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Report from the First UK European Social Forum Process Meeting

Robin Green | 03.12.2003 23:47

Today (3rd December), a meeting was organised (by who? I'm still not sure) as a kind of start to the process of organising the third European Social Forum. It wasn't really the start, though, because it had apparently already been agreed at the European Assembly that the 2004 ESF would be held in Britain - and also for the reason that the 2004 ESF should and will be a continuation of the process started by the first ESF in Florence (and before that, the WSF in Porto Alegre in Brazil). What follows is a rough report I cobbled together from some hastily scribbled notes and my recollections - it should in no way be considered complete, because I missed out a lot in my notes, and so obviously please feel free to add your own recollections in the comments.

As transparency was a recurrent theme at the meeting, I've put a few words about myself at the end - not to blow my own trumpet, but merely to answer the question "Who wrote this report, and what are his agenda(s)?" Those who aren't interested in that question can, of course, ignore that bit.


The meeting was held at City Hall, London, and was chaired by the chair of CND and someone from NATFE, I believe. (I was about 15 minutes late so I missed most of the introduction.) Invitations were sent out by the Greater London Authority and by Globalise Resistance, and we were encouraged to forward on the invites, although unfortunately some people didn't hear about the meeting until a few days before it happened, and plenty of groups still haven't heard about the ESF at all (of which more in a minute).

In terms of the meeting organisation, what I thought was good was:

- An attempt was made to guard against the possibility of one group having undue influence on the discussion, by asking organisations to send no more than 2 people each. Judging by the range of groups represented by those who spoke from the floor, this guideline appears to have been followed and to have worked. That's not to say it's necessarily an ideal guideline in all contexts - but it was, I felt, a good attempt to help to create some sort of atmosphere of equality been groups.

What I thought was bad was:

- There weren't enough chairs. People were asked to RSVP beforehand, and it looked like only as many chairs as RSVPs were allocated, even though there was space for plenty more. This was obviously a bad idea. More chairs should have been allocated for overspill purposes. At least the Chair seemed to have arranged enough photocopies of the document describing the Paris structure - so photocopies were arranged with enough to spare, but not chairs... Latecomers ended up sitting on the tables at the back, or on the floor, or standing, during 2 hours or so.

- The structure was a table at the front with the Chairs sitting at it, then straight rows of chairs (i.e. a "platform" and a "floor" kind of structure, almost), with as I said a row of spare tables at the back on which latecomers could sit, and an open mike at the front at which people queued to speak, in between the Chair saying things or calling people to speak. (However, the open mike structure was abandoned in the last, rush segment, in which people just raised hands and were picked by the Chair to speak.) As some people "from the floor" said (I'll drop the "from the floor" from now on - just assume it unless otherwise stated) - it would ideally have been better to have a meeting arranged in a circle (although in this case I think that would have necessitated a bigger room to be booked).

- It wasn't clear to everyone (a) who had called the meeting and (b) the envisaged purpose and scope of the meeting. After the meeting, it still wasn't clear to me (although, I did arrive late). This, in that it caused consternation, was perhaps the biggest factor which led the meeting to overflow time-wise. Although, since this type of thing is new to many of us and since there is an inherent problem in bootstrapping a democratic organisation democratically (a point which was returned to again and again), it was probably inevitable that the meeting would get bogged down in that.

However, the Chair did make a point at the start of the meeting which I thought was important and I thought some of the participants ought to have paid more attention to. That is, the European Social Forum is the "property" (ironic word to use considering that some at the meeting were communists, but hey) of the ESF movement as a whole - "represented" by the European Assembly. (Actually, that's not correct - the EA is not supposed to represent the ESF movement as a whole, only itself. The EA is open to anyone from the ESF movement who wants to and can get involved, but no-one is allowed to speak on behalf of, or represent, the ESF movement as a whole - see the Porto Alegre principles. This was a not-so-subtle point which I think the Chair forgot. Unless and until we adopt changed principles, those are the principles we signed up to.) But OK, we get the general point, which is: we Brits cannot dictate to the rest of our European comrades what will be in the ESF 04 content-wise, where it will be held, or even how the decision making process for ESF 04 planning will be structured. That is all to be decided at the European level - at the next meeting on 13th/14th December, to which people from all over Europe are invited. It is completely open, by the way - the only exclusionary principle is that all attending must agree to the Porto Alegre principles within the ESF context. Rooms have been provisionally booked at City Hall and at the LSE, and it looks like it will be held at City Hall.

