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ESF 2004 to be in London!

Glasnost | 11.11.2003 00:56 | European Social Forum | London

Here is a first-hand account of the meeting today in Paris to decide on the next venue for the European Social Forum 2004. I will try and send a daily report which you guys might make a feature if you have time xxxxx

Monday 10th November

The 2nd ESF officially begins in 2 days time, but it is clear that politically and practically, Paris is in a degree of chaos.

Today saw the European Assembly of the ESF to effectively decide on when and where the next ESF will be held.

After 4 hours of fraught, hostile, and at times, plain dishonest 'debate' in which noone actually debated with each other but spoke at a largely disinterested audience, the outcome was an 'agreement' that the UK will hold the ESF in 2004, on condition that an open European Assembly Meeting takes place in London on 13-14 December involving those involved in the Italian and French movements to agree on a venue, timing and, most importantly, methodology/process. London is currently the only 'bid' on the table - other cities have one month to put their hats in the ring. Given that this is unlikely if nigh on impossible, the ESF will be held in London 2004, some time in October or November.

That was the outcome. Now for how such a decision was arrived at, and what it revealed about both the groups and individuals involved in the 'bid', and the real politik of the ESF decision-making process.

The meeting was due to start at 2pm. Between 2 and 3pm, everyone stayed outside huddled into groups while two sets of UK delegates - one from the London 'bid' group, and one from activists associated with the London Social Forum - entered into a form of 'negotiations' with the same European activists about the next ESF.

It emerged that Refondazione Communista were going to back the London 2004 bid, that the Greeks were not able to host 2004, that Austria were withdrawing their bid.

At 3pm, the meeting began with an introduction by Sophie Zaphari of ATTAC France, Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) and the French ESF Organising Committee. She was the 'facilitator' for the marathon session. She was also clearly not a democrat, often making long interventions trying to guide the room to a decision, suggesting what was 'reasonable' and what wasn't.

The meeting was supposed to decide the timing and frequency of the ESF, but the whole thing was dominated by the London 2004 bid.

The Bid group had come well-prepared: Jonathan Neale & Chris Nineham of GR-SWP, Kenny Bell & Claire Williams of Unison North-East Regional, Louise Richards of War & Want, Kate Hudson of CND/CPB and, significantly, Lee Jasper representing the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. They circulated a new statement, which boasted about the number of trade unions and NGOs 'on board'. What was remarkable was how few organisations there were, some even having been removed. The statement contained no facts, figures, no political objectives, just that the Mayor was involved and that the process would start after the decision, and it would be 'open, inclusive, transparent, democratic' etc

There was also in attendance from the UK a network of activists associated with the London Social Forum and Indymedia UK, including the anti-capitalist group The Wombles, the CPGB, Signs of the Times, writers for Red Pepper magazine, and Workers Power.

The meeting then proceeded as follows for 2 hours: individuals who wanted to speak would line up one by one and declare their positions. Up went the bidding group, followed by the London Social Forum activists, followed by more bidding group, followed by the occasional French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Irish and Austrian delegate.

I don't want to go into what was exactly said, but in simple terms, the bidding group put the most incredibly positive spin on their proposal for London, which the London Social Forum activists then tried to deconstruct and explain what had happened in the UK during the putting together of the UK bid since July.

Ultimately, the bidding group claimed legitimacy and greater representativity than those 'questioning' their presentation; time and time again, they stressed how many people had elected them, who they were, how big their organisation was, whilst forgetting that this was irrelevant to the nature of what the ESF was; they also denied the process had been closed, denied that people had been excluded; denied that there had ever been secret meetings.

What was lost in all of this was why they wanted the ESF to come to the UK, how they planned to open the process up, what practical arrangements had been made so far.

The debate became exactly what we have witnessed in the last few months: the ESF as a political space to be contested by groups trying to control versus groups trying to open up.

To be balanced, some of the contributions from the London Social Forum activists were at times needlessly sectarian and personalised, however true they might have been.

A proposal for a compromise came from the Refondazione Communista who proposed that a December meeting of the European movements be held in London to help the UK sort out the process and so on.

Eventually, after speaker after speaker had supported London 2004 but raised concerns about the process, the London Social Forum activists agreed they would not block any consensus on the issue, and supported the Italian compromise, but wanted the bidding group to commit to the WSF charter of principles and to allow a period until the December meeting for other UK cities to come forward with a proposal for the ESF. Even though it was obvious that London would be the venue, the bidding group refused this, and at this point the meeting had descended into a private row outside the tent with some of the bid group acting at times in a very aggressive, arrogant manner, not helped by constant sniping from some individuals.

What struck me was how ultimately, the bid group saw the ESF as an event to 'have' for very traditional party political reasons; while the critical voices saw the ESF as a process of social movement dialogue and synthesis for far more radical purposes.

The whole day had been conducted in a manner befitting the 'old politics' - it wasn't about building a movement, it was about holding an event.

I have more thoughts on this soon, but for now I'll just bite my tongue.

Perhaps the most significant part of the day was near the end when it emerged that the accommodation situation was in crisis - it was full up and there was every expectation that thousands of people could be left stranded on arrival from Europe. This brought home the logistical nightmare of organising such an event with two years notice - and noone seemed to even care.