Fraught beginnings

European Social Forum: After a heated debate, it was finally agreed that our first UK ESF assembly on January 24 would decide on the issue, a short text to which affiliates could sign up, and the composition and function of the working group.

“A pretty drastic reality check.” This is how a French participant described our first European assembly to prepare for the European Social Forum in Britain in 2004. About 200 people gathered together on December 13-14 in London’s City Hall. It was a roller coaster of emotions. Not a few left on Sunday afternoon still unsure if the ESF in Britain will actually become a reality. Besides the absence of hard cash there is certainly not enough trust between the different groups and viewpoints to ensure smooth and effective planning. And a deadline of March 1, by which we have to find a “substantial amount of money”, is looming large (see opposite).

It all started so well ... The first discussion on the Saturday saw a lively and surprisingly comradely debate on our two previous forums, with most people in agreement. Speakers from the anarchist group, the Wombles, expressed similar conclusions to those of Socialist Workers Party comrades; trade union reps echoed speakers from the CPGB.

All agreed that, while the ESF in Paris last month was of course a great event and undoubtedly a success, nevertheless there had been some serious problems. It was hard to commute between the four venues and so it lacked the feeling of togetherness that was so tangible in Florence the year before.

The platforms of the plenary sessions were crowded with up to 10 speakers, chosen to fulfil national quotas, not in order to facilitate real debate. The founding of European-wide networks did not really happen. The ‘Call of the assembly of social movements’, which envisages three specific days of action in 2004, was put together behind closed doors and no contributions from the floor were allowed during the meeting that adopted its text. Disability access was poor. Security was harsh. And so no and so forth.

Speaker after speaker expressed the desire for our ESF in Britain to be more democratic, more interesting and more effective. We want to see international networks, which could come together throughout the year. We want real debates with opposing points of view. We want more space to get to know each other. Most agreed that we want to help to make the ESF “a process, not just an event”, to echo comrade Luciano Muhlbauer from the Italian trade union Sin Cobas and Rifondazione Comunista, who gave a brief introduction on the subject.

Things started to go wrong in the early afternoon, when Redmond O’Neil from the Greater London Assembly gave a short presentation on the preparations for the ESF 2004. He was rather undiplomatic, to put it mildly. Not only is the GLA perceived in many quarters as more of a problem than a solution. His message smacked of both arrogance and complacancy: “I have done a lot of work on this. Now it is up to you to find the money,” he declared. So the individuals, groups and campaigns who have been kept out of the preparations for so long - and who incidentally formed the vast majority of those who were there - are now suddenly handed the bill. In Paris and Florence, financial and administrative support came from left-dominated local authorities and trade unions. This was vital. Unfortuantely in Britian there is no bloc of trade unions lining up to give enough money. Nor are local councils rushing to help with offers of free venues. There is certainly no question of the Labour government supporting our event

Unsurprisingly, comrade O’Neil’s attempt to offload responsibility did not go down too well. Some - especially members of the Manchester Social Forum and the Wombles - started heckling and shouting at every speaker from the SWP (whose comrades announce themselves as anything but SWP - Globalise Resistance, Stop the War Coalition , ‘Project K’, Alex Callinicos’s new disguise ... The SWP had no more than 15 or so people there).

During the lunch break, comrades from the autonomist tradition unilaterally decided to turn all 200 chairs to face the middle - apparently in order to “facilitate consensus decision-making”, and because it is “anti-hierarchical”. That might well be true for meetings where participants have some common ground. In our case, it helped to turn an already tense situation into a snake pit. Emotions ran high, with people generally communicating by shouting and jumping to the front to snatch the mike from the chair.

Britain suffers from the lack of a politically hegemonic group that could draw people from different backgrounds together or mediate between them. In Italy, Rifondazione Comunista plays such a role to a degree. In France, Attac helps unite the divided left. Here, on the other hand, nobody trusts anybody else. The SWP might be the biggest of the groups involved. It also the organisation which arouses the most antipathy and suspicion.

This was shown on the Sunday during a session on ‘structures’, which discussed the way forward. Chris Nineham (SWP/Globalise Resistance) suggested that a future steering committee or working group would have to be “as representative as possible”. For example, he said, “we need lots of trade union representatives, somebody from the Muslim Association of Britain and somebody from the anti-war movement”. The composition of the working group had to “reflect strict and rigorous criteria”, comrade Nineham concluded. “And be as undemocratic as the Stop the War Coalition?” somebody from the back shouted.

The STWC executive has of course banned observers and does not allow anti-war activists to find out which of their leaders is arguing for which particular action or what kind of political debates are going on. Hence most people on Sunday simply did not believe the SWP would organise things in a democratic and open way this time round.

Many therefore favour the opposite: a totally disorganised structure, where everybody and anybody can turn up and decisions are made by an ever-changing cast of actors. “We do not need any committees or any fixed structures,” said comrade Mariangela from the Manchester Social Forum. She is wrong, of course. We need a committee. But it must meet in public, allow observers, publish its agendas and minutes and be accountable to all the many and varied groups and individuals involved in the ESF. “It also should be a working committee,” Tina Becker from the CPGB said. “If somebody from the MAB is interested in serious work, good. But our main criterion should be their willingness to put in real time and effort.”

The discussion did not go much better when it came to affiliation fees. Kate Hudson (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britian) and Alex Gordon (RMT union executive) proposed a sliding scale. Quite uncontroversial, one would think, and of crucial importance to get any kind of organisation off the ground. A similar structure operated in advance of the ESF in Paris. However, bad feelings had by now gone so far that even a starting fee of £15 was unacceptable to our autonomist friends. “The scale should start with zero,” they demanded and offered to raise funds “inside the ESF structure”. That begs the question as to why the comrades cannot do £15 worth of fundraising before they join.

After a heated debate, it was finally agreed that our first UK ESF assembly on January 24 would decide on the issue, a short text to which affiliates could sign up, and the composition and function of the working group. Until then, an interim working group will meet in public to prepare for the assembly and make day-to-day decisions. Another international assembly will take place on March 6-7 in London, at which we have to decide with our European comrades if we have actually raised enough money to go ahead.

On a positive note, a number of working groups have now started to get together. On December 18, the practicalities group will meet for the first time, while discussing the ESF programme will commence on January 10. Artists for the ESF are planning a full-day gathering on January 17. And an interim working group (ie, steering committee) will start meeting weekly just before Christmas.

Everyone should now get stuck into the organising process to make sure that the ESF is a success.