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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


Hide the following 8 comments

Lets put our energy into local social forums instead

29.03.2004 15:36

What they will be forced to get in the end (or maybe not, but it can still happen) is the point that Social Forums have to grow from the grassroots, be involved in local campaigns, mean something to people or mean nothing. I think we have to keep growing Social Forums like plants and to communicate with other Social Forums across the country and in Europe/Anywhere. But I think this ESF is not working. Why do we need it anyway? It worked before, ok. But has become a huge bureucratic structure in itself now. Rumour is that Capita will be approached to set up the website at a cost of X amount of money. I might be wrong on that but I'm not wrong on the top down, commercial structure thats developed. The only thing left is an alternative space within the ESF. But Why should we?? It was meant to be ours anyway and if its not, its not. Hilary Wainwright said at the launch of Sheffield Social Forum that the students occupied the room where the canapes were in Mumbai. So what? THERE SHOULD NOT BE ANY CANAPES. The idea should never have been included in any plan for an ESF. We should not have to occupy. It is supposed to be our space. I think, whoever we are, we would agree that fancy food for special folk in an ESF is wrong. Wouldn't we?? And, before someone says it, its not just one incident, there are many but I'll not go on. It has become something it was never meant to be.

I respect the efforts of people to make it more horizontally democractic but the question is what is the point in beating our heads against a wall, when there are SO many issues for local social forums to work within. With real people. Not power games. Lets start doing politics without politicans because this ESF is clearly not that. And I refuse to
plead for "alternative" space in space which was not meant to be owned to begin with.

Locally rooted social forums are being created, are working individually, linking up and beginning to work collectively. We can make this happen together. My fear is that this ESF will kill what people have worked so hard to create. And local Social Forums are being born, changing, moving, inventing themselves. The idea comes from Europe. The way things grow comes from ourselves, here, now. It can't be imposed.

Sorry, ranting I know. But I care about the Social Forum movement. Its a powerful idea. I suggest people go talk to people about the idea (theres a link to the principles on decide together if they want to start a Social forum themselves, to meet and talk together, to turn ideas into action in neutral unowned political space. Its worked in Manchester. People have come and talked to other people who maybe a year or so ago, would not have sat in the same room. Its not easy. Its hard work. But there is a war going on, and it ain't just in Iraq.

Theres an idea about people from Social Forums across the country meeting up for an informal gathering in a nice, grassy field in Derbyshire this summer. Anyone I speak too is up for that. Its just a thought. But out of that I think will come more of the real intended spirit of the ESF than what will happen in London. I think we should put our energies into local activism and networking with other social forums with similar values.

Sorry to rant and I'm not speaking on behalf of Manchester Social Forum as an organisation or anything, because it isn't an organisation, and my views are my own. I included the website so people could have a look and see whats happening.

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Myth of Local Social Forums

29.03.2004 18:01

Stop kidding yourself the local social forums have for the most part been crap.
A small group of anarchists, fluffy liberals + outdated trot sects like workers power.

In Italy the social forums grew up organically from the movement - they did the legwork, they involved real social forces - trade unions, peace groups, mass parties like Rifondazione they could mobilise thousands.

They were built as committees for action for instance the Genoa Social Forum was built to mobilise for the Genoa demo.

In the UK they are talking shops.


Oops sorry forgot to grow organically in the authorised way

29.03.2004 18:51

No its not. We’ve done lots of things individually and collectively if you can be bothered to go look and we are moving all the time. Friday I was at Nine Ladies, Saturday the launch of Sheffield Social Forum (meeting folk, talking together, getting stuff sorted including actions – cause you might not want to believe it, but it happens), Sunday, getting people involved on Merseybank estate about the selloff of the playing fields for yuppie housing, because its theirs and there is nothing on that estate except a burnt out library.
Manchester Social Forum has supported in real ways the locked out electricians from Piccadilly One . We did in co-operation with the Association of Trade Unions Councils, because the electricians were locked out after forming a trade union and because the wider issue is that casualisation at work kills people. Real people. is that good enough for you?
So come on, tell me what the problem is.

d'know, i really should read the rules on the growbag more carefully in future.


what did you do at the weekend???

29.03.2004 19:09

No its not. We’ve done lots of things individually and collectively if you can be bothered to go look and we are moving all the time. Friday I was at Nine Ladies, Saturday the launch of Sheffield Social Forum (meeting folk, talking together, getting stuff sorted including actions – cause you might not want to believe it, but it happens), Sunday, getting people involved on Merseybank estate about the selloff of the playing fields for yuppie housing, because its theirs and there is nothing on that estate except a burnt out library.
Manchester Social Forum has supported in real ways the locked out electricians from Piccadilly One . We did in co-operation with the Association of Trade Unions Councils, because the electricians were locked out after forming a trade union and because the wider issue is that casualisation at work kills people. Real people. is that good enough for you?
So come on, tell me what the problem is.

