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London ESF: Berlin meeting sidelines youth

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The ESF Preparatory Assembly for the London European Social Forum came together in Berlin on the 17-18 June, while the ’Programme Workgroup’, as now seems routine at these meetings, met on the two days prior to the Assembly itself.

This international group does seem to have made real progress on the programme since it was established after the Istanbul Preparatory Assembly in April. It met in Paris in May to put together proposals and refined these in the two days before the Assembly in Berlin. While this process involved the usual bartering and horse trading between the big forces, the ESF does now have 6 “Axes” with 4 or 5 plenaries in each, ranging from the question of the occupation of Iraq to the G8 summit in 2005.

There will now be a total of 27 plenaries at the ESF this year, almost half the total number at the Paris ESF reflecting the drive by a number of organisations – in particular the SA/SWP – to create more seminar space at the event itself.

The one glaring admission from the programme was the question of youth oppression. The intervention of Revolution, the socialist youth organisation, into this process ensured that a prolonged struggle over this question was a feature of the Berlin meeting, as of the meetings in Istanbul and London.

Fundamentally, the problem remains that some the delegates at the Assembly, in particular the representatives from Socialist Action and the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, refuse to recognise that youth are oppressed at all. This is despite the fact that, as was frequently pointed out over the four days, youth suffer a denial of political and economic rights.

They are at the forefront of drives to casualisation and labour market flexibility in the work place with incredibly low levels of unionisation - for example the average trade unionist in Britain is 46 years old. Globalisation is reducing access to free health care and education across the globe, acutely effecting the world’s youth, This means that a quarter of the world’s people who are HIV positive are under the age of 25 and many youth are priced out of education or living in terrible student poverty.

As a result of these arguments made by the comrades from REVOLUTION the programme group agreed, in the light of this pressure, three times to make it a ’transversal’ theme - i.e. one that should be picked up by a number of the plenary sessions. Yet three times the comrades from Socialist Action came back to the process with a document that did not acknowledge even this agreement. This was to erupt in a major dispute when the Programme Document was brought back to the Assembly itself on the Saturday afternoon.

The question of political parties and, moreover, political representation itself was quietly pushed off the agenda for the plenary sessions. The League for a Fifth International argued that in the context of a crisis of social democracy in Europe, where the traditional parties of the working class have signed up to the neo-liberal agenda almost without exception, the question of the political representation of the working class and the relationship of political parties to the social movements should be one that is strongly picked up upon by the London forum.

The right wing, indeed unsurprisingly those with links to social democratic parties – notably the some of the French trade unionists – were vehemently opposed to picking up on this question. The SWP, although seemingly agreeing with the arguments of the L5I, refused to make a principled stand only saying in private that they would ensure through their control of the UK Organising Committee that a “very large seminar” would be held on the question – an example of a tendency to bureaucratic manoeuvring over principled opposition and debate.

As the Assembly proper came together it opened with a political debate on the international situation. Discussion focused on the neo-liberal attacks across Europe and the continuing crisis of the US-led occupation of Iraq. The interventions correctly asserted the increasing polarisation of European politics between left and right after the elections and the continuing crisis of the governmental parties, ironically though they also reflected the polarisation of the social movements between its on left and right.

The left calls for a campaign of mass action, the right calls for a programme of reforms for a social democratic European Union. This polarisation was to re-emerge in the Assembly of Social Movements on the next day and will surely be a major focus in the preparation of the Assembly and of the London event itself.

The afternoon sessions continued with report backs from the various working groups. First came practicalities where things seem to be moving ahead - it now is certain that the London event will definitely happen - it was once again reinforced though just how expensive it would be –perhaps prohibitively so for comrades from Europe not used to London prices.

The trip will at least cost as much as £150 per person in total – an immeasurably higher amount than any of the previous forums. There was little debate or dispute on the question, with the delegates resigned to the fact that there was ’no money’ as has been asserted by the SWP/SA organisers at all the previous assemblies.

It was the report back from the programme group that caused real fireworks on the Saturday afternoon. Comrades from REVOLUTION made the case for a self-organised space at the heart of the forum, in Alexandra Palace, not to ghettoise young people but to fully involve them in the forum itself and allow them to challenge their oppression through self organisation.

This proposal now had the backing of 20 youth organisations and picked up more support at the Assembly itself. In typical fashion the SWP and SA entente tried again to force the proposal off the agenda; however, they were unable to do so as the speeches from the Revolution comrades gathered support from delegates and a discussion was tabled after the programme document had been passed with the amendments on a “transversal youth theme” again added to it. Whether it will materialise in the minutes of the meeting (put together by SA/SWP) remains to be seen.

In a cynical manoeuvre, the SWP, after a caucus to the side of the meeting, all joined the line to speak during the programme discussion, they all made similar interventions, deliberately trying to prolong the programme discussion and force the Youth Space proposal off the agenda due to lack of time. Fortunately, for the sake of democracy and open participation, they were not successful.

Meanwhile the libertarian/autonomist milieu also had a proposal on the process after meeting on the Friday evening prior to the Assembly. They wanted the right to self-organise areas, like the ’Hub’ and ’Glad’ at previous forums, half inside the event, listed in the programme etc, but not involving the official process. In short they wanted to escape the iron fist of the SA/SWP bureaucracy and hold their own ’pure’ and ’horizontal’ forum with one foot in and one foot out of the event.

They quickly gathered the support of the influential Italian delegation (COBAS, Sin-COBAS, CGIL) and the debate on this question ran concurrently to the debate on the Youth Space. Interventions became increasingly heated from both sides.

