The ESF comes to London - or does it?

Tina Becker examines speculations and rumours over next year's event

The most interesting development at the assembly centred on the venue for next year’s event. Although no final decision has yet been made, London will undoubtedly be selected at a special meeting that will take place on November 10 in Paris, two days before the beginning of the ESF.

London mayor Ken Livingstone and his Greater London Authority support the move - so do Unison, the National Union of Journalists and the Communication Workers Union. This is an excellent development and should be welcomed by all progressive forces in Britain. Now we need to fight to make sure that the whole process will be transparent, open and democratic. So far, these elements have been missing from the organisation of the ‘London bid’.

For the last three months or so, the SWP - aka Globalise Resistance - has been furiously negotiating to bring trade unions and NGOs on board. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has been a co-sponsor. Unfortunately, the SWP comrades have so far chosen not to involve the official ESF mobilisation committee - formed last year for Florence and now encouraging and organising participation in Paris. In fact, they have kept these negotiations secret even from the elected English ESF facilitating committee, which has been meeting regularly over the last few months.

Four weeks ago rumours of the London bid started to circulate. Once SWP comrades admitted that these negotiations were going on, CPGB members argued that they should be made public - at least before the assembly meeting in Paris that would decide on the venue. All organisations and individuals interested in building ESF 2004 in London should have an opportunity to add their input.

Unfortunately, this approach was rejected. No details of the bid were made public. No open meeting took place. The ESF meeting on August 31 in London was supposed to discuss it, but the item fell off the agenda. An outcome that could of course have been avoided, had comrades prioritised it. As it turned out, representatives of the European workers’ movement, who were present in Paris, heard about the bid before most British-based organisations.

Extraordinarily, comrades from the SWP and CND even tried to exclude other representatives from Britain from a workshop set up to discuss the venue during the assembly. A workshop which had become necessary because Greece and Austria were also interested in hosting next year’s event. The idea was that a small group would meet together and come back with a solution.

Although the workshop was mentioned from the platform of the assembly, comrade Jonathan Neale from the SWP told us we could not attend. It was “closed” and “only for those organisations who put together the bid”. Chris Nineham from GR/SWP, Claire Williams (GR/SWP and Unison), Liz Hutchins (CND) and a representative from the Greater London Authority were the only ones who were supposed to discuss this important question with other European representatives. Liz Hutchins also told us that she did not think that other people from Britain should take part, but said she would “take your concerns about a lack of democracy on board”.

However, both the Greek and the Austrian delegation invited CPGB comrades to come along - and so we did. This was a very interesting meeting, because it contained the only real and honest discussion of the whole weekend. Even Sophie Zafari and Pierre Khalfa, the two leading French comrades, were heard disagreeing with each other.

Comrade Pierre started off proceedings by suggesting that the ESF should become a two-yearly event or at least stretch out to intervals of 18 months. He said that there was a certain “tiredness” amongst comrades: “As soon as we have finished working for the ESF, we have to start mobilising for the World Social Forum, then the Mediterranean Social Forum and then the next ESF. It’s too much.” The ESF should also be “less gigantic”. Instead, there should be smaller network meetings throughout the year.

Luciano Muhlbauer from the Italian delegation and Rifondazione Comunista quite rightly criticised this approach as far too timid: “We should not talk about the ESF as simply an event like the Olympics,” he said. “This is so much more. The ESF is not just an event, it is a movement we are building across Europe.” Chris Nineham made a distinction between “our perception of the ESF as organisers and the perception of the people who come to a weekend once a year. They are not tired.”

After all other delegations disagreed with the French proposal, comrade Zafari gave in and suggested a two-year deal: the ESF in 2004 should take place in London, the year after in Athens (apart from the single Austrian representative, everybody agreed that Austria was no real contender). The British, Greek and Italian delegation agreed with this - but not the rest of Sophie’s comrades. Pierre Khalfa and others were insistent that we could not possibly decide on the venue for the next ESF without having reached consensus on the frequency of the event. Of course, it was the French who stopped this consensus from being reached.

