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Hypocrisy in the UK European Social Forum Process

[name removed at author's request] | 27.01.2004 00:27 | European Social Forum | Analysis | Cambridge

A report and analysis of the meeting of the UK Assembly for the ESF that took place on Saturday 24th January 2004 at the Greater London Authority City Hall in London.

This article will also soon be available in Italiano, Deutch, Espanol and (maybe) Portugues (add links to the translations on the wire).


ACRONYM LIST: WSF - World Social Forum, ESF - European Social Forum, SWP - Socialist Workers Party, GR - Globalise Resistence, CND - Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, UNISON - Public Services Union, GLA - Greater London Authority, G4+ - my term for those that presented the "bid" for the UK 2004 ESF, LSF - London Social Forum, CPGB - Communist Party of Great Britain.

INTRODUCTION: The WSF in Mumbai, India finished a week ago and attracted over 120,000 people, who discussed and workshoped ideas and tactics to be used against neoliberalism, war and the current form of globalisation; and for a world of justice, peace and equality. (more)

In November last year the ESF met in Paris and 60,00 people addressed the same problems from a European perspective. Currently a process is underway to assertain if London could host the ESF in late 2004 and as part of that process the first UK Assembly was held on January 24th, and will be followed by other such meetings. Then, on "Saturday 6th [and 7th] March there will be the 2nd ESF [European] Assembly in London to discuss the bids and make a firm decision about whether or not ESF 2004 will go ahead... [and] to see if the resources have been raised and the project can be achieved." (more, more)

What is clear is that the group that prepared and presented the UK 2004 "bid" is currently in control of that process. This group consists of the SWP/GR, CND, GLA and some parts of UNISON, and probably others. For the purposes of this document I will refer to them as the G4+. This G4+ is trying to implement a centralised structure that ignores or works (or not works, which can have the same effect) to make obselete the processes decided by consensus at previous meetings. What this seems to be causing is a dramatic draining of the autonomous elements that could have had some influence over this direction. The secrecy in the production and disemmination of crucial documents has resulted is an effective narrowing of opinions and viewpoints. ( more, more)

The greatest irony is that the G4+ keep talking about "openness" and "accountability" with a straight face, making it plainly obvious that they are acting hypocritically; their acts betray them.


In Florence the ESF was reportedly controlled by two Italian parties: Democratici di Sinistra, DS (The Democratic Left) and Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), (more). In Paris, "The process was largely dominated by a few powerful left organisations like the French Communist Party and Attac, the international campaign for reform of global financial markets and institutions." (more) And now it seems that the G4+ want to have a firm grip on the steering wheel of the UK ESF.

What makes many groups sceptical and suspicious is the behaviour of representatives from the G4+ prior to, during, and after the Paris ESF.

Before Paris the London Social Forum (LSF) drew support for its criticisms of the G4+ "bid" for the ESF to come to London in 2004: "The proposal so far lacks transparency and, crucially, the possibility for all interested organisations and individuals to fully participate in its planning." They went on to propose that, "We believe that the process must be started from scratch again if it is to be successful in making the ESF the property of all the different strands of the progressive and social justice movement in the UK . In our opinion, this cannot realistically be achieved in time to bring the ESF to the UK in 2004. Therefore, we suggest the ESF be held in 2005 in a yet to be determined city in the UK." (more)

There concerns are corroberated by discussions such as the following (reported by Tina Becker, a good source of consistent and valuable information here):

On October 19th, at the first public meeting to discuss the proposal for the 2004 European Social Forum to be held in London, hosted by the London Social Forum at very short notice, Becker reports that "Massimo de Angelis [said] 'You want to bring the ESF to London, but you are actually against the setting up of social forums in Britain,' he said. Participants in the Manchester SF [Social Forum] even report 'a deliberate campaign by SWP members to discredit us and close us down'. Asked if comrade [Jonathan] Neale would give a commitment to fight for this attitude to be reversed and for the SWP to support local social forums, he answered - with admirable candour - 'No'.

This did not go down well with comrades Beauvais and especially Hugo Braun, who attended as a delegate from the German Social Forum. 'Jesus, why did he say that??' he whispered in disbelief. In Germany there are over 50 forums, in Greece there are close to 100, and many more exist in France and Italy." (more)

Also at the meeting on October 19th,

"Jonathan Neale was asked by the CPGB's Anne Mc Shane if he would personally make a commitment to fight for the organising meetings to be open to observers from now on, to which comrade Neale replied with a breathtakingly honest 'No'. Though some 50 people heard him, the comrade claimed at the November 10 Paris assembly that he said no such thing." (more)

At the ESF's European Assembly meeting on Monday 10th November in Paris, just before the ESF itself, it was decided 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." The actual meeting started an hour late after negotiations were made outside first. Inside the debate between the well prepared G4+ and the UK network of activists associated with the LSF and Indymedia UK "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... it wasn't about building a movement, it was about holding an event." (more)

On December 3rd the second UK public meeting to discuss the hosting of the 2004 ESF was held. However Becker notes that:

"Rather than allowing for space where those left out could have aired their frustrations, the agenda of the two-hour meeting was crammed with detailed organisational tasks... [It] was not helped by the fact that there was no pre-published agenda available - and no written one on the day either. So joint chairs ... just read out the agenda once from the top table. Pre-chosen speakers opened on the various subjects, often giving rally-type speeches." At this meeting "The organised left was certainly in a minority, with green/anarchist groups considerably outnumbering us." (more) These numbers would seem to decline at the next meetings as the G4+ disregard for open and inclusive processes continued as before.

