Defend ESF from Tory attacks

The ESF has been attacked for being a "waste of money". Utter nonsense, says Tina Becker. But, nonetheless, all progressive forces must work hard to ensure it will be money well spent

It was only a matter of time until reactionary forces finally spotted that the European Social Forum is coming to London. On July 19, the Conservatives’ group in the Greater London Authority published a screaming press release: “Livingstone to waste £400,000 of taxpayers money!” As we go to press, it is still the main item on their website.

With Livingstone’s public invitation to the controversial Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to speak at the ESF, the Tories were of course given an ideal opportunity to tell the world their version of what our event was really all about:

“Ken Livingstone is set to spend an amazing £400,000 of taxpayers’ money to fund a conference of the European Social Forum. The social forum movement exists, in its own words, to ‘struggle against the inequitable and undemocratic processes and outcomes of capitalist society: privatisation, corporate power, war, global debt and poverty, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia, the erosion of civil liberties, asylum law, prison slavery, animal exploitation’ - the list is endless!

“The mayor is proposing to take £239,000 from GLA budgets and add it to £150,000 he agreed to spend on the event back in May. The conference will be held at Alexandra Palace and this is the event the mayor has invited Dr al-Qaradawi back to in October.

“This proposal is an absolute disgrace and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. This conference is nothing more than a get-together of leftwing pressure groups. Londoners are already struggling to pay their GLA precept because the mayor doubled it in his first four-year term - it looks like he is set to double it again in his next four years!”

This attempt to kick up a fuss over the ESF has not (yet) been taken up by the media. I could not find one major newspaper picking up on this particular ‘scandal’. Perhaps even publishing houses with a deeply reactionary agenda are embarrassed to be seen to be giving implicit support to all the evils listed by the Tories. There again, perhaps not!

In fact, the ESF fits ideally into Livingstone’s backing for a range of perceived ‘good causes’ - for which, of course, Londoners elected him twice as their mayor. Be it a £50,000 donation to the National Assembly Against Racism or funding the recent conference of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with £15,000 - most people would not be particularly outraged over such expenditure and in many cases would certainly go along with it.

A totally different story, however, was Livingstone’s recent promotion of six of his advisers - amongst them two members of Socialist Action, Redmond O’Neill and John Ross, who are now earning £111,000 a year as directors. Another SA member, Simon Fletcher, was re-appointed head of staff on a whopping £117,000. There was no newspaper in which this “cronyism” was not criticised.

The ESF is a different kettle of fish altogether. The first two forums in Florence and Paris were quite obviously not anarchist brawls. The (‘official communist’) mayor of St Denis, in Paris, opened last year’s event, which was subsidised by local authorities and the central government of Jacques Chirac to the tune of over €3 million (£2 million), while the comrades in Italy were given free use of the main venue by local authorities. Generally media coverage of both events was not unfair or overtly hostile. We are told that this year, the BBC is planning to cover our ESF in a similar way to the annual conferences of the three major political parties: with regular, short mentions in BBC1 and BBC2 news programmes and more detailed coverage in regional and other BBC channels.

No doubt, the bourgeois media could collectively turn against the ESF in an instant. One of the best ways to ensure that such attacks will take place is by attempting to keep organisational and financial details of the ESF secret. As if we have got something to hide, something to be ashamed of.
Any half-decent journalist would start rooting about once they hear that particular items are “banned from being reported”. Livingstone himself has of course slapped such a reporting ban on the details of the ESF budget, which is administered by his lackeys in Socialist Action.

The Conservatives’ press release, however, shows that demands to keep financial details secret are futile. As if it were possible to stop the Tories or the Evening Standard from finding out how much London’s mayor would spend on such a huge event. It is a disgrace that it is via the Conservative Party that hundreds of ESF activists have found out how much money the GLA is to contribute.

In reality, Livingstone is using GLA money as a weapon to impose political and organisational control over the ESF. Almost every piece of information is deemed ‘classified’ and only Socialist Action members seem to be in the know. Socialist Workers Party comrades are being fed some information, but recent weeks have shown that they have somewhat fallen out of favour with the mayor. The Weekly Worker, of course, has been accused of playing into the hands of reactionary forces, because we openly report on developments in the ESF - including the democratic shortcomings and financial difficulties.

Communists defend the ESF from reactionary attacks. But we also fight against any attempt to turn it into a bland Livingstone jamboree. If anything, we should criticise our ESF for being too safe; for being too much linked to bourgeois and state institutions; for not doing more to combat not only the countless injustices caused by capitalism, but the system itself.

So fraught have the preparations been that we have not even started to discuss which joint, European-wide campaigns should emerge at the end. It was at the first two ESFs, for example, that the huge global anti-war demonstrations were organised. The first, hesitant steps were also taken to set up European-wide networks of groups around various issues.

Many ESF activists expected this third event to make a qualitative leap forward. The necessity for such progress is all too obvious: Iraq is still occupied, including by troops from Europe; the new EU constitution is a thinly veiled attempt to legitimise quasi-democratic institutions and methods of rule; capitalist governments across Europe are using the so-called demographic time bomb to raise the retirement age, attack pension rights and to generally degrade welfare provision.

It is with the utmost urgency that we must now focus our energies on how we can respond in a united way to those attacks. How will international networks be facilitated in October? What room will there be in Alexandra Palace for the (slowly) emerging European-wide campaign against the EU constitution? How can we internationalise the French-Italian campaign for European citizenship?
All progressive forces must pull together to fight for the ESF to move up a gear or two. The European left must unite on a higher organisational and political level - neither the Tories nor Ken Livingstone should be allowed to prevent that.