Eat-the-Rich | 26.01.2004 21:22 | European Social Forum
by Eat the Rich
Warning: its long but hopefully heplful.
At a European Preparatory Meeting (EPA) just prior to the 2nd European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris, November 12-16 2003, a decision was taken to host the next ESF, scheduled for November 2004, in Britain. This consensus was only reached following an agreement that (1) the venue for the ESF 2004 would not necessarily be London (2) an EPA would convene in London on December 13-14 to help the UK groups and movements committed to the ESF process to find a way forward. This provisional agreement to bring the ESF to the UK in 2004 followed months of acrimony within the UK ESF mobilisation network over both the
logic of bidding for a UK ESF for 2004, and the way in which such a bid was being conducted. In short, a consortium of officers from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) under their anti-capitalist pseudonym Globalise Resistance (GR), the NGO War on Want and Unison Newcastle branch had decided to take it upon themselves, without consulting or seeking to involve the rest of the UK ESF network, to try and convince the groups and movements of the European Preparatory Assembly to let Britain host the 2004 ESF. As their discussions developed, they approached the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, about possible Greater london Authority (GLA) support whilst at the same time approaching what they would call 'the big players' to endorse their private project. By Paris 2004, this had yielded CND, Stop the War Coalition, Tobin Tax Network, South-East Regional TUC and Unison.
When others involved in the UK ESF network found out about this from their European contacts, they became upset and began attending EPAs more regularly to try and find out what was happening and explain to the European movements that there was no consensus to bring the ESF to the UK for the simple reason that there was hardly any movement knowledge of the proposal. Worse, the initiative group wouldn't publicly announce what they were doing or invite interested parties to become involved.
The concerns of those who were not in the initiative group were various:
· the process to bring the ESF to the UK was completely undemocratic, untransparent and many NGOs, unions and social movements were being treated disrespectfully by the bidders;
· other countries movements' might 'need' an ESF more urgently than the UK;
· the UK Left was so hopelessly divided that organising the Forum would prove an impossible political task and only lead to further division;
· the ESF UK might be hijacked by Ken Livingstone as Mayor, as other politicians had attempted to hijack the WSF and ESF previously;
· GLA support for the ESF in London 2004 might fall through if Ken Livingstone
was re-admitted to the Labour Party;
· Ken Livingstone had called for the arrest of May Day protesters - many of whom
were active in the European Social Forum networks
· The process to organise the ESF in the UK would be dominated by the authoritarian left, conservative trade unions and self-interested NGOs and thus hostile to grassroots movements and networks of civil society;
· The ESF would be a mass rally for the SWP, they would hijack the platforms and use the event to see papers and recruit members - despite the party ban in the Forum;
· Trade Union involvement would mean a very 'unradical Forum' geared towards not upsetting the Labour Government;
· the Process for organising the ESF would be deeply undemocratic given how the process to bring the ESF to the UK was proceeding: secret meetings, exlusion of groups seen as politically undesirable or not 'important' enough
· the dishonest use of trade union and NGO endorsements to the ESF UK bid project submitted to the European Preparatory Assembly
However, when it became clear during the EPA on 10 December that no other country would host the ESF in 2004, those who opposed the ESF UK bid agreed not to block it on the proviso that the European movements would come to London in December to help the UK begin the process. Their opposition had been removed by assurances made by the Europeans that they wouldn't agree to an ESF in Britain unless they were confident that no one group or political tendency would dominate its organisation and thematic content.
Following the decisions made at the Paris ESF 2003 - to bring the ESF to the UK in 2004 and host a European Preparatory Assembly on December 13-14 2003 to that end - the decision had to be communicated to the UK movements by the group of initiators who had been responsible for bringing the ESF to the UK. They had known this from November 10th. On the 26 November, an email was publicly relayed on the ESF UK Information email list by Globalise Resistance from the Office of the Mayor of London, inviting interested social movements, trade unions and NGOs to a meeting on Wednesday December 3rd at City Hall - the home of the GLA. The information was very clear: it was a meeting to simply 'discuss further' the fact that the ESF was coming to Britain in 2004. Interested groups were asked to limit their representation to two people. The letter also explained that a
European Preparatory Assembly would take place on December 13-14. No agenda was circulated in advance of the meeting. The decision to hold such an important meeting on a working day, between 4pm and 6pm, with just 10 days notice, angered a number of groups and individuals who were unable to attend, and inconvenienced many who did. Given the background to the ESF decision, this did not help repair the wounds. It only deepened them.