That raises the question of just what on earth we _were_ supposed to come to a decision on at this meeting - if anything! A legitimate question which some people were unsure about, including myself. To see how we resolved this, see the last part of my report (before "about the writer").

Now for a patchy record of who said what. Once again, my notes are incomplete, so apologies to those who didn't get included, or didn't get attributed, or got misquoted. Quotation marks were all inserted by myself, and are to be read as "scare quotes", not literal quotations.

War on Want rep.
- Make sure it's inclusive
- There have been criticisms of past ESFs - we could add our own ideas to improve things, "make it our own" - without of course forgetting that the EA has the "final say"
- The process is starting now. This is it.

Unison, London regional covenor
- Unison are up for helping with it
- Huge wealth inequalities in London - adverts up all over targeted at the rich like penthouse suites etc. - we could capitalise on this
- It's an opportunity to link up with non-union groups and European groups which we'd very much welcome
- Markets are becoming more and more "Europeanised" and globalised, we need to operate at european and global levels too

Worker's Power (newspaper) rep.
- Should debate the Porto Alegre principles, esp. the ban on parties (a recurring point both in and before the meeting)
- Also should debate the notion the ESF has of consensus-based decision-making - he said the EA declaration got very watered down "because of consensus-based decision-making".
- Musn't let the ESF submerge into a talking shop
- Be inclusive but need to make decisions - to link with action

The Chair interjected after the Worker's Power rep (or thereabouts) to say we need to focus on more immediate issues.

Alex Callinicos (who is a key SWP speaker - that's my note, not his), representing Project K., an alliance of critical Marxist journals
- Norms built up at Porto Alegre etc. should be followed. Decision making process should be decided by EAs.
- He supports London as a capital
- You could say it's Blair's capital, but you could also say it's the "capital of the anti-war movement"
- We need to learn to work together and compromise

Daniel Holland, Mayor's Office, International Affairs
- was asked to look into costs and resources need to put on an ESF in London
- In Paris, £1.6m went into it, including support from central gov. - also contributions in kind (as in Florence). Would be about the same cost for London.
- There were 91 venues, approx. 21,000 people were in the venues at any one time
- Probably about £1m can be raised through registration fees (with a concessionary price structure of course), merchandising, maybe catering profits. Which leaves half a million shortfall, at least. This needs to be met somehow. Not impossible but a challenge. Can't expect funding from central gov. like they got in Paris.

Christina, WDM
- Need to include people outside London. Before we plunge into a proposal, let's contact other groups (through our own networks)
- Manchester could cost less
- "We don't play the same capital game" could be a reason for _not_ choosing London.

Oxford GR rep.
- We have the support from the GLA, which is a plus for London that we wouldn't get elsewhere
- If Blair attacks us a la Berlusconi (my note: let's face it, he will, we know what he thinks of the "anarchist travelling circuses") we can rely on media backing from Ken Livingstone to back us up
- Enormous organising job to do!
- We'll need an enormous bunch of volunteers around the country and around London
- Massive accomodation problems - unlike Paris there are no cheap hotels - we need to find lots of people willing to put people up
- Out of the Florence post-ESF EA came the call for the gloal anti-war march in February
- Out of the Paris post-ESF EA (just last month!) came the call for nationwide occupations of French universities against tuition fees, which were successful!
(Someone else said "Let's move along quickly then and have the UK ESF as soon as possible, because we need a success like that!")

