Bureaucratic grip tightens

The London Mayor is in control of preparations for the European Social Forum. Tina Becker reports

Mayor Ken Livingstone and his political appointees in the Greater London Authority have firmed up their grip on the European Social Forum, which is due to take place in Britain in 2004. Via his policy director for public affairs and transport, Redmond O'Neill, Livingstone has unfortunately been able to keep information about preparations for the ESF restricted to a charmed circle, including a few trusted NGOs and trade union officials. Sadly, but not exactly surprisingly, the Socialist Workers Party has allowed itself to be used as Ken's obedient foot soldiers.

The SWP has simply ignored instructions from the last ESF European assembly, apparently following 'requests' made by the GLA. The result: the official structures of the ESF have been paralysed for the last four weeks.

Readers of the Weekly Worker will be aware of the numerous other problems. For months reps of the SWP, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain and certain GLA officials (some of whom belong or used to belong to Socialist Action) have been meeting in private. Requests to open up the process and involve others have gone unanswered. Proposals for democratic structures have likewise been brushed aside. However, things have got even worse since the European assembly in December.

This weekend will see our first UK assembly to prepare for the ESF. The intention had been for this gathering to decide on a structure for the preparatory process: how often we meet, the role of the working groups, the venues for the ESF assemblies, etc. Also, we were supposed to decide on the role and composition of a facilitating committee/organising group, the important question of affiliation fees (should poorer organisations be exempt?) and there were to have been report-backs from the various working groups that have started to meet just before Christmas.

The European ESF assembly, the highest body of the ESF process which met on December 13-14 in London, decided that a 'volunteers group' was to come together which would make all the necessary preparations for our UK assembly. This group was also supposed to help iron out the different ideas on structure and affiliation fees which have been put forward. For example, while Chris Nineham (SWP/Globalise Resistance) called for a facilitating committee composed of "as many trade union representatives, NGOs and groups like the Muslim Association of Britain as possible", others have emphasised the need for a working group, which would bring together those organisations and individuals actually prepared to put in the necessary work - rather than sport the correct name tag.

Last but not least, the volunteers group was asked to make sure that as many organisations and individuals as possible were informed that the ESF will be coming to Britain. As RMT representative Alex Gordon put it, we were supposed "to launch an active campaign to spread the word". This was of crucial importance, as things have so far taken place mainly in secret and many organisations are still not even aware that the ESF will be coming to Britain.

About 40 people wanted to help prepare the UK assembly and left their contact details with the chair of the last session, Claire Williams (Unison/SWP). Most people expected that the first meeting of the volunteers group would take place before Christmas, and, when no information was forthcoming, it was then assumed that it would convene at the beginning of January. Unfortunately, silence was all we got from Claire. Numerous people emailed her and left messages, while I offered to take the job off her hands if she was too busy. But no response from her, or any other SWP member, was forthcoming. At a meeting of the practicalities working group on January 8, the only SWP member present, Guy Taylor, said he was "sure that Claire is sorting it out". We then delegated Natfhe's president Maureen O'Mara to contact Claire (via Claire's partner, Kenny Bell, who is Unison branch secretary in Newcastle, but not a member of the SWP). All Maureen could report back was that she understood comrade Williams to be dealing with the email list "so that the next meeting can be organised".

To cut a long story short, the volunteers group has not met. Instead, when more and more people posted angry emails on the ESF UK list, Dave Holland (GLA manager for European and international affairs) simply sent out a short notice on January 16, informing people that the UK assembly would take place in the City Hall, but not how it was that he ended up doing the inviting. He also announced that the meeting would only last four hours - nowhere near enough to sort out all the problems. But maybe that is exactly the point.

More light was shed on this by a follow-up email posted by Kenny Bell a day later. He disingenuously stated that, "As the body which was to plan the meeting on January 24 has not been able to meet, the GLA was asked to provide meeting rooms, which it has done." His email also contained a proposed agenda. However, it did not mention either who put the agenda together or who it was that "asked the GLA to provide meeting rooms".

Apparently, Claire and Kenny have been "given to understand" that the GLA would prefer that the volunteers group should not meet, which explains why they have been sitting on the contact details. To be fair, it has also been reported that both were "very unhappy" with this situation. There is no question that Claire would have received her instructions from SWP centre. Why Kenny did not rebel against this undemocratic manoeuvre is another question.

