwanenberg - according to the promotional blurb, a "busker with a yellow violin". But what has sent certain MPs and journalists into a lather is the joint fact that all the fun is aimed at raising funds for Stop The War, and that the guest of honour is Jeremy Corbyn - until recently the holder of Murray's role in Stop The War, but now leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

Among howls of dismay from other Labour figures, the former shadow minister Tristram Hunt has called Stop The War "really disreputable" and urged Corbyn to stay at home. The dinner has been the subject of major attention from news outlets as diverse as The Sun and the Financial Times. But Murray confirms that Corbyn will indeed be there, as befits a politician who "has probably been to every town in Britain under the Stop The War banner".

"It's all ridiculous," he marvels. "Totally absurd. Everyone hangs around with their friends and family at Christmas. But Jeremy, apparently, has a problem." Murray says there will be a hundred or so people present, that he thinks Corbyn will do a brief speech, and that the inevitable droves of cameras outside may make seasonal merriment somewhat difficult. "We'll do our best," he says. "It's an unusual situation."

By the standards of recent political history, the same applies to the scenario of a Labour leader addressing a much-criticised anti-war group that draws most of its energy from elements well to the left of his party. So would Murray have understood if Corbyn had decided not to come?

"It never occurred to me that he would. And why on earth would he? He's made his support for Stop The War clear; it's long standing. There's no earthly reason he'd have pulled out, unless there was an accident or something."

Stop The War was launched in 2001, ten days after the events of September 11, when George W. Bush was newly engaged in the so-called war on terror and the USA was preparing to invade Afghanistan. Back then, it was so dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as to be regularly accused of being one of the SWP's front organisations, though that party's decline in the wake of a rape scandal has clearly played a part in the reduction of its influence. (It is still involved, though: "That's the SWP's business - we didn't fish in those waters," Murray says.) Stop The War's current patrons include such leftist veterans as Tariq Ali, George Galloway and the shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott, as well as the actor and playwright Mark Rylance. Along with Murray, its most energetic spokespeople are the former SWP high-ups Lindsey German and John Rees; until his death last year, its president was Tony Benn.

Murray, who is fifty-seven, has been involved from the start. We talk in his compact office at the London HQ of Unite, the union for which he works as chief of staff: on the wall is a big portrait of Lenin, deep in thought - the property, he insists, of the union's leader, Len McCluskey - as well as a letter from the Queen Mother, sent when she was made an honorary member of the old Transport and General Workers Union ("all bases covered," he says, drily). His bookshelves are smattered with biographies of key figures from the New Labour years; above them hangs a painting of a stylised leftie clenched first, done by one of his children.

With an initial wariness, he talks about the group's beliefs and history with more nuance and delicacy than its current media portrayal might suggest, and divides its progress into three phases. Stop The War's initial era, he says, peaked in February 2003, when it organised the huge march in London against the invasion of Iraq. From around 2005 onwards, he concedes that the group became "more marginal". But as of September this year, everything changed: "Jeremy Corbyn's election, and the Syrian vote [in parliament] has put us back in the centre." He says there are now one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people on its email list, up from seventy-five-thousand three weeks ago; in the wake of a day of action against intervention in Syria that happened in late November, it will stage another demonstration in London today.

This brings us to some of the other recent news stories about Stop The War and its conduct, which played their part in the recent resignation of the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas as one of its patrons, arguably leaving Corbyn even more exposed. First, the day after the Islamic State atrocities in Paris, the group's website published a piece by an American writer called Chris Floyd titled "Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East" (a headline that duly appeared on the group's Twitter feed) and straplined "Without decades of intervention by the US and its allies there would have been no 'war on terror' and no terrorist attacks in Paris". Outrage inevitably erupted, and the article was then taken down.

"It didn't represent the organisation's views on Paris, and I think it was... well, the best one could say is, extremely insensitive," says Murray. The basic point, he says, is that the piece did not "completely condemn the Paris massacres".

Stop The War's detractors, I suggest, would say that the whole episode highlighted one of the group's apparent core beliefs: that such outrages can be wholly pinned to western foreign policy - and that if that policy changed, the threat from ISIS and its ilk would recede to nothing. The group's belated statement on Paris says as much: "It is precisely because [of] what we have been doing in the region that we face this threat." And some people find that view crass, to say the least.

"Well, I think nobody denies this, and I think this would be expert opinion across the board - that western foreign policy has contributed to a cycle of violence of which the attacks in Paris were a barbaric manifestation. The war on terror has been, in its own terms, a complete failure... Can you say if there was a completely different foreign policy all this would evaporate immediately? No. But you have to say, at some point, somebody has to try to break with this cycle of violence."

The point, though, is that you look as if you're denying that violent Islamic fundamentalism has a sui generis element, and thereby relieving the people involved in it of moral responsibility.

"You certainly can't do that at all. If you try to understand the overall context, it doesn't relieve people of the moral responsibility. Let's be unequivocal about that: if you mow people down in a concert hall or you blow yourself up on a tube train, you are committing an awful crime, which there is no excuse for under any circumstances whatsoever. If you want to ask why this phenomenon is occurring, why it's growing, one has to look at all the factors that come into play."

Another calamity occurred after the House of Commons voted in favour of airstrikes in Syria. Stop The War had already been blamed for some of the harassment allegedly meted out to Labour MPs (a charge Murray rejects, though he says MPs need "thick skins"). It inevitably took issue with the speech given in the Commons by the shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn - now routinely called "Bomber Benn" on Stop The War's website. But the group landed in real trouble when its site featured a piece by a Derbyshire-based writer and blogger called Matt Carr, which made a mind-boggling claim indeed: seizing on Benn's comparisons between ISIS and twentieth-century European fascism, and referencing the involvement of British socialists in the Spanish civil war, Carr said that "the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron's bombing campaign".

