The Socialist Unity Network

Hilary Wainwright speaks about the ESFG

Andy Newman


Swindon TUC recently hosted a meeting with Hilary Wainwright (of Red Pepper) to discuss building for the European Social Forum in London. 20 people attended, and the composition was very good, including both the chair and secretary of Wiltshire FBU, both the chair and secretary of Swindon RMT, two GMB full time officials along with two other GMB members, and members of Amicus (AEU), Unison and the NUT. It was also attended by leading activists from the Stop the War Coalition and World Development Movement.

Hilary described the process by with the Social Forum movement developed from her personal experience. The following is based on her account (but any inaccuracies are my own faulty memory). She went to the first World Social Forum in Porto Allegre which was attended by 30000. At that initial WSF the mood was slightly elitist, quite geared up for the international intelligentsia who are accustomed to international events. For example the VIP speakers were in top hotels and had special VIP lounges. But already at that first WSF it was clear there were the seeds of something else, and the VIP lounges were occupied by students and there was a buzz from the ordinary delegates that for the next SF they would bring others with them.

This has happened and the WSFs have become increasingly democratised, growing to 60000 and then 150000 at Porto Allegre, and then 160000 at Mumbai, taking over an old industrial area. The importance of these growing events is recognition that it is not enough to protest outside the international events of the rich and powerful, like the G8 summits, it is also necessary for us to create an alternative, hence the slogan "another world is possible!"

Hilary described how Social Forums began appearing at a local, regional and continental level, for example in South America and Africa. The global south is showing the way for Europe. However the 2002 Florence European Social Forum was very significant, because it did not take place in a vacuum, but in the very highly politicised atmosphere of Berluscone's Italy, and shortly after the G8 protests that had led to the murder of a protester by the quasi-fascist police. There were 30000 at the Florence ESF and 200000 on the anti-war demonstration.

In particular the Florence ESF was the product of a significant alliance between trade unions and the social movements. This is evident from the local confederations of unions that are similar to our trade councils, through which union activists are involved in community campaigns alongside young activists. A significant factor was also the turn of Rifondazione (PRC) away from the idea of a vanguard party towards the idea of a party that empowers the social movements. This is especially significant given the large size (100000 members) and influence of the PRC in local government.

In Paris in 2003 there was a similar atmosphere of unity and diversity, with people from different traditions cooperating, for example the French Communist Party collaborating with the Trotskyist LCR. There is at least a partial recognition that the left needs to bury the hatchet over some of its historical differences and rethink based upon first principles of social justice and democracy. There is also a recognition that the problems we face are global, and cannot be solved at a local level, so we need to build up a network for international cooperation, and Hilary described how the delegation she was with from NE Unison used the forum to make links with European trade unionists.

The ESF coming to London this year was seen as important because of the Blair-Berluscone neo-liberal axis, and the importance of Britain for the anti-war movement. However there has been some doubt whether Britain was ready. In practical terms the local government in Paris and Florence was in the hands of the left, who were able to use state resources and public buildings to empower the events. In London this is much more problematic as the assaults on local government democracy have left Livingstone with much less money or infrastructure at his disposal. As a result the funding has been less than transparent, drawing from various GLC budgets. Livingstone has also needed to be careful as he has only a limited political base of support, no majority support in the GLA for example. This is understandable but has left too much influence with officials.

Hilary described how the role of political parties is contradictory, as they are officially excluded from the ESF process, but they are also vital to its success due to their having some influence with the state. Particularly in Italy the PRC were able to empower the process, this was more uneven in Paris, and in England there is no equivalent to the PRC. In the UK the ESF has had a very significant input from the trade unions, from the TUC and most major unions. This is important as the British experience of privatisation and deregulation is of European wide significance. This is a global phenomenon and requires more than a national or local response from the unions. The commitment to the ESF was confirmed by a GMB official from the floor who said that some parts of the union machine were very actively promoting the ESF while others were less so.

Hilary concluded by pointing out that the bosses and governments coordinate and plan their actions, Not only at the level of military and trade alliances, but also sometimes policy. For example both Blair and Berlusconi are planning overseas detention centres for Asylum Seekers outside EU jurisdiction. For that reason we need to coordinate our response, and our own international vision.

The discussion was wide ranging. FBU members spoke of how their union was stronger after the dispute although they didn't win, and the brigade chair explained that this was evidenced by small things such as the decision of the mess club to buy fair trade coffee. A member of the Communist Party (CPB) welcomed the way there has been collaborative working in the Stop the War Coalition where we have managed to put historical differences behind us. I asked Hilary about the experiences of local Social Forums in the UK, and she said that these were strongest in places like Sheffield where they had grown organically out of existing local organisations, rather than being built from the top down. As a result of the meeting we decided to establish an "Alternative Swindon" web page to link the activist networks.



August 2004


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