At the European Assembly of Decmber 13-14 the meeting agreed to continue to organise as if the ESF is going to take place in London. A number of working groups - programme, practicalities, process, enlargement and culture - had been set up and met, although "a conflict [emerged] between two different models of democracy, representative and consensual, as symbolised by the Oxford initiative to put all the chairs in a circle. Mysteriously all the chairs had been put back respectfully facing the platform the following morning."(more, more, more, more, and an (almost complete) transcript of this meeting is on the web at: more)

Javi talked to the webmasters for the Paris ESF who told him that "they had been approached by Chris Nyneham from STWC/SWP, who asked them to meet in Paris next weekend to take over the website with a team from a comms coop (what is this?) linked to the GLA. The people from France put some excuses and declined to meet. They want to give the passwords to a more inclusive group that comes out of the practicalities meeting taking place on Thursday at LARC [London Action Resource Centre], which is just common sense."

Unfortunartely, Javi's conclusion from the December meeting - "my feeling is that the bidders will not instinctively respect the existence of the work-groups and will continue to plot behind everyone else's backs" - has proved accurate. (more)

WHAT CONSPIRED on Saturday January 2004:

At the meeting the room was organised in the traditional manner and there were familiar G4+ faces at the "head table". They had their first item for the agenda, a proposal "For a UK Organising Committe to host the ESF in London" (read the full proposal - and some proposed ammendments here). This had apparently been produced in the last 48 hours and since then negotiated with a few unions and other NGOs, outside of the process decided upon in December - i.e. closed, unaccountable and secretive. Furthermore, "A document which came out of the process working group, with suggestions to make the meetings and structures more democratic, respectful and efficient was totally ignored. At no point was it mentioned or even referred to." (read more recollections of this meeting)

This produced a predictable response resulting in someone sitting on the "platform" in protest, after trying to speak to the audience but being howled and slow-clapped off the microphone. It was a chaotic start but since there seems to be no agreed mechanism for dealing with procedural complaints like this it is hard to see what else to do.

However, it did seem to inflame the situation, and resulted in nearly three hours of 3 minute contributions from the floor that varied widely in content and intention: some debating process, some addressing the proposal, some ranting about whatever they wanted.

What this meant was that nothing else was discussed or presented - no reports from the working groups (to me this should have been first and essential), and of course none of the items from other groups later on the agenda. Finally, as it was clear that consensus would not be reached, the platform asked for an expression of intent (or something like that). It would appear that about 75% of the room of approximately 200 people fully supprted the proposal as is, no one rejected it vocally, and the rest wanted to see amendments made.

Where to go from there was unclear so the chairs listed (their interpretations of) the proposed ammendments and declared that they would be addressed at the first meeting of the UK Organising Committe which would take place in about a week at a time and place to be specified. They invited all that wanted to affiliate (become members/delegates/representatives - its not clear from the proposal) with the Organising Committe to place their name, organisation and email address on sheets they had prepared. From here the bets are on as to when and who will set the agenda and choose facilitors/chairs of the next meeting, and when notice of it will be given. A comment just received: "I was told during the assembly that this meeting will take place on Thursday, 6.30pm at the GLA or Natfhe building. Of course it could have been announced at the meeting, but I guess it wasn’t supposed to public knowledge quite so quickly."


As one of the main purposes of the ESF is to bring the anti-globalisation/anti-neoliberalism/anti-war/etc etc movements together it is unfortunate that the way in which the G4+ still refuses to present its proposals openly to the whole movement has been driving people away. Of course, they have publicly and repeatedly committed themselves to working by consensus, and even if it hasn't happened much in practice yet, it is still crucial to opening up the debates. As noted in Paris "the powerful could generally be checked through the ESF's golden rule of consensus decision-making." (more) However, so far what we have seen "is a problem of the concept of consensus decision making being hugely misused and misunderstood." (more)

On a positive note I would like to stress that in my opinion what the G4+ has done and organised so far - almost certainly brought the ESF to the UK in 2004, attracted committed support from a range of unions, and also organised meeting venues and staffed registration desks etc etc - is important work that should not go unrecognised. However, it is the still closed, unaccountable and secretive way that they have done these things, and their attempts at imposing their own structure on proceedings and processes that is damaging and distressing. Can they change there ways? This is yet to be seen, and will not be seen by many who have already given up.