This, Murray says, was "wholly absurd. It doesn't reflect Stop The War's view in the slightest. It was taken down as soon as I saw it was up there. I'd apologise to any Stop The War supporters who were upset by it." He says the group's website editor has now resigned - and again, there is a Corbyn subtext here: "We have to think about everything we say, and how we protest - how it'll not just impact on public opinion, but how it could impact on Jeremy, who is a very staunch friend of Stop The War. "We have a lot of money in the bank with each other, as it were. So, yeah, we have to try and raise our game."

Another issue for Stop The War has been bubbling away for over a month. Syrian groups in Britain have claimed that they have been sidelined and ignored by Stop The War. On November 2, the group organised a meeting in parliament in opposition to airstrikes, chaired by Diane Abbott: the panel included Murray, Caroline Lucas and MPs from the Labour party, the Conservatives and the SNP. As evidenced by videos of what happened, towards the end of the meeting, a kerfuffle erupted when Syrian people who had turned up claimed they were being denied the right to speak. They were supported by the dependably doughty campaigner Peter Tatchell - a long-standing opponent of Stop The War, Murray says - who has since claimed that "Syrian victims of Assad's brutalities turned up but were not allowed to speak", and that Stop The War stewards tried to throw them out.

What does Murray make of all that? He was there, after all. "Any Syrian in Britain who is not supporting British military intervention would be welcome on our platforms," he tells me.

But why not, for reasons of democracy and debate, allow Syrians with the opposite view a voice?

At this suggestion, his speech quickens, seemingly out of a mixture of exasperation and wry amusement. "It's not like the people who want to have British intervention in Syria are denied a voice, or a platform. They have much of the mass media behind them. Our platform is what it says: Stop The War. The meetings are [saying]: 'Don't bomb Syria.' If you want to advocate bombing Syria, you have a right to be called [to speak] from the floor, which in the case of the Westminster meeting did happen... "

But only once.

"There were only two bona fide Syrians attempting to speak, as far as I recollect. It was very disorderly. And some of the people who were shouting - like Peter Tatchell - have many qualities, but they don't include being Syrian."

The point, I suggest, might boil down to what the spectacle looked like. The panel had no Syrian people on it, and it seemed that a voice was being denied to the Syrians who turned up. That seemed high-handed; arrogant.

"Well, in my opinion, a lot of this is just invented as a stick to beat Stop The War with. Of course Syrians have every right to a voice about what should happen in their country, including lobbying for our country to get involved. I don't want to condemn any Syrian. But to have people on a platform, of whatever nationality, who are for bombing, when you're trying to build a case against bombing, is really a bit counter-productive."

It was also claimed that, at the same meeting, Murray himself said nothing about those killed by the Assad regime's airstrikes, and that the only credible means of defeating ISIS necessarily included the existing Syrian army - claiming, essentially, that the regime led by Bashar Al-Assad is somehow redeemable.

This, he insists, is traceable to misquotes and misrepresentations. "That's never been my view, and it's never been Stop The War's view. Our view is the same one, more or less, as the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons: that without ground forces, ISIS is not going to be uprooted. Bombing on its own can't do it. A ground force that is going to do it has to credible within the region... and the idea that the Assad army could play that role is ridiculous."

I suggest that the Assad regime has to go, and ask Murray if he agrees. But he doesn't directly answer the question. We bat the point around for a few minutes, before we arrive at the reason why: as a staunch anti-imperialist, he says it's not his place to call for the toppling of regimes overseas: a strange position for an avowed internationalist, perhaps, but there we are.

"Look, Assad has been bombing his own civilians, and he's wreaked incredible suffering on the Syrian people," he says. "I find nothing to applaud in the regime. Except this one aspect: it appears to have quite a lot of support from minority religions in Syria, and there is a fear that there could be mass killings of Christians or Shia Muslims - which is why a transition to democracy is what is needed."

But why avoid saying Assad should go?

"I've said [the regime] is awful. But you're wanting me to take the place of the Syrian people. You're wanting me to say, like the other colonialists down the years: 'This regime should go.'"

Feeling a mild desperation, I bow to Godwin's law, and mention Nazi Germany. In the 1930s and '40s, it would have been perfectly legitimate to insist that Hitler's regime was so heinous that it ought to have been brought down, in a completely non-imperialist, moral context. So why can't you say the same about Assad?

Eventually, Murray talks about a diplomatic push for a transition "that will end up with Assad going". He goes on: "In my view, the important thing is that the Syrian people decide who their leaders are. I don't believe it is the responsibility of people in Britain to choose the governments of foreign countries. If Assad wants to chance testing his popularity, that's up to the Syrian people."

It may seem odd to mull over a possible solution to the Syrian civil war, in detail worthy of high-level negotiations, with someone who is a member of the micro-sized Communist Party of Britain, and whose anti-war group could until recently have held its Christmas dinner without anyone noticing. There again, if you want to understand the milieu in which Jeremy Corbyn has forged his views, and get some sense of where his foreign policy might be headed, this is arguably where you come. (It is one of the more poetic aspects of this story that Stop The War's HQ is located in the same building as Corbyn's constituency office.)

This brings me to one last question: why doesn't Murray follow the path recently beaten by hundreds of other lefties and join the new Labour party?

"All my children are in the Labour party," he says. "All four. One has been in the Labour party a long time; the other three are all there as a result of Jeremy's surge. But, no: I'm a member of the Communist party. That's where I am."

I push him a bit on this, but he's having none of it. "Communism still represents, in my view, a society worth working towards - albeit not by the methods of the twentieth century, which failed."

He thinks for a minute. "But you can be sure of one thing. If I joined the Labour party, what do you think would appear in The Mail or The Telegraph or The Times... or even The Guardian?"