Corbyn defends anti-war group as its chairman hits out at suggestion that Labour leader needs to distance himself
Jeremy Corbyn has hailed Stop the War as “one of the most important democratic campaigns of modern times”, and accused the coalition’s critics of trying to close down debate.
The Labour leader gave a staunch defence of Stop the War at its Christmas fundraising dinner on Friday night, after calls from some figures within the party for him to withdraw from the event and cut links with the group.
Former shadow cabinet ministers Emma Reynolds, Tristram Hunt and Caroline Flint were among those to suggest he should distance himself from Stop the War after it had to withdraw two controversial statements about Syria and Islamic State in recent weeks.
The coalition has also come in for criticism from two of its former backers – Green party MP Caroline Lucas and Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner – who raised concerns that it was not doing enough to support democratic Syrian groups opposing Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president.
But in a brief speech to more than 100 guests at a Turkish restaurant in south London, Corbyn showed his strong support for the coalition, which he served as chairman until stepping down when he became Labour leader in September.
He wished the group the very best, saying it has been a movement “dedicated to peace”. The “anti-war movement has been a vital force at the heart of our democracy”, he said. “I think we’ve been right on what we’ve done.”
Corbyn added: “We are a peaceful, democratic force. We are a force for good. We are a force for opening out people’s minds and mobilising them to challenge those that would take us into another war.
“I’ve been proud to be the chair of the Stop the War coalition, proud to be associated with the Stop the War coalition.
“We are very strong, there are very many more of us than there are of those people that want to take us in the other direction.”Corbyn insisted on attending the Christmas fundraiser in Southwark, as Labour sources said he had promised to hand over the chairman’s role in person.
Before the Labour leader’s appearance, Andrew Murray, who is chief of staff at Unite and a member of the Communist party of Britain, said the furore around him attending was ridiculous and absurd.
“Everyone hangs around with their friends and family at Christmas. But Jeremy, apparently, has a problem,” he said. “We’ll do our best. It’s an unusual situation.”
He said it had not occurred to him that Corbyn might pull out. “Why on earth would he? He’s made his support for Stop the War clear. It’s longstanding. There’s no earthly reason he’d have pulled out, unless there was an accident or something … I think people sometimes mistake decency for weakness.”
Along with Corbyn, Murray and other leading members of the coalition present on Friday acknowledged mistakes over an unofficial statement released in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, suggesting that the west was reaping the whirlwind of military intervention, and an article that suggested Isis had a spirit of internationalism and solidarity close to the International Brigades. Both were swiftly withdrawn.
The group would have to think more carefully about its public image given how it reflected on Corbyn in his new position, he added.
“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,” he said. “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. We’re a coalition – there are people with different views, who come at different issues from different angles – but we have to make sure that when we speak collectively, we do it with the right tone.”
Murray also spoke about his membership of the Communist party, rather than Corbyn’s Labour, saying: “All my children are in the Labour party. 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.
“Communism still represents, in my view, a society worth working towards – albeit not by the methods of the 20th century, which failed.”
Stop the War issued a statement on Thursday saying it was “under unprecedented attack” not just because of its opposition to the bombing of Syria but because such hostility was “perceived to weaken Jeremy Corbyn”.
The group said its positions had been routinely misrepresented by the Conservative government, the right of the Labour party and sections of the media It stressed it had never supported the Assad regime or Russian intervention in Syria and said it was “utterly opposed to [Islamic State] as a totally reactionary and, in the Arab spring, counter-revolutionary force”.
Corbyn defended those who, like him, had opposed military intervention. He told the assembled supporters: “Does that mean those people are, somehow or other, closet supporters of Isil? Absolutely not, absolutely not. What it means is that there are an awful lot of people that want to see a different way of doing things and recognise that every war ends with a political process. Why don’t we start with the political process now, rather than have the war in the first place?”