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London ESF: 20,000 debate, 70,000 march in London

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The third European Social Forum took place in London during 15-17 October. Over the three days 20,000 people from nearly 70 countries took part in over 500 meetings, listening to over 250 speakers.

While much smaller than the previous two forums in Italy and France in 2002 and 2003, it nevertheless was the largest ever political gathering in Britain devoted to debate and networking.

After the Assembly of Social Movements closed at noon on the last day around 70,000 marched in central London against the occupation of Iraq and the ongoing social welfare attacks in Europe.

The most well-attended plenary sessions were those that were centred on the resistance to the occupation of Iraq and for solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians. More than two thousand people crammed into these sessions. A plenary on the Iraq occupation due to take place on Friday evening at Alexander Palace was abandoned after a protest led by a group of Iraqis.

Several dozen Iraqis, backed by other delegates including supporters of the League for the Fifth International, protested against the presence of Subhi Al Mashadani of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions on the platform at a meeting billed as “End the Occupation of Iraq”, sponsored by the Stop the War coalition in Britain.

His presence on stage was despite the fact that the STW had issued a statement several days earlier breaking ties with the IFTU for “urging that the Labour Party conference welcome the puppet Iraqi premier Allawi, at a time when the entire anti-war movement was demanding that the invitation be withdrawn” and for having “energetically lobbied the trade union affiliates of the Labour Party to oppose a motion, reflecting the unions’ own agreed policies, calling on Blair to set an early date for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq”

The meeting was abandoned after the organisers refused to withdraw Subhi Al Mashadani from the platform. Later another Iraqi on that platform said inviting Al Mashadani to speak to an anti-occupation rally “was like inviting the BNP to an anti-racist rally”.

Another protest took place on Saturday night when a group of activists from the Beyond the ESF event elsewhere in north London occupied the stage before London mayor Ken Livingstone was due to speak at an ESF plenary. They were angry at the bureaucratic and non-transparent method of organising the whole ESF by a cabal in the London mayor’s office.

While the other sessions may not have reached such a fever pitch lively and generally well-run and open sessions were held on every topic of concern to the anti-capitalist movement.

The final morning saw about 1000 activists present for the Assembly of Social Movements. It heard from a range of speakers amplifying points in the agreed draft of the call of the ASM. Reflecting the limited consensus of the major forces involved in the ASM it did at least give the ASM seal of approval to a range of demonstrations and protests this year and next.

It states:
“We are fighting for the withdrawal of the occupying troops in Iraq, for an immediate halt to the bombing and for the immediate restitution of sovereignty to the Iraqi people…we call for an end to the Israeli occupation and the dismantling of the apartheid wall. We call for political and economic sanctions on the Israeli government as long as they continue to violate international law and the human rights of the Palestinian people.”

The ASM agreed to call “a central demonstration in Brussels on 19 March against war, racism, and against a neo-liberal Europe, against privatisation, against the Bolkestein project and against the attacks on working time; for a Europe of rights and solidarity between the peoples. We call all the social movements and the European trade union movements to take to the streets on this day.”

Among the many other days of protest supported the call says: “we pledge to mobilise massively on the occasion of the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005.”

The ASM failed however to meet one important challenge presented to it by amendments from the L5I; namely to set up a permanent set of structures for the ASM that could allow it to co-ordinate actions on an ongoing basis between meetings of the ESF. In this sense the ESF failed to decisively move beyond being a “space”.

The ASM did register one major plus - the report by a representative of the Youth Assembly. This assembly met the day before with more than 300 present. A lively discussion and debate over amendment to a statement took place; it was this agreed statement that was read out at the ASM, pledging the youth to anticapitalist and internationalist positions and actions.

Anyone reading the ASM call draft would see immediately the result of the ESF organisers determination over the last year to bloc an autonomous and well-resourced youth presence at the ESF; the declaration – while correctly giving due recognition to the struggles of women and black people against their oppression – was silent on the conditions faced by European youth.

Youth were at least half of the ASM audience, even more in the ESF sessions and have been the greater part of the anticapitalist activists on the streets. Yet they were essentially absent from the platforms of the seminars and plenaries.

Women speakers at the ESF also signalled their determination to ensure that a proper women’s assembly be held in 2006 as it was in France last year. fter this year’s unofficial but successful youth assembly held in the teeth of hostility or indifference by the adult organisers, it will be very difficult to deny the youth their full rights when it comes to preparing for the next ESF in 2006.