Skip to content or view screen version

ESF rejects democracy for TU cash

Brig Oubridge | 29.03.2004 13:27 | European Social Forum | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | London

In mid November, my partner Loppy and I were approached by Oli of Manchester Social Forum as we passed through the Metropolitan Police and Special Branch welcoming committee at Waterloo Station which greeted our return from the Paris ESF. Over a cup of coffee in the station concourse we became willing recruits to the efforts to democratise the ESF, and to broaden its focus to include a proper recognition of Green issues.

After four and a half months of intensive, expensive, frequently frustrating and sometimes exhausting efforts (especially the repeated long journeys from SW Wales to London and back), the only conclusion I can reach after yesterday's OC meeting in Birmingham is that we have failed. There has been no democracy in the process, there is no democracy in it, and there will be no democracy, and sadly, contrary to Pete Waterman's slogan, most of the horizontals did take it lying down.
Don't get me wrong - this is not meant to be an email of blame or recrimination against my horizontal colleagues, for whom I have huge respect and feelings of great warmth and affection from our short alliance in struggle. No-one should be blamed for being able to see when a battle is lost. There weren't enough of us there in Birmingham, we weren't well enough organised, we weren't sufficiently united in knowing what we wanted, how much we wanted it, or how to get it, and when the Unions and GLA held their finance gun to our heads, the resistance simply crumbled.
At the first open ESF organising meeting at the GLA in early December, the scale of the democratic defecit in the process was obvious. What was also obvious to me was that the very uncertain finances of the venture meant that it was imperative that everyone involved in it should be protected by the 'limited liability' of some kind of company structure, and that adopting such a structure was the one clear opportunity to build in the democratic procedures and accountability that were missing.
Yesterday in Birmingham, at long last, the Legal Status Working Group proposal (which had been prepared and ready for the UK Assembly meeting in late January) finally came up for debate by the OC. Even then, I had had to pay out £50 myself to get it photocopied (though there were plenty of kind horizontal colleagues on hand to help with the collating, stapling and distribution), and it had to be shoe-horned into the agenda alongside the verticals' proposal (backed up by no paperwork at all) to set up a 'front' company with only three or four directors, hand-picked by the 'powers that be', and accountable only to a similarly hand-picked handful of people who (rather than the whole membership of the UKESFOC, as proposed by the LSWG) would be the members of this company.
Can people really be aware of what they did by buckling to the TU and GLA threats to withdraw their funding if they didn't get their own way?
It is the new company alone which will have the legal authority to make all the decisions and to spend all the money. The OC will have no legal authority whatsoever to instruct either the directors or members of this company, and is not even to be given any say in who those people are to be, since this will be (conveniently) decided by the next Coordinating Committee meeting. In fact, of course, it will not even be the CC which really decides this, as a pre-selected list of names will no doubt be handed down from on high on a take it or leave it basis.
And if, contrary to my expectations, the OC were ever to succeed in enforcing its will on the company, that would (at least in my view) once again throw into doubt the whole question of whether the limited liability of the company's members and directors would be sufficient to protect the affiliated members of the OC from their unlimited liability for the actions of the OC. I have made my opinion clear, that it would not necessarily do so, but I am not a barrister or High Court judge (nor can I afford to hire one), and my opinion is based on my own logical interpretation of the principle of equity, rather than any case law or legal precedents that a judge or barrister might be able to cite. I have published my view, and have invited anyone of superior knowledge or qualifications to either support or refute it, but no-one has yet done so. Yesterday, Redmond O'Niell and Maureen O'Mara both insisted that I was wrong - that the limited liability of the company would provide 100% protection for the affiliated members of the OC in all circumstances. I do not know if their view is based on any legal advice which they may have received, as they have not made public any such advice, either to the OC, to the members of the LSWG, or even to Dave Hillman (who was the person to whom the CC gave the job of producing a 'simpler' draft to that produced by the LSWG). So the question remains a matter of differing opinions, which only the courts could finally decide, and the argument is probably best left at that. On their own heads be it, because if I am right and they are wrong, it is the GLA and the Unions whose funds will be most at risk.
And it remains beyond dispute that the LSWG plan would have made it certain that all members of the UKESFOC would, as members of the company, have definitely been covered by limited liability.

But leaving aside the question of liability, important though it is, the failure of the LSWG is, at least equally importantly, the failure to democratise (or even bring any structure whatsoever to) the UKESFOC. It remains not merely an 'unincorporated association' in which every member has 'joint and several' liability, but one which has no actual constitution or rules (apart from the 'Alex Gordon' statement), no elected or appointed officers, no structure, no defined status for the working groups, and no defined relationship to the new company (except for a strange conjoined twin relationship in which the affiliation fees paid to affiliate to the UKESFOC will actually not be paid to the UKESFOC, but to the company).
And so it remains as open as ever to manipulation through the tyrrany of structurelessness, to the process of 'faux consensus' decision making, to tactics of blackmail and bullying, and , in short, to carrying on in precisely the same way that it has since December.

I can only conclude that we have failed in the one chance we had to reform and democratise the organisation of ESF 2004. The fine words and hugs and new spirit of cooperation and compromise of March 6th-7th were a mere window-dressing for the benefit of our European colleagues, which has disolved into dust and ashes.

At present I can see no reason, or desire within myself, to remain within this process. This does, of course, make me sad - particularly in regard to all the new relationships which I have begun to build up, in and around meetings and on the internet, with many people in the process (whether or not among the self-designated horizontals). Part of me still hopes that someone may come up with compelling reasons to make me reconsider, but if they do not, I will not be the first (nor, I expect, the last) to feel compelled to walk away from it. And another part of me will soon, I am very sure, start feeling very relieved and re-invigorated to be able to get on with other things in my life.

And part of me will remain sad that we have failed, because the European Social Forum is too good and important an idea to be so abused.

As one participant remarked outside the meeting, "They just don't get it, do they?"

Brig Oubridge

Brig Oubridge