CPGB rep.
- Should have an official outreach process for Dec 13/14 (Note: The working group, see below, will in effect do this, although others are of course welcome and encouraged to do outreach too)
- Need agendas, minutes for meetings - should have a proper structure
- In discussions, the "WSF people" (who, exactly? it wasn't clear) apparently agreed with the ESF that it was "up to each country" whether political parties can take part in preparations officially. In France they were not allowed to. In Italy they were (and their muscle was useful there, IMO).
- Transparency, letting political parties come officially, is better than a situation where party members hide behind their newspaper affiliations, or front groups affiliations, or whatever

Footloose Community Arts rep.
- Should not have meetings during the week, it's bad for working people

Big Green Gathering rep.
- They have organised 5-day big events on less than half a million quid
- Lots of experience in event management, would be willing to lend their help
- Green perspective needs to be better represented at ESF
- As an events organiser professional, London seems best, realistically.
- Health&Safety at Paris ESF was sometimes appalling. BGG not only conform to the H&SE's guidelines, they've helped "write the book" on H&S! So they can help with that.
- Q: Who made the decision about the UK bid?

Another person shortly after said people were "very angry" at being kept out of meetings at Paris for H&S reasons even when they could see "there was space inside". I thought the implication of that was objectionable. You should not do unsafe things because health and safety is "bureacratic", rather you should arrange bigger venues, or if that is not possible, _educate_ people on the importance of health and safety.

Q News (Muslim newspaper) rep.
- Muslim community is about 10% of population in London
- Need to reach out to marginal communities
- Importance of independent media
- Disturbed by some tendencies in Paris - "secular fundamentalists" left / could leave Muslims feeling hurt, offended, wondering if they really wanted to be involved in the ESF.

I asked him after the meeting for specifics and he identified three main things: a strong tendency in the French left (not so much the European left, he said) to oppose aspects of Muslim cultural identity such as the woman's headscarf; arguments over that and Islamophobia which became quite heated almost to the point of violence; and the demonisation in the mainstream media of the Paris ESF for allowing an alleged "anti-semite", Tariq Ramadan, to speak there. I asked him whether he thought the criticisms of Tariq Ramadan were legitimate, and he said although he had perhaps used a bad way of putting things to criticise a certain person as "Pro-Zionist", the way he was treated in the media was outrageous.

By the way, Tariq Ramadan will be speaking (with Yvonne Ridley and George Galloway) at Friends Meeting House on Friday at 6:45 on "Confronting Imperialism: The Challenge of Diversity within the Movement". I intend to attend and see what he has to say, personally.

- On the 13th/14th we need to talk more about improvements over Paris ESF, e.g. getting more women and ethnic minorities to speak (presumably this meant speaking "from platforms", although it could also be taken more generally, obviously)

Barry White, on the NEC of the NUJ
- "I believe a different media is possible", he said, "some of you may not think that but I do" - not just more truthful but better treatment for journalists.

- Outreach - simple suggestion: Write 150 words saying why you are excited about ESF 04. Then email 5 people you know, 5 people who you don't know but are inspired by, and 5 groups that you don't know at all but are working in your local area. Use Google to find email addresses. Many of them will get deleted but every so often it will spark some interest. If we all do this we can build a massive pyramid and all get rich quick (he didn't say that last bit, I made that up, sorry).
- Q: Who made the decision to hold the meeting here?
- Further decisions on preparatory meetings should be made openly

- Let's not just think about raising money, but also about saving money. Do we really need it to cost 1.6 million?

- Luke, Revolution (Socialist)
- Sorry, but the Porto Alegre principles _haven't_ grown organically, they were undemocratically decided by a small group of people, and, he said, were "quite counterposed" to the movement in fact. (I don't know that I'd go quite that far!!)
- ESF-style "Consensus" != democratic-decision making
- In reality, it's decisions made behind closed doors between big organisations that
have clout, he said.
- Let's have more youth represented in organising ESF
- Youth Space
- Let's build local social forums

- Access to Paris ESF difficult even if you were able-bodied.