That meeting was extremely tense to say the least. Over 100 representatives and individuals turned up. Although the chairs said minutes would be taken, no minutes were circulated. Two activist accounts of the meeting, however, have been provided and are provide a useful reflection of what went on.
As someone who was there, the main meat of the meeting was an attempt by the original bid consortium led by the GLA, the SWP and CND to try and put an organising committee together. Given the complete absence of information about the ESF and the fact that many groups who had wanted to come were not there, there was no consensus on this. The only consensus decision that could be reached was that a temporary voluntary group would be formed from that meeting to organise the European Preparatory Assembly for December 13-14. Email addresses of those interested were taken by Madeleine kingston of the GLA and
Maureen O'Hara, President of NATFHE. It was unclear how this group would organise itself.
On December 5th, an email was circulated by Madeleine Kingston to the voluntary group that a meeting of the group had been organised for Wednesday December 10th at 6pm to organise the EPA. This 'temporary' ESF UK Volunteer Group had around 40 delegates to make practical arrangements for the next ESF European Assembly in London on 13-14 December, including a solidarity fund for Eastern European delegates, accommodation, translation facilities, a venue and a provisional agenda. A proposed agenda had been prepared and was circulated by the GLA - noone claimed authorship of the agenda. By consensus, the agenda was changed. Because the voluntary group had only met at such a late stage, the GLA had
already made some arrangements. It had found a venue - City Hall, home of the GLA - and it had ensured translation for English, French and Spanish. However, the GLA are not providing the translation equipment for free, therefore the Wednesday meeting had to work out how to pay for this.
The meeting agreed on: (1) a solidarity fund to pay for East European delegates would be financed through contributions at £38 per group, £5 per individual (£3 unwaged) and appointed two treasurers (2) any remaining funds would go to the GLA to pay for the translation hire and security costs (3) volunteers to staff the canteen (4) 4 facilitators for the 2 days (5) a provisional agenda for the EPA which included - (a) report of Florence and Paris ESFs, how they were organised (b) UK Venues for ESF 2004 (c) Working groups (d) Meeting of the UK Voluntary Group to organise first UK Assembly.
At the European Preparatory Assembly, 13-14 December, 2003, the European delegates were extremely surprised to hear that the GLA was proposing to provide very little financial assistance to the ESF 2004 if it came to London. Given that Florence and Paris had been organised with mainly state support, running into £millions, they were deeply sceptical about the possibility of the ESF coming to the UK in 2004. Many delegates felt as though they had been misled by the GLA spokesperson who had attended the Paris EPA in November and promised that they were, quote, 'looking a gift-horse in the mouth from the mayor'. They also witnessed some very acrimonious debates between UK groups and realised that due to political divisions and lack of trust, the UK ESF might be a disaster to organise and not actually ever happen. The following consensus decisions were taken:
(1) if by the date of the next EPA, also to be held in London in early March, the UK process has not come up with enough evidence of funds, venues and organising structures that are judged as sufficient to organise the ESF, then it will not happen; groups were mandated to go away and research other cities to see if such criteria could be met elsewhere;
(2) a UK Assembly would be held on 24 January 2004, with no location or city agreed upon. It was agreed that we would rotate chairs/facilitators. Many spoke strongly for a place outside London to enable maximum participation of UK movements. There constant complaints by many speakers about the GLA venue given the costs and the security checks. Many anarchist groups argued that it was an infringement of their civil liberties to be checked by security and wanted the next meeting to be in a place where security was not needed.
(3) The principle of a sliding scale for affiliation fees to the UK process was adopted. Organisations and individuals will be asked to pay proportionally according to their ability to pay, and non-monetary resources will also be accepted. The remaining question was where the sliding scale will begin for individuals and groups. Groups such as The Wombles proposed a zero starting rate for those who cannot pay money but can offer non-monetary labour or resources. This provoked a polarisation.