Oops, sorry, forgot to check the instructions on the growbag

(sorry if this goes up twice, but i lost hope)

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this time i'll get the link right

29.03.2004 19:31

this time i'll get the link right...
damn our lack of focus...
underpants on the outside everyone
if only thered been a mass movement around to save us from ourselves



about italian social forums

01.04.2004 15:27

it's not properly true that italian social forums were such an amazing experience.
it's true indeed that they involved mainstream unions (CGIL, for example) and parties (as rifondazione), but at the same time this was probably the reason for the downfall of the social forums.
the egemonizing pressure of large, structured, burocratized organizations quickly grew to the point that it became impossible for grassroots activists to take part to the meetings.
this is quite a common experience among activists that tried to take part to the s.f. experience.
nowadays, a large part of the movement consider the social forum experience dead (some people have had this feeling since just after genova, 2001).
what remains are just small groups of people, most often delegates of some organizations, that claim to be social forums, even if they don't even resemble forums.
sadly, social forums have become just another arena where politicians confront themselves for the tiniest shifting of power.
bullshit, if you want me to make a long story short.

this is not meant to discourage those who are putting their hopes and their efforts into social forums. i think social forums are a great way to share ideas and knowledges, and they can prove to be wonderful tools for organizing.
only, be aware of how easily they can fall under the blows of the new-global bureaucracies.
after all, another social forum might be possible ;))

greets from italy



09.04.2004 16:06

I agree. we have had problems of the same sort writ smaller, and so far we've survived and i think it has made us more keen to follow the path we are on and not become yet another bureaucratised structure where political parties fight for power. maybe we can remake the social forum idea in our own way. and maybe we can't and it won't work but so far its been an interesting ride.



29.08.2004 22:25

There is a grass roots in London but it is beaten down and we seem to lose people as fast as we gain them (faster in hard times). Whatever the f*ck is going on with the bloody "old left" is severely depressing the overall vibe.

I first saw the ESF as a performer (unnofficial) in Paris selling peace-not-war CDs for mudge (portable sound sytsem on street) ...thought "great, a european version of the wsf", people from all over europe coming together to try and work out what the hell we are going to do about this mental global situation. On the train discovered there was a parralel EAF (A=Anarchist) thought, "brilliant! a parralel forum not containing the word 'social'" - I am not a socialist and it was nice to see that that coming together did not have to be focussed around one particular "ism" (which I think is often the resistance movements first mistake). In the build up to the 4 day peace-not-war festival celebrating the first anniversary of the 15th of february I was introduced to the ECF (C=Creative) and i thought, "that's the one for me" cos im not anarchist either. Since all this bloody "horizontal"/"vertical"/"one foot in one foot out" nonsense, I've taken to writing "a non-political party" on our banners cos its got to the point where sound systems that were happy to run money making raves for me for free have been saying they can't work with me cos im associated with the bloody SWP! This on the basis that Gareth, the founder of the ECF, who I hardly know, went to an ESF cultural working group meeting... eh? Anyway, we've been running monthly events in London sometimes attracting up to 500 people with events with full live stage and multiple workshops/talks/debates and autonomous spaces. The effect of all this nonsense is that the vibe is actually draining rather than building, which is what we were trying to do, build up to the ESF, and the core workers are feeling used, drained, dissatisfied and this is all because of this fecking negative vibe emanating from "up high", wherever that may be

After being solo, paper, stickers and musical resistance for years I am now telling my non-political friends that I am finally "in politics" and I have jumped straight in the stupid end. Dated English Leftism and the curse of this global left-negativity seems to be an irresistable force in the downward direction

Casual observers interested in the democratic revolution plan have commented, "you're never gonna get any revolution out of this lot" and "the people you are trying to fight are SO organised, they are the most organised people in history, you are never going to fight them like this"

So remember, hope and Unity in the movement, dont hate each other, and ORGANISATION

Furthermore (this is probablly too long now) Shane, ECF, wanted to run a london street carnival for ESF, I was thinkin of running three rolling sound systems like Curly Tony's from the Stop The War demonstations, sound linked (transmitter), playing the same live sound, we could cover several thousand people like that and run debates/talks as well as music and have links for simultaneous broadcast on Resonance... If we can sort it we can get major live acts and top political speakers on the STREET! I hope i can get my end done, WE NEED BACKUP, but the point is, DO WHAT YOU LIKE AT THE ESF, we can find spaces, we got links to all the social centre squats and if people can run forums we can find spaces... so can we bloody do it? That's the question. I think it's very easy for us to all run home crying about the "horrible SWP" but i'm bored of that now, like, how long can we go on about them and watch the dissappearance of the peace movement? It's long, I really want to do a stage show at the next ECF called "have a go at the SWP" and get three ballsy SWP on stage with mics to defend themselves and invite challengers from the audience to have it out with them live on stage.... and say "if you cant have it out live on stage lets hear no more about it", cos it all goes back to the drawing room and suffers this very english problem of telling everybody except the person who needs to know that you think they're a w*nker, can't we have this sh*t out once and for all? Lets just have a big fight about it? For God's sake, it's the THIRD anniversary of 9/11 soon, we've just been through the most blatant pile of lies from Bush and Blair, all but the most stupid or willfully ignorant can see the New World Order coming. WHERE IS THE RESISTANCE?

Can you organise and run a workshop/talk/debate/anything under the banner, "visions of another world"? (VERY broad) if you can, get in touch with the and we'll have you onstage/in a workshop before you can say "Socialist Worker Party"

robert ward
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