Roughly at this point, the Chair then presented one proposal "that had come to their attention" for the decision making structure for the UK ESF. That is, the structure for the Paris ESF preparation was proposed as a model for the UK ESF preparation. The photocopies handed out outlined a 3-level model: EAs, French Initiative Body and Paris ESF Working Group - but not enough detail was given - it said what they were composed of but not their scope, "authority/responsibility" or relations between them. This the Chair therefore tried to briefly explain, after some questions on those topics.

In the end, no decision was made on this issue of decision-making structures, pretty much. That's probably for the best - it's now an issue for the Europe wide meeting on the 13th/14th - as the Chair initially said it would be, and as even Callincos said it would be (according to my notes).

Rather, what did get people going was the questions of:

1. Who successfully bid for the UK / decided that the UK would host ESF 04, without a lot of the UK social movements / orgs really being consulted?

2. Who called _this_ meeting?

3. (Kind of implicit) Who is going to organise the next meeting (welcome people, set an agenda, etc.)?

The answers given / arrived at were:

1. No-one really properly answered this, despite repeated questions
The Chair at first gave a rather woolly answer involving "we have support from various unions, NGOs, the GLA, the Mayor's Office..." - but then, I imagine to her embarassment, two people from the audience spoke up and said to their knowledge their organisations (RMT union and FoE) had not participated in the _decision_, although they were of course _supportive_ - which is quite a different thing. This speaks to either the unrepresentativeness of the "bid process", or the undemocraticness of the organisations cited by the Chair, or both.

2. Again, no clear answer. Clearly the two people chairing at the front were amongst those calling the meeting, but it was not clear whether it was them alone. Does it matter? Maybe not that much, because...

3. It was decided by consensus, after much debate (and cajoling from the chair who quite rightly told people to keep their contributions short, and then towards the end not to speak more than once), to form a working group of volunteers purely temporarily, and with the SOLE MANDATE of organising the 13th/14th meeting. Nothing else. This allayed the fears of some who spoke up - particular the guy from the Wombles, who got to the point right away - to say that "working groups" often take on a life of their own and go beyond their original mandate, which is bad if they're unrepresentative/undemocratic. (Personally I would have been content to let a working group go ahead and be implicitly subject to recall as a matter of course if they did something we didn't like, but after reflection I think this "resolution" is a good idea.)

There was one other simple consensus decision that was made but I can't remember what it was (anyone?).

The Chair put forward one other "motion" (I noticed only the Chair seemed to be permitted to put "motions" to a "consensus", which I found objectionable) which was not "passed". She suggested that the UKIB should be all participating organisations. But this was objected to by one person on the grounds that the "movement of movements" is not just NGOs. What about individuals? (Also, I thought, the motion kind of presupposes a structure modelled after the Paris structure - or at least it wasn't clear whether or not it presupposed a Paris-like structure).

Right, that's it.


About the writer: I decided to come to the meeting as an individual because that was allowed (it wasn't clear from the invitation if only organisational reps were allowed), but I also consider myself a member of the animal rights movement and the democratic transhumanist movement. In terms of political beliefs, I am slightly skeptical of the "consensus" approach to decision making, and I'm also now slightly skeptical of anti-capitalism, because I believe well-regulated markets (and well-regulated explicitly includes good labour laws) operating in a mixed economy have certain positive characteristics (after all, as Marx recognised, "capitalism" brought us great technological advances). Some people say we don't need any more technological progress and therefore we don't need capitalist "efficiency" - but as a transhumanist I reject the premise of that particular line of argument.

Robin Green
- e-mail:


Display the following 9 comments

  1. ta — p
  2. We will post more tomorrow — Eat the Rich
  3. keep reporting — - - -
  4. The Muslim and the ESF ??? — Sukwinder
  5. getting our act together — for an organised esf
  6. reactionary headscarves?? — kurious
  7. Islamic headscarves - religious? or political? — yoshizawa
  8. and the point of all this is? — big time trot lover, mmmmm
  9. Thanks , see you saturday — Owain Pendragon
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