(4) Several working groups were begun on programme, practicalities, culture and enlargement.
Significantly, a concrete proposal for how a UK ESF process could be organised was put forward by a diverse group of activists. It was photocopied and distributed to everyone at the EPA. It was the first proposal about how the ESF could be organised that had been put forward. A version of this can be found at:
However, before discussion of the UK Voluntary group to plan this assembly could take place at the end of the EPA, the meeting 'ran out of time'. Claire Williams (Unison North/SWP), who was facilitating at this stage, thus agreed to take down email addresses to add to the existing volunteer group and organise a meeting of the UK Voluntary group.
From the 14th December 2003 to the 24th January 2003, the following passage of events took place in the public domain. First, the working groups sent minutes of their meetings on the 13th/14th December around the UK and European ESF lists.
18th December, the Practicalities Group met again. No minutes of that meeting
5th January, Tina Becker of the CPGB sent a public email to the ESF lists asking Claire Williams to either arrange the UK Voluntary Group meeting or pass her collected emails on to the list so that others could make arrangements.
8th January, the Practicalities group met again. Minutes available on:
The issue of the UK Voluntary Group had now become urgent. Maureen O'Hara from NATFHE agrees to contact Claire Williams/Kenny Bell.
10 January, Programme Group met again. Minutes available on:
It agreed to produce and distribute a letter to send to NGOs, social movements, community groups, campaign networks, trade unions etc etc explaining a bit about the ESF, the work of the programme group, ask for input and give information on how to get involved in the programme process.
15 January, evening, an email was sent round from the GLA office by David Holland inviting interested NGOs, social movements and trade unions to a meeting of the first UK ESF Assembly on 24th January, Saturday, 1.30pm to 5pm at City Hall. It was to "to discuss the practical preparation of proposals to host the ESF in London".
16th January, the Programme Group letter was publicly sent out for distribution, containing the 24th January venue information. On the same day, Tina Becker emailed David Holland to ask why the GLA was organising and hosting the meeting and not the group that was supposed to. She argued that the emails of the volunteer group were never circulated, this side-lining the volunteer group. She asked him to circulate any draft agendas.
17th January, Kenny Bell from Unison North sent an email to the ESF lists explaining that "As the body which was to plan the meeting on 24th Jan has not been able to meet the GLA was asked to provide meeting rooms, which it has done." He circulated a proposed agenda:
· The December European Assembly of the ESF agreed to back the 2004 ESF in London subject to clear indications by March 1st that the financial resources can be achieved
· A proposal with an effective organisational structure, financial plan and venues must be in place by March to allow the event to go ahead and to report to the European Assembly
· Organisations and activists who support the holding of the ESF in London are urged to attend the UK Assembly
The proposed agenda will include:
· Organising structure for the ESF
· Publicity/enlarging the network
· Report from working groups
· European assembly meeting 6/7th March
20th January, Hamish Campbell from Undercurrents sent round the ESF lists a longish proposal for us to collectively make a proposed agenda online. In edited form, it proposed:
· Consensus and meeting practicalities - get some people who know about consensus to facilitate the meeting on the 24th
· Report from working groups
· Practicality - venues and report backs from working group on this
· Publicity/enlarging the network
· European assembly meeting 6/7th March
· Organising structure for the ESF
- Practicality - translation - alt-tec and mainstream.
20th January, Tina Becker emailed the ESF lists to suggest that the Practicalities group, which was to meet on 23 January, discuss the UK assembly the next day, put forward proposals for the agenda, proposals for the structure of the ESF and the 'organising group/facilitating committee' etc. She attaches a version of the proposed ESF organising structure first put to the EPA on 13-14 December by a number of groups and activist networks.
22nd january - two days before the first UK ESF Assembly will discuss issues of process and organisational structure, an email is circulated by David Holland of the GLA from Alex Gordon of the RMT with a proposal "on how to proceed with the European Social Forum in the UK. The proposal is based on how the Social Forums were organised in Paris and India and is based on extensive discussions with their organisers". The proposal can be found here:
In what became subsequently known as the 'Alex Gordon proposal', 4 clauses dealt
with the actual process:
· The ESF in London will be organised under the guidance of the European
· The meetings of the UK Organising Committee for the ESF in London will take place on a monthly basis and be open to all social movements and organisations wishing to participate in hosting the ESF in London. Organisations not involved from the beginning will be welcome to participate later in the process. The work of the organising committee will be open and transparent and will be published on the European mailing list.