Louise Hutchins from Socialist Action – an National Union of Students bureaucrat – claimed that the 5 million students in Britain she represented all said ’no to the Youth Space’. Nice to know she consulted them - I don’t think. One comrade from the forum commented with NUS card in hand, that as far as he was aware, he had not received a ballot paper on the youth space question. At the same time Louise lectured us that we needed to “reach out to the mass youth organisations and involve them fully in the process". No one of course disagreed with this - but the suggestion that ’Youth TUC’ was a ’mass youth organisation’ is a joke. These late comers to our movement against capitalist globalisation whose political boss – the London Mayor – was until recently condemning anticapitalist demonstrators and backing police repression of them, have some cheek to lecture us about building a mass movement when the best they can offer is the occasional subsidised concert in Trafalgar Square.

The SWP/SA met with the Italian delegation at the side of the room and quickly formulated a deal on the question of an anarchist space in the process reflected in Alex Callinicos’ intervention on the question during the debate. The SWP were to allow the anarchists, libertarians and autonomists to have one foot in and one foot out of the process, organise a self-organised space but would not promise them any funding at this stage until they put a proposal to the UK Organising Committee.

They proceeded to argue for “spaces” plural and agreement was held up on the question. As the chair sought to reach a consensus when she summed up the debate the meeting degenerated into chaos with most delegates on their feet nearing the front and the translators, with plenty of justification after a full and tiring days work, haven given up translating. She proposed that the meeting agree in principle to a Youth Space of some kind but with the involvement of the ’mass youth organisations’.

The delegates from REVOLUTION were delighted with this proposal having never argued to exclude NUS, or ’Youth TUC’ for that matter, at all. However the comrades from SA/SWP cried no consensus and the meeting broke down in acrimony with further cries of ’I represent 5 million students who say no to the Youth Space’.

Such was the chaos that was unfolding it seemed that the deal brokered between the Italian delegation and the SWP fell by the wayside as well further complicating the proceedings. With the day’s session over the meeting closed with the discussion on the Assembly of Social Movements passed to the following morning.

On the Sunday morning a ’peace meeting’ was converged between the various parties to discuss the days agenda, with the SWP resolute that discussion of any of the ’spaces’ should be avoided at all costs. The deal between the SWP/SA and the ’horizontals’ that had previously been brokered was re-opened in a small meeting on the fringe of the Assembly with the former again insisting that they would get space singular and must bring a practical proposal to the UK Organising Committee in three weeks. After some resistance the horizontals accepted the compromise.

On the Youth Space question it was clear that the SWP/SA were adamant to block the proposal and refused any compromise. Formally the discussion was passed to the next ESF Preparatory Assembly after the various delegations had consulted with the ’mass youth organisations’.

The session on the Assembly of Social Movements met as promised. The L5I argued for the importance of a draft declaration that could ignite mass struggle against neo-liberalism, war and racism in Europe and that we must begin to prepare that declaration now. While many spoke in favour of preparing such a declaration clear differences emerged on the content with the right arguing for a reformed social democratic European Union as a ’counter power’ to US imperialism. That this would simply be a stronger imperialist power in its own right mercilessly exploiting the semi-colonial world was not, of course, made clear..

Sin-Cobas argued against the preparation of a declaration now, instead saying that we just needed to agree common actions at the event itself. While it is certainly true that any declaration without a call to action would be worthless another international day of protest seems to smack of low horizons- especially after the flop of the “social 15th February". This argument in favour of the status quo is also an argument in favour of the inherently un-democratic nature of the horse trading so synonymous with these meetings.

Where disputes emerge they should be debated and put to a vote at the Assembly. In this way the assembly itself can go beyond being the rally it has been at the last two forums and become a real decision making body.

Moreover what is needed is an action programme for the class struggle in Europe, to accompany the declaration, that can defeat the attacks of the European bosses and rally millions of workers behind the leadership of the Assembly itself. Such a call and programme, that would necessitate an international co-ordination, would be a vital first step towards what it necessary - a new world party of social revolution - the Fifth International.

A workgroup was then set up to prepare the declaration. This is a welcomed and much needed first step and the L5I will seek to participate fully in the discussions and preparations.

The Assembly itself will remain at the centre of the forum and will not now be sidelined, Socialist Action having lost the argument for it being one of many large events running concurrently. Instead a compromise was struck, there will be no plenary sessions at the same time and organisations submitting workshop and seminar proposals will be given the choice to have them on the Friday and Saturday and not the Sunday morning. Some seminars and workshops will of course run at the same time as the Assembly but, will, hopefully, not distract from it as the focus of the day.

The next preparatory meeting on 4-5 of September will be held in Brussels. It will be a crucial date not only for finalising organisational and practical matters, but also the Assembly of the Social Movements.

Overall, despite the bureaucratic manoeuvrings and, effectively, the oppression of youth within the process itself the ESF in London is moving forward and can be expected to be a huge event that will end in a carnival of protest on the Sunday afternoon with Asian Dub Foundation (a well know anti-war band from Britain) playing out to, what can be expected to tens of, if not hundreds of thousands in Trafalgar Square.

It can be assumed that the SWP will now, after the June elections, make another of their famous ’turns’ and build for the event in local ’mobilising committees’. This is certainly to be welcomed, all socialists, trade unionists and anti-capitalists should now turn to the task of building for the event itself. Such an experience of internationalism and resistance as the ESF offers the British working class, in the belly of the neo-liberal beast, should and must reawaken the masses who marched in their millions against war and turn them to the task of defeating the Blair government, building a new workers’ party in Britain and entering a Europe wide struggle against neo-liberalism and war.