Preventing domination

Tina Becker reports on latest developments in the bid to bring the European Social Forum to London

The knives are out. The proposal to hold the 2004 European Social Forum in London has sparked a flurry of secret and public meetings, international negotiations and letters of support for one side or the other.

While the Socialist Workers Party’s Globalise Resistance (the main organisation behind the ‘London bid’) is still putting together its proposal in total secrecy, the NGOs and trade unions involved have had their own closed meetings to discuss how they can prevent “total SWP domination”. At the same time, the London Social Forum’s suggestion to hold the 2004 ESF in Greece, with Britain as the venue the following year, is attracting more support. A decision will be taken by an ESF assembly meeting in Paris on November 10.

This is a sad situation indeed, considering that the main purpose of the ESF is to bring the left across Europe together. Instead, the gap between the SWP and the many organisations excluded by it in Britain is growing wider every day, and even internationally sharp lines of demarcation are being drawn. All because the SWP still refuses to present its proposals openly to the whole movement. The few shreds of evidence that prove that this bid even exists have appeared in the Weekly Worker only because members of the CPGB gatecrashed a number of those secret meetings.

Incredibly, Socialist Worker has still not mentioned the proposal once. Presumably the comrades were going to announce a miraculous birth to the rest of the left in Britain at some point, when a de facto leadership is already up and running - a similar method was employed when the Stop the War Coalition was established. The movement in Britain has yet to be shown a written proposal. A clear sign of the elitist and undemocratic attitude of the SWP.

Even those few NGOs that are trusted by the SWP and therefore invited on board do not reciprocate the feeling. They have met twice already without the SWP to discuss if and how they could carry on supporting the bid. Present at the last secret gathering on October 22 were representatives from Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Bond (British Overseas NGOs for Development) the Tobin Tax Network - as well as War on Want and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the two main non-SWP organisations behind the bid.

We are told that at least one of the groups centrally involved in the bid has “great reservations about the level of democracy and inclusiveness” and is still considering pulling out and backing instead the statement issued by activists in the London Social Forum. In principle this statement “welcomes the idea of a European Social Forum being held in the UK”. But it calls for current plans to be given “a radical overhaul” in order to allow “all interested organisations and individuals to fully participate in its planning”. Citing reasons of time, it says the next ESF should be in Athens with the UK playing host in 2005.

The CPGB has put its name to this statement and we would certainly urge other comrades on the left to do likewise (signatures can be added by emailing ukesf2005@yahoo.com).

However, the majority of those NGOs present on October 22, have opted for  another tactic. They will for now be backing the GR/SWP bid, but will call for an open meeting on December 3 if it is successful. They will then suggest a representative structure to build the ESF. CND chair Kate Hudson has convinced them of the need to have the London Social Forum on board. Just like the meeting of trade unions who are involved in the bid (which was attended by, amongst others, Jeremy Dear from the National Union of Journalists), the NGO gathering decided to present a yet to be published set of proposals on how the organisation should be handled. At both meetings, unhappiness about the underhand nature of the bid and the dominance of GR/SWP was voiced repeatedly.

It is regrettable that the NGOs and trade unions are keeping their worries to themselves. Better to fight openly against the bureaucratic methods of the SWP and thereby help to cultivate a healthy democratic culture. Also, it looks like they will remain silent on November 10 and will only place their demands after the next ESF has been handed to the SWP. A clear representative structure, as suggested during the NGO meeting, is certainly more desirable than the control-freakery of GR/SWP. However, it is unclear if those groups will fight for a system that brings in all interested organisations.

We certainly cannot rely on the NGOs to champion democracy. While Oxfam and Friends of the Earth are openly hostile to the left, CND has been instrumental in helping the SWP to keep out all unwanted groups from the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition. It seems the main concern is to avoid being dominated by the SWP - not how to create the most effective, broad, democratic and inclusive mobilisation in Britain.

There is also the point that, if the NGOs were running the show instead of the SWP, the politics of the ESF might be pushed well to the right. Under the influence of the French organising committee - and particularly the lobby group Attac - the ESF has in the last 12 months become visibly less ambitious and militant than it was when the Italians organised the first ESF in Florence in 2002.

French comrades have attempted to neuter and scale down the ESF; in statements they have even called on the United Nations to sort out Iraq and they have repeatedly attempted to prevent the ESF calling international anti-war demonstrations on February 15 2004. Their programme for this year’s gathering (November 12-16) looks like a collection of top-table-heavy discussions about everything and nothing - but certainly not about how to change the world. They have even further marginalised the workshops - the only avenue for political parties to openly participate. It looks like they will not even be listed in the official programme.