The meeting agreed to disagree. When the issue was put before the assembly on Tuesday morning by comrade Khalfa, the discussion was repeated along similar lines. Incredibly, a small, but vocal minority of about 10 comrades were allowed to prevent the assembly from taking a decision. Those 10, made up of some French comrades, together with one person from Sweden and another from Portugal, all argued that they too were “tired” and wanted smaller ESFs. Rather than taking a break themselves, they were used by the advocates of consensus ‘democracy’ to stop the overwhelming majority from moving on.

Comrade Khalfa pretended to be neutral during the proceedings, but undoubtedly favoured not taking a firm decision - French comrades have overruled bigger minorities many times before. So a special meeting on November 10 will discuss the issue again. If those 10 comrades can be bothered to make the trip they can of course stop any decision.

But, as both delegations from Greece and Britain agree about the proceedings, the people behind the London bid will undoubtedly be organising things as we speak. If anything, the delay will have given them six extra weeks in which to enter into private deals. Moreover, by the time they call an open meeting, a de facto leadership will be firmly in place.

Nevertheless, it is good news that the ESF will be coming to London. It is also excellent that Ken Livingstone has taken the bold step of supporting the ESF - an event that is clearly associated with the left.

London bid

Chris Nineham distributed a four-page document which contained some details of the London bid.

It claims that “the movement in Britain stretches back to the G8 meeting in Birmingham in 1998, which is seen by many as the birth of the anti-globalisation movement in the west”. In case the reader belongs to ‘the few’ who are unaware of this tremendous achievement of the British movement, let us remind you of what happened. The semi-religious charity group, Jubilee 2000, organised a human chain of some 20,000 people around the venue, demanding that the G8 should drop the debt owed by poorer countries. Others, of course, view the protests in Seattle as the birth of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’.

The supporting organisations, according to this document, are: the Greater London Authority, CND, Greenpeace, Jubilee Dept Campaign, War on Want; CWU, NUJ, South-East Region Trades Union Congress, Unison international committee, Globalise Resistance and Stop the War Coalition.

The comrades estimate rather optimistically that the overall cost would be only £875,750 (€1.3 million). In contrast, the initial budget for this year’s ESF in Paris was €5 million, but has since climbed to €7 million. The ESF 2002 in Florence cost €1 million, but only because the local city government did not charge the organisers for the venue and donated translation equipment and other facilities.

The “self-financed” event in London would generate money by selling entrance tickets for an average figure of £18. The comrades predict 50,000 ticket sales, generating £900,000 (the Florence ESF attracted 50,000 people).

The big plenary meetings could take place in the Millennium Dome, Royal Albert Hall, Alexandra Palace and Earls Court: “We envisage that the forum would have one or more ‘centres’ around Bloomsbury (London University), Westminster (Central Hall and the QECII) and the South Bank (Royal Festival Hall).”

The paper also mentions the idea of a tent village in “a central London park”, which would “save costs and give the event more of a ‘festival’ atmosphere” and could be used for some of the larger meetings. As such a decentralised event would mean that participants would have to use the London transport system, the paper states that “we are in early discussions about extra transportation being laid on for the forum and the possibility of an ESF travel card.”

A crucial part of the document deals with the point, “Who would run it?” It states that “support is being sought from a wide array of organisations and coalitions - cultural, faith, trade union, charity, alternative media and anti-discrimination - as well as individual London boroughs. If successful the ESF would be run by a steering committee consisting of representatives of some of the most important not-for-profit organisations, working in collaboration with the mayor’s office.”

The comrades already seem to have a very clear idea about the set-up of the executive, which apparently does not include any political parties. Surely, open and transparent elections will decide who is on any executive? However, further down the comrades make clear that they are “looking at the past experience of fixed-term coalitions, a widely used mechanism for social change in the UK”.

Does that mean we will see an attempt to repeat the undemocratic set-up of the Stop the War Coalition? Will the SWP set up an executive before a general assembly, which is then merely asked to act as a rubber-stamp? Will they again bar political groups they disagree with from the executive? Will they prevent observers from attending meetings?