Mo Mowlam talks to a disabled protester at the Stop the War march on 15 February 2003. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Iraq: Ten years ago we marched against the Iraq war and I learned a lesson in betrayal

In the end, it was in our name.

Ten years ago this month, millions of people all over the world marched against the war in Iraq – and were ignored. I was one of them. For me, at the age of 16, there were a lot of firsts on 15 February 2003: first truancy, first solo trip to London, first time seeing democracy rudely circumvented.

Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into the Americans’ war in Iraq was an immediate, material calamity for millions of people in the Middle East. I’m writing here, though, about the effect of that decision on the generation in the west who were children then and are adults now. For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing. We had thought that millions of people making their voices heard would be enough and we were wrong.

I wasn’t an activist at the time. I was just a schoolgirl overawed by the sheer scale of my own powerlessnesss. The bus to London from the centre of town left early in the morning and I bagged a seat at the back alongside some older students who chatted about the first Gulf war and the international oil lobby. One of them, I remember, was carrying a handmade placard with a picture of a woman’s pubic triangle luxuriously adorned with real, glued-on human hair and the legend “The Only Bush I’d Trust Is My Own”. Upon being asked the obvious question, she indicated the shy, smiling young man beside her and told us: “Armpit hair.”

As London began to materialise out of its dowdy, drawn-out suburbs, we had no conception of the scale of the organisation and planning involved to get two million people on to the streets. When we got off the bus at Embankment, the roadsides were crammed with buses, people surging along the pavement, joining the hundreds pouring into the road, the whistle-sellers and the newspaper hawkers directing us. Under the bridges by the river, the people moved like a flood. I shinned up a set of traffic lights to get a better look. Tens of thousands of banners and placards, most of them churned out of the same Stop the War press and bearing the legends “No” and “Not in My Name”, moving with slow certainty towards Westminster. From above, all of those cardboard squares seemed to tessellate and resolve into a larger picture – No. No. No. No. No.

It was the first time I remember feeling part of something larger than myself. It was only later, after the war and the next six years of progressive assault on civil liberties had broken any faith I or my schoolmates might have had in the Labour Party, that I learned about the endless arguments that went on behind the scenes. At the time I had no idea of the factional squabbling that prevented that march from becoming the powerful people’s movement it might have been. I don’t remember the presence of union members and socialist parties as vividly as I remember the performance artists with their creepy, bloodypaint- spattered masks, the kids strapped on their parents’ backs, the elderly couples with their Thermos flasks and sandwiches wrapped in foil.

It was a very British protest: polite, resentful and passive-aggressive. One got the sense that if Tony Blair had shown up, he’d have been subject to a mass blanking. There was a muted menace to the mood, chants that would flare up and then die down, some of them endearingly altered versions of current chart hits (“Who let the bombs drop? Bush, Bush and Blair!”). Most of all, there were the whistles, shrill and incoherent and frustrated, like 10,000 PE teachers on the move, a notion that still crops up in my nightmares.

What changed in 2003 was that millions of ordinary citizens around the world finally understood that the game was rigged, because only a few weeks after that march the US and its allies went to war anyway. The people had withdrawn their consent, loudly and peacefully and in numbers too big to ignore, and they had been rebuffed with hardly a second thought. Representative democracy had failed to represent.

“Not in My Name” felt, even at the time, like a slogan of last resort, as if we had already accepted, on some level, that war was going to happen and the most we could do was tut disapprovingly. The terrible thing about protest is that when it remains satisfied with expressing distaste for the status quo, the status quo is quite happy to proceed as planned. Two million people went home that day feeling they’d at least made their objections felt, but it turned out not to be enough. In the end, it was in our name.

I have no doubt that, a decade from now, people in their mid-twenties will speak of the student riots of 2010-2011 with the same sad sense of lessons learned. At Millbank, when 4,000 students and schoolchildren smashed up the entrance to the Conservative Party headquarters and held an impromptu rave in the lobby, several young people mentioned the Stop the War march of 2003, how all that passive, peaceful shuffling from one rally point to another had failed to achieve anything concrete.

My generation’s lack of faith in the political process has often been mistaken for apathy. It is only now, with ordinary people across the world putting their energies into movements that bypass mainstream politics, that the betrayal of Bush and Blair’s wars is beginning to be understood. We have known since we were at school that it’s not enough simply to make our voices heard. We have to make sure that we are listened to – and we’re still working out how to do that.

Editor's note: This piece originally stated that Nato went to war in Iraq. The error has been corrected. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC