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The European Social Forum comes to London

Hilary Wainwright

The left in the UK certainly needs the European Social Forum. Whether the ESF will benefit from meeting in the UK is another matter. If the development of a process is about facing and overcoming challenges then the London ESF will definitely be character building for the ESF ! There are very good reasons for coming to London on Oct 14th - 17th. But it won't be a repeat of Florence.

Let me give try to explain the peculiarities and mysteries of left politics in Britain- essential to understanding the UK ESF. First there is a cultural background of isolation from the rest of Europe. Many British people still talk about `going to Europe' as if it was another continent, even in UK ESF discussions, people talk about `the Europeans' meaning their co-organisers of the Forum. And we are still notoriously linguistically limited. Eurostar and cheap air travel and all kinds of educational and job exchanges reduce this sense of distance somewhat, as does a steady growth in the numbers of UK organisations working for example against fortress Europe, on education and health, against the war and occupation who find themselves connecting, out of necessity, with European counterparts. The `islanders' are beginning to develop transnational friendships, learn languages and consequently to redefine their identities in an international way.

Politically too there has until recently been an unconscious `Little Englandism' on parts of the left (occasionally it has been quite conscious, like the leading left MP of the 1970's and 80s who proudly declared that he did not have a passport). This has led to an almost complete disengagement from the debate and campaigns around the proposed European constitution. Some engage but only to defend national parliaments as the means of achieving democracy against a `bureaucratic Brussels' but engagement with the Europe-wide thinking about different levels of democracy, from the local to the continental, is only just beginning. The hosting of the ESF is proving an important catalyst.

The roots of this distance from the political debates of the rest of the continent are many. There are a whole series of specificities arising from Britain's early industrialisation - it's sectoral craft based trade unionism, the way this trade unionism created the Labour Party giving it a monopoly over working class political representation, preventing the growth of a significant Communist Party with its internationalist traditions, however ambiguous.. A more recent factor, until the blows of Thatcherism, has been the immense self-confidence and industrial strength of the British labour movement, almost to the point of arrogance. Again, unconsciously this produced a highly independent stance, as if the British trade unions did not need support or allies. They presumed that they could win on their own. If there were problems, these they thought, were merely local ones of betrayal and weak leadership. This was especially true at a national level: from the 70's onwards there always radical trade unionists organising from the factories of multinational companies to build international workplace to workplace connections, through for example the Transnational Information Exchange.

Thatcherism destroyed whatever basis there was for this somewhat arrogant self-confidence. As the unions now rebuild themselves, there is a new orientation towards Europe which is already showing itself in a significant union mobilisation for the London ESF.

This new Europeanism is at two levels, which are in tension with each other. On the one hand, many trade union leaders now look towards Europe as if it was just about the social measures on labour rights. There is a blindness about the market driven economics built into Giscard's constitution. On the other hand, in trade unions facing EU- led liberalisation, like the Communication Workers Union, or at a local level public sector workers fighting privatisation by European corporations, there is an eagerness to link up with workers across the continent to resist a common neo-liberal enemy. Here there is, as yet, little awareness about the constitution but there is a growing interest which will produce a real activist interest in the ESF debates about alternatives to the present proposals. For example the Northern Region of the public sector union, UNISON is providing financial support for an the pilot issue of a pan-European supplement to be published by Red Pepper, Carta, the Transnational Institute, Transform Italia! and others for discussion in London. (Eurotopia ) One of their conditions for financial support was that Eurotopia debate and provide information about the constitution.

Already then, the fact that the ESF is coming to town is reinforcing and hopefully giving stronger political expression to a Europeanisation of British labour, stimulating more articulate debates about the form this should take. This trade union mobilisation for London has also ensured that issues arising from fighting neo-liberalism in its heartlands, privatisation etc are high on the agenda.

Another feature of British backwardness which has presented a challenge to the organisation of the ESF in London is the democratic weakness of local government. In Florence and Paris, it was after all, the support of left dominated municipalities, to the tune of millions of Euros which made the Forum possible. Paradoxically, the weakness of local government in London, became a source of undue local authority control of important aspects of the ESF process. The peculiar politics of London and it's relation to national politics is another essential part of any guide to the London ESF.

In the absence of a written constitution the rights of local government were never secure in the UK. But under Mrs Thatcher local government was decimated, even to the point, in 1986, of abolishing the government of London, the Greater London Council (GLC). Tony Blair restored a Greater London Authority (GLA) with only limited powers, over planning, transport and waste. He also introduced the idea of a mayor - not normally a feature of British cities. Blair's idea was a version of the American style, chief executive type Mayor with a lot of centralised power, high profile, but little democratic accountability and also very little money under their local discretion - every big expenditure is negotiated with central government or has to comply with local government targets. The kind of person Blair wanted to be Mayor was Richard Branson, head of Virgin (records and airlines) The very last person he wanted was Ken Livingstone who headed the GLC against Mrs Thatcher. When Livingstone led the GLC he was a rare political animal: with an ability to be both very radical, for example in his egalitarian transport policy, his support for ethnic minorities and gays, and the need to talk to the IRA and at the same time immensely popular. Livingstone was determined to stand as Mayor, to demonstratively symbolise the unfinished business of the GLC, and in the long run establish a base and a record from which to launch an eventual challenge to Blair himself. Blair worked night and day to stop him, including depriving him of the Labour party nomination. Livingstone stood as an independent and won, overwhelmingly. He has since been readmitted to the Labour Party and in June this year won his second term as Mayor as the Labour candidate - with a much reduced majority.

Livingstone has an attractive charisma as an attractive anti-politician politician, with a strong record at the GLC of working closely with social movements. In a typically low key way his personality and politics will be an important part of the London ESF, at least in terms of its presentation in London. He himself has long been unusually pro-European for a politician on the British left. In terms of British politics, the London ESF will enable Livingstone to associate himself with a high profile, alternative Europeanism, a confident contrast to the indecisive European stance of Tony Blair. The event then plays a part in Livingstone' s long term game plan of presenting an alternative direction for Labour to Tony Blair.

Getting tied up with the ambitions of local politicians is a risk that Social Forum's take when they accept the support of a political authority. No doubt Olivio Dutra, governor of Rio Grande Do Sul and Tarso Gennero, mayor of Port Alegre had their own political agendas in hosting the World Social Forum. The problem with the GLA is not so much Livingstone but the methodology with which his political staff at the GLA carry out his will. They are led by a small group of people from one of a somewhat conservative factions of the Fourth International. They work according to an explicit managerial philosophy and interpretation of democracy which is in many ways quite the opposite of the participatory democracy of Porto Alegre. This small group - no more than around 12 - of political managers have disproportionate power because although Livingstone is formally a member of the Labour Party, he is not under any live democratic party pressure like the mayors of Florence, Paris and Porto Alegre. Democracy is simply the 3 yearly, electoral relation between himself and the voters of London.

While for the Workers Party in Southern Brazil, the way to carry through the mayors democratic mandate is through strengthening the power of the people over the state apparatus through a participatory system, for the political managers of the GLA the way to implement the will of the democratically elected mayor is through tough professional management and a minimisation of the layers of mediation between the mayor's senior management and the delivery of the service.

This is a method which might be very appropriate to running the London Underground, where the problem is countering the pressures of the private sector and mobilising a staff who have little recent experience of working for a democratically elected boss to meet politically agreed goals. (Tthey have been effectively employed by a Thatcherite institution, a Quasi Governmental Organisation - QUANGO)

But the role of a local authority in relation to the European Social Forum is not managerial, beyond managing the toilets. It is to provide physical space and resources. This the GLA has done, impressively, by gurunteeing the the funds for Alexander Palace in North London as the main site of the ESF. But in the process it has effectively run the management of the ESF.

