ESF - learn from mistakes

Tina Becker reports the latest from the European Social Forum

December 3 saw the first public meeting to discuss the holding of the 2004 European Social Forum in Britain. On a cold Wednesday afternoon, over 130 people crammed into a meeting room in the Greater London Authority building next to Tower Bridge - although not before undergoing a number of security checks.

It seems the official bidders around the Socialist Workers Party want to reproduce the ‘French method’ of organising the ESF when it comes to Britain. The comrades gave out a short leaflet in which they outlined how the process they want us to adopt worked in Paris - right down to the ban on political parties, previously opposed by the SWP.

The meeting was originally organised by some of the NGOs involved in what had been up to then the small inner circle of those invited by the ESF ‘bidders’. Apparently, or so we were told semi-officially by those NGOs, the gathering was supposed to be a “reconciliation meeting” between those groups that have been allowed on board the process on the one hand (at its core the SWP, aka Globalise Resistance, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, War on Want and the GLA) and, on the other hand, the rest of the numerous organisations and campaigns who have been kept out.

Unfortunately, not much reconciliation was going on. Rather than allowing for space where those left out could have aired their frustrations, the agenda of the two-hour meeting was crammed with detailed organisational tasks, including the selection of a steering committee (or ‘working group’ in ESF-speak). This was not helped by the fact that there was no pre-published agenda available - and no written one on the day either. So joint chairs Kate Hudson of CND and Maureen O’Mara (president of Natfhe) just read out the agenda once from the top table. Pre-chosen speakers opened on the various subjects, often giving rally-type speeches. Madeleine Kingston, a GLA employee, announced from the top table that she would take minutes, noting the “most important decisions” - although these have not yet been published anywhere, as far as I know.

This was certainly a missed opportunity, and one which led, rather predictably, to those not in the know raising criticisms of the closed process during other agenda items - and not always in the most rational manner. But instead of acknowledging mistakes, the ‘bidders’ defended their method of organisation. The SWP’s Alex Callinicos even suggested that we should not look back: “What is the point of talking about what has happened? We need to look forward now,” he said. Not exactly a method that Marxists usually advocate. If we do not learn from our past mistakes, we are bound to make the same errors over and over again.

The big turnout (during working hours) showed that there is a real desire by organisations, campaigns and individuals to get involved in order to make the ESF a success. However, as only two representatives from each organisation were officially allowed to participate, we were treated to some rather bizarre affiliations: While Chris Nineham was there for the Stop the War Coalition, Jonathan Neale represented Oxford Globalise Resistance and Alex Callinicos spoke on behalf of ‘Project K’, “an alliance of anti-capitalist magazines”. Not one member of the Socialist Workers Party was officially present, though I counted about 15 of them. CPGB and Workers Power stuck to a couple of reps each, while the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Socialist Party sent nobody.

The organised left was certainly in a minority, with green/anarchist groups considerably outnumbering us. The Communication Workers Union sent two representatives, as did Unison London and the RMT, though it was interesting to observe their different takes. Steve Bell (South Wales CWU, apparently linked to Socialist Action) and Geoff Martin (London Unison) had obviously been approached by the bidders previously and gave uncritical support to the process as currently proposed. Alex Gordon (RMT executive) was less gushy. He corrected Kate Hudson when she (again) included the RMT in a list of organisations which officially support the bid - as did Hannah Griffiths from Friends of the Earth. Comrade Gordon also pointed out that “there are many organisations and campaigns out there who do not even know about the ESF coming to Britain” and urged everyone to “spread the message quickly”.

There were two proposals on how the whole process should be organised. They are certainly not mutually exclusive and a group of volunteers were to meet on December 10 to try to merge them as well as to prepare for December 13-14. It was agreed that this assembly, our first, would discuss the tasks of the working group, which will officially be chosen at a UK assembly in January. Until then, the group of volunteers will make some of the most pressing decisions, always meeting in public.

The structural proposal put together by those involved in the London Social Forum makes some detailed suggestions about the role of the ESF assembly, the UK assembly and the working group. Crucially, it makes the case for all these structures to “meet in public, publish their agendas and discussion documents” and “make available full minutes”. It argues that the working group, which is “wholly accountable to the UK assembly”, should be open to expansion, but also that its members should be liable to recall.

The proposal put forward by Kate Hudson from the top table on behalf of the bidders consists of simply using the French method. It does not specify the role of the working group, merely stating that it “consisted of 30 people” and was “made up of representatives of groups able to contribute time and/or resources to the organisation”. It needs to be pointed out that under ‘French rule’ there were no agendas, no minutes, no photocopied documents. The same person, Sophie Zafari, chaired every single assembly, without ever taking notes or really trying to facilitate proper decision-making.

Most controversially, the proposal presented by comrade Hudson states that “political parties were formally excluded”. Although comrade Hudson is a member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and should know better, she twice repeated that “the ESF is a non-party event. Political parties are not allowed to take part”.

This is of course not true and I am quite intrigued why the SWP did not challenge it. But then it would not be the first political party to defend this particular ban.

The World Social Forum’s ‘Charter of principles’ was put together by a small group of people around the Workers Party of Brazil (PT). It has never been voted on, but still everybody who wants to take part in any of the regional forums must support it. It states that “neither party representations nor military organisations shall participate in the forum”.

In the run-up to the first ESF in Florence, the ESF assemblies discussed this question on various occasions - and the overwhelming majority of participants always argued for this ban to be overturned. Not only are parties part of the movement, we argued, but all that would happen if this ban were enforced is that parties would hide behind various fronts. In the name of transparency and open debate, parties should be allowed to take part. Then, the SWP was still arguing against the ban.

After several months of debate, the Italian comrades were able to cobble together a compromise with the World Social Forum. This compromise, reached at the ESF assembly in July 2002 in Thessaloniki, was confirmed by a number of later assemblies. Essentially it amounts to this: at the forum itself, representatives of parties cannot officially speak from the platform (except in the workshops or the special seminars that discuss the role of parties and the movement). But every country can decide for itself whether to allow political parties to take part in national ESF mobilisations. France is - to my knowledge - the only country with a large and rooted workers’ movement that has decided to ban parties.

That does not mean that there were no party members involved in organising the ESF. Quite the opposite. The leading organisers were all members of either the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, the French Communist Party or the Socialist Party. It seems that certain parties started supporting the ban once they got their own feet under the table. Not an example we should emulate in Britain.

Holding the European Social Forum in Britain gives us a great opportunity to make the event more radical, more democratic and also more effective. It must be an event that takes the process of left unity across Europe onto a higher organisational and political level. Setting up European-wide networks was totally sidelined by our French comrades. Apart from a number of joint days of action, there has been no attempt to bring our forces closer together.

Bold new ideas are needed to overcome the unfortunate division of the European left across national lines. But for this, the ESF needs to be radically reformed. We need: