Netroots UK – A report
January 9, 2011 3 Comments
Yesterday I attended the Netroots UK event hosted by False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, TUC, Netroots Nation and many more. The nature of the event, and the standard of the speakers, proved it would be an enjoyable day, but this in itself did not determine how effective it would be for the next steps in activism, and how faithful it would be to the promise that this was not an event “to have long-winded discussions, but create useful spaces where people can discuss strategy drawing on their experience of local campaigns: what works and what doesn’t.”
Even before the event took place some sceptical voices made themselves heard (such as my from my friend HarpyMarx – see in particular the debate on the comments thread) arguing that the grouping of “soft lefts” and dinosaur union bureaucrats would do little to influence the kind of engagement that you can find in the community “fighting against closures of libraries, council services, playgroups, care facilities, attacks on benefits, jobs…and so on”.
Also on the sceptical side, Jacob at The Third Estate blog noted yesterday that while he doesn’t claim “social media is not useful, [or claim] that it hasn’t given a voice to people who previously were unconnected to activist movements, [he does] think we need a level of suspicion about claims that technology can be the political basis for new movements.”
Taking those thoughts on board, it has been my contention that an event like this should take place so as to crowd source from a room of activists – whether they are online or offline – what kind of movement can be built against the cuts and the government (a good judge of this is whether party or parliamentary politics has a place in the fight, or whether leaderless organisations can build themselves up from the bottom up) and what the longer term goals are that can be agreed on, not just by a panel of experts, but by people are who engaged in it.
It’s no small task to agree on such things – if you can ever, truly, agree on such things at all – and so while criticising the day for not building the immediate capabilities of a government takeover is wide of the mark, what it did succeed in doing however was sharing practical lessons on where next for activists, armed with social technologies, as well as focusing on some of the lessons already learnt in our recent history (MyDavidCameron for example, the UCL occupation, anti-cuts movements in local communities).
For me one of the most useful elements of the day had been a brief “fringe event”, which took place to a handful of people while they were eating lunch, about Swedish lessons on blogging. While many “Westminster village” bloggers like to boast about their traffic, the important lesson is getting the right people to hear your practical opposition/propositions. Johan Ulvenlöv, one Swedish blogger who addressed us, told us that fewer MPs in Sweden have blogs than in the UK (though some those MP blogs are more like cheap noticeboards) though many more Swedish MPs read and engage with them. Part of Ulvenlöv‘s job (he works for the social democrats in Sweden – who he said were less hated in his country than the Labour Party are at this conference) is to act as a point of call between bloggers and politicians – a profession almost incomparable in this country.
During a breakout session on blogging and the left in 2011, the editor of Conservative Home Tim Montgomerie – a surprise guest – made note of the fact that he never gets invited to similar events on the right. The planning potential of the left certainly surpasses that of the right, but to say Netroots UK was free from navel-gazing would be an impudent lie. Polly Toynbee (who got it in the neck a few times yesterday) dines out every week not because of community-based planning, or for formulating next stages for mass movements utilising social media tools, but owing to her frequent polemics against the government (and sometimes for the benefits of outsourcing public sector contracts and Serco). What she has to offer is a reassertion of why we were there in the first place (something which we were promised would not happen) – and it was neither helpful nor useful, nor universally appreciated (see the following tweets here; here; here; here; here; here; here).
The silver-lining came from the Q&A session after Polly had been ushered off the podium – while audience members were asking questions of the panel, Sunny Hundal intervened and asked audience members to raise their hands if they had any answers to audience questions. Some people around me overtly sniffed at such a proposition, but this intervention had it halfway right. Next time speaker invitations should be withdrawn from the Toynbees and the usual mess of thinkies, and the platform given to participants, who are then invited to answer queries from the floor – not out of any frustration with hierarchies, but because real best practice on this subject is likely to come from people who do not always appear in newspapers or academic anthologies, but who’ve taken to the streets in anger at the coalition government’s ideological cuts agenda and have seen first hand what works and what does not, what groups people together and what puts people off.
In short, the event was at its best when it invited best practice and expert opinion from the floor – and it’s important to remember that this was a strategy event; this is not the strategy in action, so if the government doesn’t collapse under the weight of Netroots don’t be disappointed.
(For more links to videos and information on Netroots than you could imagine, see Next Left)