European Social Forum: Heavy-handed Socialist Workers Party

Anne Mc Shane and Alan Fox report from the meeting of the English mobilising committee organising for the forthcoming European Social Forum

Over 100 people attended the assembly for the European Social Forum at the University of London Union on August 31. The English mobilising committee had called the meeting to discuss the forthcoming ESF in Paris and to take decisions about our intervention.

Claire Williams, regional convenor for Unison in the north-east and prominent member of the Socialist Workers Party, acted as chair, and proceedings opened with contributions from Kenny Bell (Labour Party member and Unison militant close to Red Pepper) and Sam Metcalfe (SWP), and then immediately broke up into working groups.

Calls for report-backs from local social forums by members of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) based in London were put off until later in the afternoon. The PRC’s emphasis on building local forums is not welcomed by the SWP - which, as demonstrated by its attitude on the day as well as previous history, frowns on the idea, although the comrades never say so openly. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the proposed report-backs were never heard.

Of interest was the fact that Mary Davis and Kate Hudson of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain were in attendance - the first time this organisation has graced any ESF meeting with its presence. After previously maintaining a studied isolationism, the CPB is now lining up against Rifondazione Comunista and its strategic emphasis on the anti-capitalism of the social forum movement.

Nick Wright - a leading CPBer originally from the ultra-Stalinite camp of Straight Leftistism - has ventured into print, openly taking the PRC’s Fausto Bertinotti to task. Comrade Bertinotti’s perspectives for European trade union action and the democratisation of the European Union are dismissed as “diversionary” by Wright (Morning Star August 22). He and his fellow national socialists want to safeguard the British road to ‘socialism’ and the Labour Party and to that effect the CPB is in the ESF to act as a conservative break.

The only controversial working group was that dealing with programme. While a handful of comrades attended the ‘practicalities’ and ‘enlarging the net’ workshops, most stayed in the main hall to discuss the key political decisions. This group, like the other two, had a clear SWP majority.

The main argument was over the speakers for the plenary sessions at the Paris ESF. July’s preparatory meeting in Genoa decided to allocate speakers for these sessions not on the basis of who would be the most worthwhile or stimulating, but purely on the basis of nationality (proportionally, according to each country’s population). Thus England and Wales were entitled to 13 speakers.

Jonathan Neale (SWP) presented the proposals from the programme committee. Eight speakers had been agreed by a clear two-thirds majority of the committee and they were put forward “by consensus” to be adopted by the meeting. The other five were more controversial and had to be voted upon. There were 20 names - with five clearly favoured by the SWP majority: Alex Callinicos and Lindsey German (both SWP), George Galloway MP, Hilary Wainwright (editor of Red Pepper) and Jeremy Dear of the National Union of Journalists.

Anita Bressan from the PRC complained about how the decisions were being made. She demanded to know what groups were present and argued that decisions should not be made using one group’s majority.

As is usual on these occasions, SWP comrades deigned not to identify themselves as such - although of course everybody knows that the SWP packs meetings of the mobilising committee. Mind you, the PRC comrades are hardly more forthcoming about their own allegiance. Comrade Bressan was joined in her criticism by other Rifondazione comrades and Teresa Hoskins from the London Social Forum, who complained that the way the proposals were being put forward did not reflect the decisions of the programme group. Even Nick Dearden from War on Want, normally a fellow-traveller of the SWP, registered his annoyance about the heavy-handed way they were forcing decisions through - using numbers and ignoring minority viewpoints.

Basically almost everybody not in the SWP seemed unhappy. The majority is of course entitled to determine the outcome, but surely this can be done in a way which incorporates minorities.

Things became unnecessarily heated. SWP hacks led their loyalists in heckling anybody they did not agree with - and of course cheering and clapping loudly when it was one of their own. When CPGB comrades pointed to concerns about the SWP’s domination of the English mobilisation, we were met with support from most non-SWP members. Our proposal for a Socialist Alliance speaker was, however, stonewalled by the SWP.

The main problem is the lack of any real coherent opposition. Representatives of the London Social Forum (whose poorly attended meetings are boycotted by the SWP as an unwanted diversion), including PRC members, displayed an anarchistic disdain for democracy itself.

They were against any votes being taken and wanted everything agreed “by consensus”. It was as if they preferred no decisions rather than letting the will of the majority override that of the minority. In fact PRC led a walkout when the voting on speakers was taking place. The whole workshop collapsed into chaos while the SWP voted through their recommended speakers.

The main meeting reconvened to hear essentially uncontroversial reports from the two other working groups. Then the programme group report-back sparked off yet more heated controversy.

In the interval the SWP had decided that Alex Callinicos would stand down from the list of proposed ESF speakers, as there had been so many complaints that the SWP were over-represented. Comrade Bressan again argued that the whole process had been undemocratic. A vote should not be taken. Instead efforts should be made to include all groups: “If we base our choice on numbers we know who’s going to win.”

She was invited by the chair and Jonathan Neale to put forward an alternative list. However, just as she began to do so, she was told - by the same two - that this option had been withdrawn. Again chaos ensued and some people began to leave.

After the SWP-proposed list was carried overwhelmingly (see below right), we came to the vote on a second representative to join Jonathan Neale on the European-wide programme group. This is an important body that will decide the final agenda and speakers for Paris. Liz Hutchins of CND was supported by the SWP and CPB. Teresa Hoskins was put forward by the London Social Forum. Obviously the CND representative won the vote.

Jonathan Neale ended the meeting by berating everyone for their sectarian behaviour. What we had just seen, he said, was “cat-fighting at its worst, at its most divisive”. He went on to explain that he was in favour of arriving at decisions by consensus - that was how it was normally done in the ESF. He clearly thought that disagreement over what the consensus ought to be was out of place, and very much regretted the necessity of taking a vote.

Annoyed by those who had dared to oppose the SWP’s agenda, Claire Williams wound up the meeting in the most patronising fashion. She lamented the fact that so many people had travelled to London only to have their time wasted by argument. We should have been happily exchanging tips about how to get as many people as possible booked up on the ESF train (which will leave from Victoria station either on the evening of November 12 or the morning of November 13).

Other SWP members privately expressed concern after the meeting about having gone too far. Obviously, alienating the PRC is not a good thing. And there were a number of questions not discussed - the most important being the suggestion that the 2004 ESF to be held in London. Rumours are circulating that the SWP want to run the whole thing through Globalise Resistance. Another cause for controversy.

It seems inescapable that, as long as the SWP tries to force through its agenda through numbers alone, rather than through an inclusive approach, there will be resistance. Blaming minorities for that is no way forward.

Agreed plenary speakers from England and Wales:

Niama Bouteldja (Progressive Muslim Network); Jeremy Dear (NUJ); George Galloway MP; Lindsey German (STWC and SWP); Billy Hayes (CWU); Kate Hudson (chair CND and CPB); Caroline Lucas (Green Party MEP); Paul Mackney (Natfhe); George Monbiot (Guardian journalist); Chris Nineham (Globalise Resistance and SWP); Lianna Stuples (Friends of the Earth); Hilary Wainwright (Red Pepper); Salma Yaqoob (STWC); Bob Crow and Tariq Ali were nominated as reserves in case George Galloway or Caroline Lucas are prevented from speaking by the ESF rule prohibiting political parties.