· In order to fund the work of the UK Organising Committee participating organisations will pay affiliation fees on a sliding scale in proportion to their size in the following bands: National organisations: £250 - £1,500;
Regional organisations: £100 - £500; Local organisations: £50 - £250. The affiliation fee may be reduced in specific cases by agreement of the Organising Committee to ensure that organisations are not excluded due to lack of financial resources.
· The UK Organising Committee will establish such bodies, legal entities, staffing arrangements, web site and other practical steps necessary to assemble support for and organise the ESF in London. It will work within the framework set by the European Preparatory Assemblies. All decisions and accounts will be transparent and published.
The proposal was unsigned. It only appeared to come from Alex Gordon of the RMT.
23 January: Practicalities group met. It considered a proposal from Brig Oubridge of the Big Green Gathering as to the legal structure of a UK ESF organising committee. No minutes forthcoming as yet.
2. The first UK Assembly to Prepare for the ESF 2004, 24 January 2004.
It was against this background that the first UK ESF Assembly took place. Called with only 9 days notice, once again in City Hall despite complaints by some groups about both security and cost, once again in London despite demands to move the Assembly into the middle of the country, once again with a ridiculously short time-frame to come to decisions about structures and process - just 3.5 hours, and once again meeting in an acrimonious and tense atmosphere caused by the apparent deliberate side-lining of the UK Voluntary Group in organising the UK Assembly.
As delegates arrived at the Assembly, it was clear that a number of grassroots, autonomist, anarchist, community-level groups and networks, and several NGOs such as War on Want and World Development Movement were absent. It was also clear that a number of new groups were being represented, particularly Black and Pensioner groups. This was their first experience of a UK ESF meeting and many were probably unaware of the background outlined above.
At 1.30pm, the meeting began. 200 people were immediately presented with a top-table with the same two chairs who had facilitated most of the European Preparatory Assembly on 13-14 December 2003 - Dave Hillman (Tobin Tax Network) and Claire Williams (Unison-SWP). This immediately created tensions among some delegates present who began to discuss amongst themselves why the same 2 chairs were chairing, especially when Claire Williams was seen as the guilty party in helping to side-line the UK Voluntary Group. Importantly, noone challenged the imposition of these 2 chairs at the start of the meeting, even though many people were unhappy with what was happening. This was because they did not want to appear as being disruptive and trouble-makers. Although not publicly signalled, I regard this as an act of compromise inherent in the spirit of the ESF.
Claire Williams read out the 'proposed agenda'. There was no printed agenda available to participants and latecomers. The proposed agenda:
· Report backs from Mumbai
· Proposal for how we proceed (debate)
· Working Group Report Backs
Mariangela (Manchester Social Forum) proposed that time be made available at the end for forthcoming actions. This was added to the agenda.
Noone challenged or opposed the agenda at this stage, verbally agreed. Again, many activists were muttering that the Working Groups should report back first, but did not speak out.
From the very beginning of the meeting, there was absolutely no transparency about who was in the room. People had small stuck-on name badges with their organisation on but this was useless. 170 people could have been from a single trade union or political party, noone would have known. Therefore, there was no clear representative structure to the meeting adding to the feeling of distrust.
3. Report backs from Mumbai, World Social Forum 2004
Three people came forward to report back from Mumbai: Chris Nineham and Alex Calinicos from the SWP, under the respect pseudonyms Globalise Resistance and Project-K (a European network of Marxist journals); Hilary Wainwright (Transnational Institute, Red Pepper). All made very enthusiastic reports of the organisation and event. Key themes were: (1) Stripped down plenaries and far more self-organised seminars and workshops (2) Much better organised than Porto Alegre (3) Great debates such as Joseph Stiglitz and Samir Amin (4) Incredible process in which typically hostile NGOs, trade unions and Marxist-Communist parties worked together (5) size: 120,000. Hilary Wainwright in particular
stressed how all meetings of the organising process had been open, transparent and that the unions and parties had really been forced to compromise on this. In the end, it was the organisations, groups and networks that made final decisions where a consensus had to be found, but individuals could observe and comment throughout.