[name removed at author's request]


Hide the following 7 comments

clarification. Again

27.01.2004 01:15

can we just be clear about who is telling people where this 'thursday 6.30pm city hall information has come from? A who decided it.

At the end of the uk assembly meeting nothing was agreed about the time dat or location of the next meeting. Indeed their is a volunteer working group in place to arrange such events. They have yet to meet to organised this meeting


consensus decision-making

27.01.2004 11:02

I don't want to comment on the London ESF bid process in general, living in the far-off wilds of Yorkshire I ain't been to any ESF meetings so what do I know? But I do want to repeat a specific concern I've raised before:

Doesn't 'consensus decision-making' give every group and individual an effective veto to stop any action? If the vast majority of activists in a campaign/process want to do X, but a small minority don't, is it democratic that the small minority can block X? Isn't this a gift for dodgy spook types, who could just turn up to meetings and come up with some plausible, anti-authoritarian-sounding reason for vetoing everything?

Majority voting is crude, certainly, but as a trade unionist (yes, sorry!) I've yet to see a more democratic alternative in practice.


response to kurious

27.01.2004 12:56

Imagine if you will a dialogue. Consnsenus is finding out what we agree on. That is all. Granted it takes a certain degree of political maturity (which is why in a lot of ways europeans were & still are apprehensive about the swp owned esf) to recognise difference & work to overcome that.

Again the key word is dialogue. Communication. These people that you are talking about, (who largely don't exist except in the ranks of the swpgr fraternity)they must explain, justify, offer better alternatives, they then become part of the process. A dialogue develops, we begin to understand each others point of view, a different perspective, we then work in creating an altogether new, more engaging dynamic.

As a trade unionist traditionally you are up against a greater force (bosses) therefore unquestioning loyalty to the cause is almost a necessity, as an equal participant in an open process youi will have nothing to fear, believe me.

The esf is an attempt at this new way of working together. It is not a authoritarian/trade union recruitment drive. Let us hope the more people progrees with it, the more enlightened they become.

Sonic- you're a prick mate, go play elsewhere


okay so

27.01.2004 13:37

Thanks for responding, aaaaa. Must confess though I'm still puzzled. Okay so you have all this dialogue and discussion, fair enough; surely though there must still be times when you end up with folk still disagreeing over some straightforward practical decision. What happens then?

Also, side point, if you want to get on with trade unionists it's a really really bad idea to imply that we are 'unquestioning' of anything or anyone! ;-)


consensus can work

27.01.2004 17:37

thanks aaa for you comment.

consensus can work: the ESF and WSF have been organised
using consensus process so far and they have happened!

if we continue to disregard the fact that human beings
can actually dialogue and live and work together respecting
the ideas and needs of each other how can we think that
another world is possible?
if we do not believe ourselves in this,
then we can have a thousand ESF but they would be pointless.
just the same old story of one group deciding for
everyone believing and listening only to its
own reasons (isn't this the case of who proclames that
neoliberism is good, war is necessary and the G8 is

we have to change ourselves if we want to change how things
are and how else should we act if not by dialogue and



27.01.2004 19:38


but rarely does that happen. In fact 'practical things' are a great leveller, thy're the least problematic thing We need venues, we need finances, we need publicity etc etc. People recognise this & work quite willingly towards that. It is a simple process.

It becomes complex when particular elements seek to control the process, seek to take charge of the decision making, & dictate terms & conditions of how to organsie a social forum while disregarding the very principles of the esf.

This is what we are seeing now. And it is set to become ugly.

But as i've said no-one wants this to fail. We are workng towards something. The disruptive elements - that is those working contra to the esf principles (in fact the ONLY people contraveneing the working principles of the esf) are gr/'the unions'/gla. This is what we have to contend with.

Apologies for infering all union members are unquestioning. I am a member of a union myself. I know it not to be so.

Sonic - you're still a prick mate.


kurious is right

31.01.2004 11:20

Kurious is right to question the effectiveness of 'consensus decision making' - a term that is often thrown around, but rarely with any definition of what it actually means.

Of course it is important that there is discussion and that people are able to put their point of view and are able to persuade other people of their arguments or be persuaded by others themselves. But there reaches a point where a decision has to be made. Is it right that a minority (of one, even!) should have the right to veto any progress forward for the majority? Consensus decision making can lead to paralysis.

This is particularly relevant in the current ESF process. There seems to be a determined minority who didn't want the ESF in the UK in the first place who are now protesting loudly about every decision that is being reached. The ESF is in November - this will come very quickly. If we want the ESF to be a success we must build it now.

One example is that Alexandra Palace has been booked as a possible venue for the ESF. By any measure this is brilliant news - it will be an excellent venue that can hold the thousands of people we want to get to this important anti-capitalist event. However, the minority of people who didn't want the ESF here in the first place are now protesting that this venue shouldn't have been booked! But what was their alternative? Some might conclude that they are blocking the ESF process for the sake of it.

Cautious Fred