The organisation of the ESF is intended to be process of democratic negotiation and co-operation between all those wishing to participate and who agree with its charter of principles. The idea is that different organisations, with different traditions and capacities would share their skills, resources and ideas and in the process learn how to work with each other, and `contaminate' each other with new cultures and perspectives. It's not an easy process and the timetable for the London ESF did not give much time for it. But the GLA's philosophy of centralised, almost Jacobin, management has endangered some of the intellectual and organisational resources for this task, built up from trial and error over the first two years of organising the ESF. Fortunately, aspects of the process have established sufficient momentum and infrastructure to be indispensable - most notably Babels the volunteer based translation system to have a strength of their own. But the organisation s of the web site, for example - a vital tool for the new horizontal ways of organising - is something which the GLA was not prepared to delegate to any signficant degree. The result is an extremely expensive site which lacks many of the tools for interactivity and for information gathering which are vital to the development of the ESF process and which could have been provide in an expert way and at low cost by the technical activists of the movements. The overly bureaucratic control of the web-site is symbolic of a wider problem of mistrust of the capacity of the self -organised new movements.

Underlying the centralised and narrowly professional approach to the management of the process is an understandable anxiety about funds and until the mayoral elections in June, about damaging publicity. But the end result is a process which has favoured deals behind closed doors over open democratic discussion. The leading role played by the GLA has tended to mean the process is dominated by organisations used to making such deals nd who are centred in London. Thus the trade unions are involved more at a leadership level than through regional and local organisations where relations with social and community movements are much stronger. Or politically, the SWP though an important part of the British left, is given a disproportionately greater weight than the more diffuse but nevertheless significant forces of the independent and libertarian left. This inflexibility and reather mechanical approach to coalition building, does not create very favourable conditions for innovation and experiment.

Fortunately, the desire in Britain for the kind of open space and opportunity for transnational convergence which the ESF provides, is strong enough to transcend any particular management method or political sectarianism.

For example, at a local level, in cities like Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool or small towns like Swindon, Bolton or Edgehill, activists from the new `alter-globalisation' movements and the left of the trade unions have begun to work together , with peace movement activists and socialist feminists often being an important cross -generational bridges. Meetings in these cities to mobilise for London are already gathering momentum, though in many ways this process of deepening involvement beyond London has begun too late for maximum impact. They cross the divides which have proved so negative in London.

Another force opening up the process are radical Non-Governmental Organisations like the World Development Movement, War on Want and Friends of the Earth. They do have the formal structure with which the GLA can deal. Moreover the GLA need their support for the legitimacy of their management of the process. But these NGO's - some of them part of influential international networks - are actually staffed by people committed to `horizontal' methods of the movements for which the GLA and some of the unions have shown mistrust. These, mainly young people, have used their bargaining power to play a vital role in keeping the process open.

Another positive factor has been the creative way the `horizontals' have reacted to the negative aspects of the process. Instead of walking away they have put extra energy into organising `autonomous spaces' mainly in the Bloomsbury area of London - which will be a second site of the Forum - which will, de facto, be a welcome part of the diversity the weekends activities.

The work of the European Preparatory Assembly has also been exemplary in building on the experience of Florence and Paris to give a lead and sometimes a gentle push to those in London unwilling to work in new ways.

The British left is in a state of extreme fluidity. It is searching, experimenting (and making many mistakes) with ways of building an alternative to Blair. A European space will provide a unique stimulus to new thinking, new ways of organising and seeing politics. People on all `sides' sense there is something big at stake, bigger than their own organisational or national interests. Maybe I'm overoptimistic but I think this time next year we on the Bristih left will see the London ESF as a turning point away from the restrictive politics of the British, especially English left. Potentially the London ESF will be historic: one of Europe's historically most industrially powerful labour movements is struggling, clumsily, to remake itself and significant parts of it know they cannot do it alone.

On the other hand, the ESF as whole is at a moment of consolidation, moving beyond the euphoria of Florence and Paris. Through the challenges that London presents, the ESF will have become more self aware of the principles which make it so novel and how practically to make then effective. The organisation of the Forum in Greece will present a wholly different set of problems to test and develop those principles once again!


October 2004

TNI Website, 24 September 2004
To be published in Italian in La Rivista del Manifesto, October 2004

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