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Old Tricks from the Hard Left

The Socialist Workers Party is a serious threat to genuine radical politics

New Statesman, 25th October 2004

It's Saturday evening, at the midpoint of the European Social Forum 2004 - an event that is supposed to represent the coming together of radical Europe in a quest for a better world. At a meeting where the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is due to speak, the stage is invaded. Three hundred activists chant and wave flags. Soon the stage is packed with people protesting not against capitalism or war, but against the organisation of the forum itself. "Never again must a Social Forum be organised like this!" announces a woman through a commandeered microphone. "It has been a travesty of democracy."

What went wrong? The answer can be summed up in three words: Socialist Workers Party. Along with the Greater London Authority (which, it is estimated, provided £400,000 to fund the event) and a Trotskyist clique of Livingstone supporters known as Socialist Action, the SWP has been trying for a year to claim ownership of the forum. The hard left has been up to its old tricks again. This time, it nearly caused an international incident.

"The SWP and the GLA had it all in hand from the start," I was told by a leading British activist who did not want to be named. "They put together the initial bid to have the forum in London and would not let anybody else see it. Since then they've been trying to turn the whole thing into a giant opportunity to sell their newspapers and gain new members."

Unfortunately, this is not a conspiracy theory - or if it is, it's a theory supported by several leading NGOs. "I've been in plenty of meetings where at least a third of those present are SWP members, in various different guises," says Dave Timms, press officer for the World Development Movement. "They call themselves Globalise Resistance, Stop the War Coalition, Project K - but it's always the same people, and they consistently packed meetings and voted their own people in as chairs, speakers and organisers."

Timms's criticisms echo those earlier in the year from ten big NGOs, including Greenpeace and Oxfam. They wrote of how, at a meeting held to determine who would speak at the forum, the SWP had "packed the room with their supporters". "This will do nothing to help broaden the movement in the UK," they wrote.

The Italian mobilising committee for the forum issued a public complaint in June about how the SWP and Socialist Action had behaved at a meeting in Paris: "They . . . were constantly unwilling to enter into real dialogue, tried to impose their own way and were often arrogant or used blackmail, repeatedly refusing to accept decisions and titles which had already been decided hours before."

Nick Dearden from War on Want, who has been involved in organising European Social Forums for years, says he now feels like giving up. "This year's whole thing has been deeply compromised from the start. Many of us wanted to open up the organising process and bring everyone in. The SWP wanted to shut down debate and run the show themselves. I think it has actually set radicalism in this country back."

The "global justice movement", as it has come to be known, is deeply committed to democracy and enthused with fresh ideas. The SWP, on the other hand, is an undemocratic, regressive organisation that seeks to harness the energy of this new movement for its own purposes. Its input made this year's forum seem at times more like a backward-looking, hard-left gathering than a place where a new world would be born.

Let's hope for better luck next time.