Britain to host ESF 2004

Tina Becker on the prospects and problems

The next European Social Forum will definitely take place in Britain. It remains to be seen though if it will be in London and, more importantly, if it can become a truly democratic and open process. An Italian-French delegation will visit London on December 13-14 in order to assist the setting up of transparent structures, which have so far been missing.

This is the positive outcome of the latest ESF assembly, which took place on November 10 just before the start of this year’s second ESF in Paris. All of the 150 or so participants agreed that a decision would need to be reached urgently, if the next ESF is to successfully take place in 2004. A heated debate, lasting around three hours, saw mainly people from Britain discuss the issue of the ‘London bid’. Luciano Muhlbauer, the official representative of the Italian trade union Cobas and a member of Rifondazione Comunista, finally suggested the agreed compromise position, according to which an international team of observers would oversee the setting up of new structures that would be open and transparent. If no other British city had been properly investigated as a potential host for the next ESF, then our meeting on December 13-14 will finalise London as the host city.

The idea of slowing the pace of the ESF proved to be an non-issue. Attempts by Attac France to operate on a two-yearly schedule have only encountered hostility and have therefore been dropped - at least for the time being. The decision of the assembly was clear: we want the ESF to take place every year. In 2005, Athens will host the event.

Comrades were less sure about how to deal with the problematic issue of dissent. A wide gulf has developed between the ‘official bidders’ around the Socialist Workers Party/Globalise Resistance and those who want to see the ESF coming to Britain on a democratic and inclusive basis.

Before the meeting we approached the chair, Sophie Zafari (a member of Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire who officially represents the CGT union centre), suggesting an agenda that would allow the presentation of 10-minute introductions by both the official bidders and the opposition formed around the statement calling on the ESF process to be “started again from scratch” and with open and democratic structures (see Weekly Worker November 6). Comrade Zafari replied with a wry “We’ll see what happens…” - a sad reflection of how ESF assembly meetings have been conducted under the leadership of the French comrades: there are hardly any documents available; no proper introductions are given and whoever wants to speak has to rush to the front and wait, sometimes for hours.

That is how it was on November 10. Three people representing the official London bid were already queuing before Sophie even opened up the meeting for discussion. That hardly makes for a fair and constructive debate. Louise Griffiths from the NGO War on Want commended the bid for its “wide support” and pointed out that “our magnificent mayor” was fully on board. She tried to justify the secretive and closed nature of the discussions up to now by claiming that the “process has not started yet” and claimed that the bidders “would never support something that is not truly inclusive”. In fact War on Want has had some major internal debates about the undemocratic nature of the bid and at one time even considered pulling out.

“The process” was of course started many months ago, when the SWP/GR first invited a number of selected organisations to join them. Since then, the comrades have had lots of time to open up the bid - and have consistently refused to do so. As comrade Sara from the London Wombles pointed out later, “There has not been one public meeting to discuss the bid. Everything has so far been done in secret. How can we trust those organisations to become all of a sudden democratic and inclusive?” she asked.

Certainly the SWP/GR could have avoided such criticisms, had they used the last six weeks to bring more organisations on board. At the previous ESF assembly, held in Paris on September 29-30, the bid was officially presented for the first time. It was only because there was no consensus on the frequency of our ESF gatherings that a final decision was not made - but an overwhelming majority was in favour of London hosting the next ESF. So the comrades created their own opposition by refusing to even discuss the bid in public.

It was the London Social Forum that hosted the only public debate on the issue on October 19, which was attended by Jonathan Neale of the SWP/GR and Kate Hudson from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (incidentally, Carol Naughton, the recently ousted chair of CND, has signed the LSF activists’ statement in order to make known her reservations).

At the October 19 LSF meeting, Jonathan Neale was asked by the CPGB’s Anne Mc Shane if he would personally make a commitment to fight for the organising meetings to be open to observers from now on, to which comrade Neale replied with a breathtakingly honest “No”. Though some 50 people heard him, the comrade claimed at the November 10 Paris assembly that he said no such thing. Instead, he disingenuously tried to use the Weekly Worker as evidence for the open nature of the negotiations around the bid: “The Weekly Worker has printed many details about the bid, so they are hardly a secret,” he said from the platform, conveniently forgetting to mention that this was purely down to the fact that CPGB members have successfully gatecrashed a number of secret meetings or been fed information by people involved. Having been repeatedly stung by the Weekly Worker, the SWP’s Socialist Review has, for the first time, finally mentioned the London bid (November).

