Government and opposition

With only five months left to go before our European Social Forum in London, things are still lagging behind. The latest meeting of the organising committee on May 16 highlighted some of the problems we still face. Tina Becker reports

Members of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action are fond of accusing us of writing reports that are "too negative". Apparently we focus "only on the problems" and "not the progress". The more inane even say we aim to "destroy the ESF". And, of course, the fact that the Weekly Worker regularly and accurately covers developments in the ESF has been used to impose a veil of secrecy. This absurd control-freakery means that not even affiliated organisations are allowed to know who else has signed up or which organisations have donated money.

But I doubt even those comrades would be able to put a positive spin on what happened at the latest organising committee on May 16. Attended by just over 50 people, the meeting highlighted the fact that relations between the different organisations involved in the ESF are getting worse not better. On the one side there is the SWP-SA 'government' and on the other the 'democratic opposition' - there are now very few who even try to sit in the middle, not belonging to one camp or the other. Quite frankly the reason for this division lies completely with the SWP-SA who have proved quite incapable of bringing others on board. The only response to criticism the SWP-SA bloc knows is bureaucratic exclusion and ostracism - which unsurprisingly is not taken kindly by an opposition which is both growing and hardening - it now meets before ESF events.

Not that we do not have important differences with some of the forces involved in the 'opposition' - a lot come from anarchist backgrounds and have a distinct anti-party (any party, not just the SWP) outlook. Others represent the NGO sector and have an approach that is basically reformist. But there are also a good few people who describe themselves as socialists and communists. And all of them are united in their desire to establish a more democratic, open and transparent ESF process. None of them are afraid to openly debate their methods of organisation (as opposed to the SWP and SA) and they have more of a chance of getting new groups involved into the ESF than the 'government'. Take, for example, the Europe Creative Forum: around 600 people attended each of their two events, which were used to promote the London ESF.

On the other hand, the SWP-SA have focused heavily on getting first Ken Livingstone and then the official trade union structures on board and have been unsuccessful in attracting new forces. Although there is always the possibility that other organisations have indeed affiliated and simply do not show up at our organising meetings. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to know ... anyway May 16 featured all the same old faces.

It got off to a bad start when the agenda was debated for 45 minutes - without a conclusive outcome. Members of the opposition had understood that the agenda - as discussed by the coordinating committee a few days earlier - would focus first on some of the pressing practical issues. How much money has been pledged and by whom? How will the website be run? How are we going to decide who should staff our office? At the moment, it is staffed by four 'seconded' volunteers, who have been appointed as a fait accompli from amongst the 'governing' bloc. Once we have enough money (which is still short), there is supposed to be a formal job application process.

But for this to happen, we would need to know if and when we can expect any money. Yet this is still being treated as secret information for the eyes of the 'government' only. The word is that the GLA will give a (low) six-figure sum, which will be more or less equalled by donations from various trade union organisations. This would come roughly to £450,000 - the rest of the £1.5 million needed would have to be raised from registration fees. But such questions are not for public consumption and so practicalities and finance are always pushed right down the agenda - normally falling off altogether.

Comrades from the SWP and SA therefore insisted that we should focus on the five or six programmatic themes, which will serve as a guide for the ESF programme: the plan is that all plenary sessions, seminars and workshops would fall under one or another of the themes (or axes, as they are called by our European comrades). Not surprisingly, this item turned out to be the only thing we discussed. It is, of course, an important debate. However, not only has it been debated at length by the programme group and the coordinating group, but the themes will almost certainly be changed by our European comrades at the international programme working group, which meets on May 29-30 in Paris. But SA comrades especially were very keen that it should be the main item on the agenda.

By the way, has anybody seen Redmond O'Neill recently? Ken Livingstone's appointed adviser for transport (and a longstanding member of Socialist Action) has been the leading person in the process right from the start. However, he has not turned up for any ESF meetings for almost a month. The couple of GLA representatives who still attend our meetings generally do not intervene, but play facilitating roles - taking minutes, making photocopies, etc. This is the role they should indeed be playing, but it seems Ken Livingstone has chosen to keep a low profile for the time being, maybe because the mayoral and GLA elections are now looming large. Undoubtedly, comrade O'Neill still pulls the strings in the background and makes sure his SA comrades argue for the things that are important to Ken - although none of them come close to being as eloquent or authoritative as Redmond.

While most of these six themes proved uncontroversial, there was debate around two questions. Naima Bouteldja from Just Peace UK suggested that the anti-racism theme should not just state our opposition to "racism, islamophobia and fascism", but also include "anti-semitism". A muslim herself, she pointed out that anti-semitism is a very real phenomena, particularly in eastern Europe, and should not be ignored. She was backed up by up to a third of people in the meeting, but the SWP - arguing that anti-semitism was not really an issue - would have none of it. The chair, Rahul Patel (SWP and London Unison), ruled "no consensus" and so the debate was finished after 10 minutes or so.