Some people around the London Social Forum have mused that what we were seeing followed on from Livingstone's readmission into the Labour Party. He did not need the ESF any more, they thought, and the silence and absence of organisation meant that the GLA (with the SWP in tow) have dropped the ESF ball. But that is certainly not the case.

A few further incidents shed more light on what exactly is going on. Our practicalities group delegated comrade John Street (a member of the Green Party, although not its representative) to get in touch with Redmond O'Neill's office to try and improve communication regarding the various venues that could be used during the ESF. At the European assembly O'Neill had given a lengthy report in which he outlined that he had contacted dozens of venues and had been given prices and conditions for their hire. As no GLA representative attended the two meetings of the practicalities group, it proved rather difficult to proceed on this particular question. Which venues had already been contacted? What prices had been given? Surely, the GLA would have been quoted preferential prices, which we would need to know about.

John got in touch with Dave Holland who referred him to his sidekick, Madeleine Kingston. Only after John repeatedly pressed for an answer did she reply in writing: "Sorry, I am not able to respond to your email at present." When he phoned her up, she advised him to speak to "other ESF people about this". She had obviously been instructed not to pass on any information and ignore any decisions or requests of the ESF working groups.

As a result, the practicalities working group has lapsed into inactivity. Suggestions to set up task-orientated email lists were dropped, because "this group does not really have the authority to do that", as Guy Taylor said. Neither did it have the authority to open a bank account or make any other firm arrangements. In effect, the 50 or so eager people who have attended meetings of the practicalities group at one stage or another were left in limbo.

For example, we do not know if any trade union branches have been successfully approached for funds (the volunteers group was supposed to organise this), although we have only five weeks left to meet the GLA-imposed deadline of March 1 to find a sum in the region of one million pounds (see Weekly Worker December 18). Apparently though, the London regional branch of Unison will be asked at its next meeting to support the ESF and donate £50,000. The international committee of Unison will discuss a motion to "match-fund" whatever the London committee has pledged. This would be great news - if it was officially confirmed.

It has since transpired that, far from having dropped the project, the GLA has staged a number of meetings with trade union officials over the Christmas period and the beginning of January. Undoubtedly though, we have not seen the end of ESF meetings behind closed doors. In fact, they are set to increase as time goes on. A secretive structure, controlled by the GLA and defended by the SWP, suits them far better than the laborious, semi-democratic structures the ESF has been operating under for the last three years.

In this, the consensus 'principle' has actually played into the hands of those who want to carry on organising in a secretive manner. As our European assembly could not reach consensus on many items, these were referred back to the volunteers group. But this group itself was supposed to be an interim solution, only existing because people could not agree on a proper structure. By simply sidelining the volunteers group, the organisations 'in the know' have been able to carry on their negotiations behind closed doors, while claiming a degree of legitimacy. After all, things must get organised, mustn't they? By the time we actually get a facilitating committee together, the most important decisions will almost certainly have already been taken. All democratic forces must pull together at Saturday's short UK assembly to make sure the ESF can be rescued from the clutches of the GLA and Ken Livingstone. He undoubtedly expects this huge European-wide event to substantially boost his leftwing credentials and allow him to promote himself as the Labour alternative to Tony Blair and New Labour.

The CPGB will again be critically supporting the 'Proposals for a democratic ESF preparatory process', despite its unfortunate insistence on the consensus principle and the reference to the World Social Forum's 'Charter of principles'. We support it because it actually lays down detailed guidelines for role of the ESF assembly, the UK assembly and the working groups. Crucially, it makes the case for all these structures to "meet in public, publish their agendas and discussion documents" and "make available full minutes".

But at the end of the day no one should put their trust in guidelines, constitutions or charters. The London ESF will be a success to the degree that it ceases to be the property of GLA officials, trade union bureaucrats and even leftwing activists. The ESF must be about the broad mass of London's population. Hence we look to self-activity. Trade union branches, shop stewards committees, constituency and ward Labour parties, borough-wide social forums, tenant groups, campaigning organisations, school and college students, artists, musicians, migrant organisations, squatters, women's groups, etc, etc, each can be won to plan what they want to do for the ESF. Let there be an explosion of creativity and imagination from below. It is to such a London that we want to invite thousands upon thousands of anti-capitalists from across the whole of Europe. We have much to learn from each other, we will surely organise together more closely "¦ and certainly together we shall celebrate our common striving for a better world.

* First ESF UK assembly 1pm to 5pm, GLA City Hall, Queen's Walk, London SE12