An NGO-dominated leadership of a London ESF would be equally undesirable. Only if the process to bring the ESF to Britain becomes truly democratic and inclusive will it be of any benefit to the workers’ and progressive movement. Every organisation, party and individual who wants to build the ESF should be given a voice and be able to play their part.

Problems of the bid

Taking on board fresh ideas and organisational skills would certainly do the bid no harm, as becomes clear when one looks at the still ropey details of the existing proposal. Needless to say, none of this information has reached the Weekly Worker via the ‘bidders’. Rather, we have either managed to attend secret meetings, been informed by people inside the ‘inner circle’ or made discreet enquiries ourselves.

European debate

In Europe, meanwhile, things are sharpening up too. While all national delegations are very much aware of the problems with the ‘London bid’, they have unfortunately been reluctant to get drawn into a public debate. However, Bernard Cassen, the founder of Attac, came to Britain last month for the London Social Forum, which he hopes to use as a counter to the SWP’s stranglehold over the ESF process in Britain (see Weekly Worker October 9). On November 10, however, the French organising committee (virtually all of whom are members of Attac) is planning to support the GR/SWP proposal - if a list of demands and conditions is met. The comrades have unfortunately not been in touch with any of the British organisations involved in opening up the bid, so we do not know if their conditions will be of any use.

Meanwhile, the SWP has been drumming up international support too. The International Socialist Tendency’s Greek section has managed to get the GSSE trade union to publicly rubbish the proposal to host the ESF 2004 in Greece. This was of course the original proposal from the Greek Social Forum, grouping together over 100 organisations, including the left reformist Syonsdpsi Mos party, which polls about five percent in national elections. The Communist Party of Greece and Genoa 2001 (backed by the SWP) are the only serious organisations that are not part of the GSF. The comrades dropped their original proposal at the last ESF assembly meeting on September 18-21 in favour of a two-year deal with the SWP: London 2004, Athens 2005.

This turn has surprised the Greek Social Forum comrades and they are in the process of “finding out what this is all about”, as a member told me. A letter, obviously drafted by Genoa 2001, reads: “… we believe that the London candidacy to host the ESF in 2004 is a very good proposal. The movement in Great Britain, especially as it has been expressed in recent spectacular anti-war mobilisations, is a source of inspiration for every one of us. Furthermore, the wide participation of bodies and organisations, among them many trade unions which agreed to undertake the organising of the ESF in 2004, is for us a fact which makes this candidacy trustworthy and realistic.”

Apart from the slightly breathless appraisal of the “movement in Great Britain”, the comrades seem to have been ‘misled’ somewhat about the real involvement of the unions. Of course, no trade union in Britain has “agreed to undertake the organisation of the ESF in 2004”. The NUJ is the only trade union that has signed up as a national body, but has - like all the other organisations - neither promised money nor administrative help. The other union bodies involved are the London region of RMT, the international council of Unison and Sertuc.

Why we support the statement

The statement issued by London Social Forum activists has some obvious weak points, particularly the formulation that all meetings “should operate by consensus decision-making processes”. However, we support it in the spirit of inclusivity, honesty and desire for democracy that motivated it.

Contrary to current SWP spin, the statement does not aim to “sabotage” the ESF coming to Britain, nor was it “written by Bernard Cassen”. At their conference at the weekend, SWP members were falsely told that “there are only two options. The ESF 2004 will either take place in London or it will not take place at all”.

There is a third option. One that is favoured by more and more people, especially those who want to ensure that the ESF will be organised on a truly democratic and transparent basis. The LSF activists’ statement favours hosting the ESF in Britain in 2005, but does not “threaten to veto the ESF if it comes to London in 2004” - as falsely claimed by various SWP members. Whether it is 2004 or 2005, democracy and openness are crucial.

Low SWP turnout

Remember the SWP in Florence 2002? Who could ever forget the sight of the five to six hundred SWP and IST members running around in circles, excitedly waving ‘F**k capitalism’ placards? Driven to near-hysteria by their sergeant major, Chris Bambery, they were constantly jumping up and down, shouting, ‘One solution - revolution!’ in between trying to sell Socialist Worker.

I am sad to inform comrades attending this year’s ESF that they are most unlikely to have the pleasure of witnessing such scenes again. The SWP leadership has instructed a layer of members to stay at home and build for the forthcoming anti-Bush protests. The GR-organised ‘ESF train’ will now be three carriages carrying only 400 people to Paris - just over half SWP members.