Lee Jasper, the London mayor’s advisor on race relations, was the next speaker. The presence of Ken Livingstone’s tsar of multiculturalism indicates that London’s “magnificent mayor” wants the ESF in London - particularly in an election year. Undoubtedly, he is keen to offer support for the ESF in order to reassert his leftwing image - as mayor he has promoted big business and Tony Blair now wants him back in the Labour Party and running as its official candidate.

Jasper almost rivalled the SWP in his contempt of any criticism. Constantly shaking his head, laughing out loud or just stretching his arms skywards, whenever anyone dared question the official bid. In his contribution, he assured the meeting that “we have a great appetite to host the ESF”, before he went on to rather tediously name all the commissions he is chairing, which in total “represent 3.2 million African, Caribbean and Asian people” - almost as if he was speaking for every one of them personally.

“We can give you the best infrastructure and the best venues you could wish for,” he later told a smaller working group that was supposed to find a consensus on how to move forward. Asked if the GLA owned venues that it could provide for free, he boasted: “Do we own venues! Are you joking? We organise hundreds of big conferences every year.” Noticing that he did not actually answer the question, I asked him again a little later, to which he replied that the GLA “does not own them directly, but we just have to get on the phone and get the owners to sponsor the event. No problem at all”.

In his contribution, the SWP’s Chris Nineham gave a strange performance. The comrades normally pose left when they are addressing the European audience. Not this time: “I can understand the impatience of the radicals in the movement. But we need to be serious. We need to learn how to work together,” he said, visibly amusing the other participants. Most seemed to clearly remember the SWP’s antics at last year’s ESF, where the comrades waved ‘F**k capitalism’ placards and constantly shouted ‘One solution - revolution’ - undoubtedly their version of being “serious”.

The rest of the revolutionary left in Britain unfortunately have been content to remain on the sidelines. Four comrades from Workers Power sat in the last row throughout the meeting, chatting to each other and not intervening once. “It’s gonna come to London, and the SWP will run it in an undemocratic fashion anyway, so why bother?” one young comrade told us. Fighting talk. Meanwhile, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had organised a meeting “with international supporters”, which took place at the same time as the ESF assembly at the other end of Paris. They did not even send along an observer.

Unfortunately the SWP’s control-freakery and determination to bring on board respectable bodies seem to have had the effect of alienating some of them. Previously, organisations quoted as officially supporting the official bid included the Communication Workers Union, the National Union of Journalists, the international committee of Unison and the London branch of RMT. In a paper distributed by the SWP’s Chris Nineham on November 10, these trade unions have magically vanished. Only the South East Region TUC is mentioned. It looks like the comrades were a little quick in claiming their support.

The London region of the RMT is not too pleased that its name has been used by the SWP. Secretary Oliver New has issued an open letter to the official bidders, in which he makes clear that “we have not really discussed the London bid, let alone had any input into any debate on how such a bid should be structured and organised. We do not want to be quoted or used to support any position that we are not familiar with. Our support for the ESF rests on the fact that it is open and involves workers, campaigners and activists from across a wide spectrum.” The letter concludes that “there is a tendency for enthusiastic left currents to put their own interpretations on union positions, which can draw a reaction from us, so forgive this email if we have misunderstood the situation”.

Others have expressed themselves similarly. Hannah Griffiths from Friends of the Earth sent me an email in which she writes: “As you know, we do not support the bid, as it was done in too much of a rush.” Oxfam, an often-quoted old favourite in the SWP’s list of ESF supporters, is not mentioned on the paper that was handed out in Paris either.

However, that is now behind us. We in Britain have a duty and every interest in building the ESF in 2004 as a wide democratic space open to all progressive voices. That will mean trying to overcome fears of SWP domination and manipulation and seeking to draw in the input of NGOs, trade unions, small autonomist protest groups, leftwing organisations ... everyone who wants to see a better Europe.

In that way ESF 2004 can have a huge impact on Britain and help in the process of cohering and organising a viable mass opposition to New Labour and its neoliberal agenda.