At this stage, the mood of the meeting was getting better as we were reminded about what it was we were all supposed to be doing here, and if the Indians - with their incredible political divisions - could do it, then so could we.
4. Proposal for Moving the Process Forward
Alex Gordon representing the RMT union then introduced his proposal and he stressed it was only a 'proposal'. It is important to note that large numbers of people did not have a copy of this proposal although the CPGB had proposed and photocopied large numbers of sheets with 3 amendments to it [but no original]. He explained immediately that it was not 'his' proposal, but a trade union proposal that had been backed by several major British trade unions - the NUJ, Unison, RMT, NATFHE, Amicus, SERTUC - anti-racist, black and pensioner groups, Stop the War Coalition and Globalise Resistance-SWP. This information, of course, was completely absent from the original proposal Alex Gordon had sent round the email lists on Thursday, to which no organisations had signed and of
which no explanation of how this document had been put together was given.
He explained that it had been written very much with the pressing March deadline for funds and venues in mind. The only way that the ESF could go ahead was if it had 'serious money' behind it and to get serious money, you had to have 'serious' legal and financially viable organisations behind the process. The 'proposal' he was putting forward was one which trade unions could support and back with funds because there was a clear structure - an organising committee - to affiliate to and a clear sliding scale of affiliation fees. Such a structure was one that trade unions could explain to their members the use of trade union funds.
Once Alex Gordon had finished, it is fair to say that 'mayhem' broke out. Hamish (Undercurrents) - who had arrived late - stood up and began stating that there was no consensus on how this meeting was being organised, on the facilitators for the meeting, and proposed that the meeting should decide on two new facilitators who had not chaired the last meeting. Hamish then made his way to the front and tried to speak into the microphone, while all around people were shouting, heckling, clapping, booing. Then a woman from the SWP suddenly leapt forward and wrestled the microphone away from Hamish, and held onto it shielding it from him. Someone else stood up and proposed that we retain the chairs and move on - loud applause. Then more people rushed to the front to try and both stop Hamish from speaking, and restore calm. Hamish was then spoken to at length
by several people. Several people stood up and grabbed the microphone to make
speeches trying to calm the situation, but some simply made attacks on Hamish's behaviour and anarchism, again to loud
Redmond O'Neil from the GLA is then permitted to speak by the chairs. He presents information on how Mumbai was organised and then reiterates the main points of Alex Gordon's proposal. As he speaks, about 20-30 people have formed a queue to speak at the microphone at the front of the room. The chairing is non-existent: there is no explanation of how the meeting will work once Alex has made his proposal, a time-limit of 2 minutes is the imposed on all those wanting to speak after Redmond.
Over the next 3 hours, a farce of a meeting takes place. Instead of hearing report backs from the working groups to see what they had come up with in terms of programme, venues, finances, culture, communications, the sole topic of discussion is whether we accept, reject or amend Alex Gordon's proposal. A string of people support the proposal, consistently clapped and cheered by the majority of the room, and variously criticise those against it as 'selfish', 'subjectivists', 'unrepresentative', 'anarchists', etc etc
Another string of people oppose the proposal because they are variously opposed to (1) the way the meeting is being run (2) an Organising Committee (3) the idea that you have to pay affiliation fees to have decision-making power in the ESF process (4) the omission of individual affiliation (5) the refusal of people to listen to an alternative proposal put together in public by dozens of grassroots activist groups and networks (6) the clear statement by Alex Gordon that no amendments can be made to the 'proposal' because he has no authority to make them i.e. its a take it or leave it solution (7) the clear statement by Redmond O'Neill of the GLA that no signatory to the proposal will accept a sliding scale
of affiliation fees beginning at zero, and on and on and on.
As speaker after speaker reinforces this polarisation between a clear majority of people who want us to approve the proposal without amendment and a minority who want to have a dialogue about finding a solution that everyone is happy with i.e. a consensus, a compromise position begins to be circulated around the room which is still being disrupted all the time by quite disgraceful heckling and poor chairing.