However, another suggested amendment received quite different treatment from comrade Patel. Anne Kane (SA and Abortion Rights) reported that a meeting of women's organisations interested in the ESF had met and decided that they wanted the theme on democracy amended: the formulation "Demanding democracy, citizenship and equality" should have the addition of "and justice for women". Interestingly, the comrades are very much against a women's day at the ESF, as happened in Florence and Paris - but they are extremely insistent that this particular formulation finds its way into the theme's title.

A wide range of people spoke against this suggestion - if women are mentioned separately, why not also fight for "justice" for disabled people, migrants or black people? Surely "equality" includes them all in any case? Somebody also pointed out (correctly) that this theme was supposed to deal mainly with the question of Europe, which is not even mentioned in the wording. It is of course possible that any GLA donation is linked to particular themes being highlighted in the ESF programme (which would explain the SWP-SA comrades' absolute insistence) but they certainly did not say so.

Instead, they resorted to demagogy. Louise Hutchins, for example, said it was "completely outrageous" that people should argue "against what women want". It was "completely absurd" and "destroying the ESF process" (again). Her SA comrade, Sarah Colborne (officially representing the Palestine Solidarity Campaign), went further: "I really cannot understand this. Everybody who opposes this amendment is simply against women's liberation." Obviously this was greeted with the contempt it deserved. Come back, Redmond, all is forgiven!

Instead of ruling "no consensus", noting the disagreement in the minutes and moving on to the next issue, comrade Patel tried over and over again to push the amendment through. After a fruitless debate of more than 40 minutes, he then tried to impose it by stating that "only affiliated organisations are allowed to decide on this issue". This led to predictable chaos, where both sides hurled abuse containing the word 'fuck' at each other in an impressive range of variations (SWP comrades might not dare spell the word, but they certainly know how to pronounce it - though, to be frank, overexcited members of the opposition outdid them in terms of both volume and quantity).

The opposition raised a number of reasons why such a procedure would be highly undemocratic. Not only do we not know which organisations are properly affiliated, but there are a large number of groups who have not yet joined simply because the company structure has still not been finalised. NGOs like Friends of the Earth and the World Development Movement insist they cannot be held responsible for any financial losses - an ESF company is supposed to protect all organisations. Furthermore, affiliation applications are taking weeks to be processed - Red Pepper comrades said they were still awaiting official confirmation. Other groups stated that they simply do not want to affiliate just to "hand their money over" to the SWP-SA, who refuse to be held accountable in what they are doing with it. Incidentally, the CPGB was one of the first groups to affiliate, even if it had to be done under the name of Weekly Worker (as opposed to the first two ESFs in France and Italy, the British ESF now prohibits political parties from openly participating).

After almost an hour, comrade Patel finally gave up and it was agreed that the formulation would be left untouched - by which time we had exactly 15 minutes left to get through the rest of the agenda. The only item we covered was our representation on the international programme working group. Alex Gordon, for the RMT union, put forward a slate of four people that seems to have been discussed with the SWP-SA prior to the meeting - judging by the total absence of anybody from the 'opposition'. He suggested Jonathan Neale (SWP), Sarah Colborne, a trade union rep ("probably myself") and somebody from the anti-war movement ("Kate Hudson or Andrew Burgin"). Not surprisingly, this was thrown out pretty quickly. All in all, eight people expressed an interest in attending (the other four were Naima Bouteldja, Dave Timms from WDM, Helena Kotkowska from Attac and Anne Kane). However, by this time, the atmosphere had got so poisonous that no decision was made. So it looks like we might get represented by all of them in Paris - at least a fair sign of the mistrust that exists.

Not surprisingly, this mistrust has also led to some groups starting to plan for counter-events and add-on meetings during the official ESF. For example, the semi-attached group, Let's Link, has recently booked Conway Hall for Saturday October 16. This was described at the coordinating committee meeting of May 13 as "completely outrageous" (Chris Nineham) and "sabotaging the ESF" (Milena Buyum from SA and National Assembly against Racism). Comrade Nineham (SWP) suggested that "we should send them a very strongly worded letter, demanding that they immediately hand over the booking and commit themselves never to do anything like this again". A typically arrogant formulation, which was quite rightly amended to "We should ask them if they would not prefer to be part of the official ESF structure", as suggested by Red Pepper's Oscar Reyes.

What this highlights, of course, is that some groups simply do not feel represented by the official ESF structures and will therefore do their own thing. Something best rectified by inclusion and ending control-freakery, not hectoring ultimatums.