5. The Compromise Position
It was agreed, although it was not a consensus, that those who wanted to affiliate would sign their name and organisation - even though it could not have been possible for them to have consulted their organisation in time unless they knew about this in advance - and those that didn't accept the proposal in its present form should still affiliate 'subject to a discussion about amending the proposal' at the first meeting of the new 'Organising Committee'.
In other words, the meeting 'decided without deciding' to form an Organising Committee, to which most groups present affiliated, on the understanding that at the first Organising Committee meeting, amendments and issues of concern raised at this meeting would be discussed. These included:
· the relationship of the existing working groups to the new Organising Committee
· the inability of individuals to affiliate to the Organising Committee
· the disenfranchisement of groups unable to afford £50 to affiliate
· the organisation of meetings and how to arrive at genuine consensus decision-making
· rotation of chairs/facilitators
· how the Organising Committee will actually function
· the feeling that money buys decision-making power
· the London-centricity of the process, disenfranchising those around the country who want to help organise and shape the ESF process
This was made clear by those people wishing to affiliate in this writing 'subject to amendment' on the sign-up sheet. I made a point of asking both the chairs and David Holland of the GLA to produce several photocopies of the sheet and distribute them to the chairs and others so we had a public record of who had written what. He agreed to do this, and Dave Hillman also agreed that it was a good idea.
6. Discussion on Actions
Despite attempts by Mariangela (Manchester Social Forum) to use the last 15 minutes of the meeting to discuss forthcoming actions - what we were all supposed to be about - noone could either hear her or was interested, which was ironic.
7. The Current Status of the UK ESF Process
So what has this Assembly achieved? What has changed from having this meeting? Well, it appears that by agreeing to endorse Alex Gordon's proposal and affiliate to a new Organising Committee, the UK Assembly has managed to create a structure that the GLA and trade unions will now put their funds into. Some Trade Union officials afterwards were effectively guaranteeing that the money would now start to come in.
As for the process itself, it remains in complete and utter chaos. All that happened on Saturday was that this chaos was now constitutionalised in the form of an Organising Committee which the meeting agreed would act as the UK Assembly, meet in open and be fully transparent.
But nothing has changed regarding the political tensions and feelings of distrust. The same people and groups will now turn up once again with none of the real problems and differences resolved. It will only make all parties more determined to try and get their own way.
However, one thing that may help sort some of these problems out is that meetings of the Organising Committee will now be more regular and will insist on only one or two representatives from each group, union, movement, network or association. This will create slightly more transparency and more manageable numbers in these meetings.
But the one issue that is of real concern is that of trade union and GLA money. Having already used the financial issue to effectively force the process into setting up the Organising Committee, two questions spring to mind:
(1) how much money are the unions and the GLA actually prepared to now put in? Which union, how much? Is this guaranteed?
(2) Will the unions and GLA use this trick again of threatening to withdraw from the process if things don't go their way, taking the money with them?
These are questions that need to be answered at the next Organising Committee.
8. My Advice to Fellow Democratisers
Stay involved, mobilise again, organise meetings before meetinsg to share information and work out a common strategy if possible, agree on issues to push for together.
We should accept the coup that took place as a temporary setback, but one that will now sharpen the mind.
Lets stop pissing around trying to wrestle control back to the practicalities group.
Instead, lets affiliate subject to amendment, attend the Thursday meeting, and begin to ensure from the very start of this 'new' process that transparency and democratic decision-making takes place.
Dean, Hamish - it is absolutely POINTLESS sending round emails either attacking the SWP-GR, the GLA etc or not recognising the outcome of the meeting. That will further isolate you in the organising process and ensure your good ideas and interests, and those of the groups and networks you belong to, will be further marginalised.
It also doesn't help us in winning the argument. It makes us look like a bunch of wreckers and plays exactly into the hands of the GLA and the SWP.
Either affiliate, haggle over the fees and begin to work together with the other grassroots to ensure the Organising Committee is democratic, or begin to organise an anti-authoritarian space and denounce the ESF process - but there is no half-way house on this.
Yours in solidarity and struggle
Eat the Rich