Sunday 9 January 2011

Report on Netroots UK Conference

I've just returned from attending this conference that was held yesterday in London. It was held at the headquarters of the British Trades Union Congress, the umbrella body here for all the major trades unions. The day featured a couple of plenary sessions and some workshops and was highlighted as an occasion to bring together  "progressive activists" working on the web. As I will indicate by going through my impressions of the day, it was an event that, whilst full of promise, also highlighted some predictably depressing truths about the state of British politics.

The event itself was well attended and it took a little time to register for it. Participants were generally smartly dressed and professional looking. The head of the TUC, Brendan Barber, gave a short address welcoming everyone to the event and was succeeded by a video message from Markos Zuniga, from Daily Kos, one of the points of the second being to emphasize the connection of this event with similar ones in the US. One of the providers of funding for the event was also Blue State Digital.

After these opening salvoes the first plenary session opened and was chaired by Sunny Hundal from the blog Liberal Conspiracy who, despite posting his own speech in advance on his blog, decided not to give it. Speeches were, however, given by Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society, Nigel Stanley from the TUC, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and, most impressively, from Clifford Singer of the excellent site False Economy. Singer made clear the basic strategy of the Coalition government here which is to cut the national deficit over 4 years by a programme which is comprised of 80% cuts and 20% tax increases (with the latter including the recent highly regressive increase in purchase tax, known here as "value added tax" or VAT).

Singer made the point that the basic problem with opposing the government concerned getting across the idea that "growing the economy" would resolve the lion's share of the problem and enable revelation of the real size of the "structural" debt. However, whilst there is this problem, there are clear pressure points on the government in relation to fairness and electoral legitimacy given that neither of the parties to the current coalition indicated prior to the election that they would embark on a programme of the type that they have adopted. There are also alternatives in terms of revenue raising that are not even being considered including the Robin Hood tax and tackling tax avoidance on the part of the super-rich. The former tax has a specific campaign which was one of the sponsors of the conference although , somewhat oddly, I saw no sign of them at the event. The focus on general tax avoidance on the part of the super-rich has been the province of the mass civil disobedience campaign, UK Uncut.

The general strategy of the TUC, as made clear in the plenary speeches, is to aim for a big demonstration on March 26th of this year with the implicit threat of a "spring of discontent" following. It is also being suggested that whilst a third of the population support the government and a third are seriously opposed that a further third are capable of being won round. There are now over 150 separate campaigns listed on the False Economy site and the number continues to grow.

In relation to this struggle activity on the internet has a key role to play as a number of elements of the day demonstrated well. Paul Mason, the editor of Newsnight, one of the top BBC political comment shows, was quoted as stating that social networks have the potential to contest and overturn dominant views of politics and evidence was presented of how the websites of mainstream news outlets such as Mail Online have been influenced in how they present stories by reporting on social network sites and blogs.

After the opening plenary the next part of the day was given over to workshops, about nine of which ran concurrently and featured an array of topics including a "beginner's guide" to blogging, investigative journalism for bloggers, sessions on raising funds for campaign actions and how to plan campaigns. I attended the session on turning online activity into offline activity, not least because it was being addressed by Jessica Riches, better known to her Twitter followers as littlemisswilde and who was head of Twitter communication during the occupation at University College London during December, an occupation that ran for 16 days.

This session was chaired by a guy from the Labour Party who had apparently played a role in the campaign to get Ed Miliband elected its leader. The other speaker at the section was Teddy Goff, from Blue State Digital, who talked about ways in which the campaign to get Obama elected President of the US had been run. Of the two speakers, Riches was decidedly the better despite being less experienced. She made clear how Twitter had helped to "widen the room" when the occupation at UCL was ongoing since it enabled members of different occupations to keep in touch with each other and also to connect to both other students not occupying at the time and to a wider support base. She also furthered the case made earlier by Singer of the ability of social networks to present a clear "alternative narrative" to that being put out by mainstream media, something I can confirm since keeping pace with events in December was definitely possible by means of Twitter whilst mainstream media frequently mis-reported and almost always under-reported actions. Riches also argued that Twitter successfully lowered the bar for entry into actions enabling participation of a wider range of people than would otherwise tend to occur. The discussion was somewhat wide-ranging and a video of Ed Miliband's campaign for leadership was shown, a somewhat slick affair that was far from winning general enthusiasm in the audience. It also opened out the problem, voiced by someone who intervened from the floor at the plenary session, of the relationship of the anti-cuts and protest movements to the Labour Party, something that continued to be a bone of contention throughout the day.

After consumption of a lunch provided by the organisers it was time for the lunchtime fringe sessions which were all successfully run and again concerned a wide range of topics from the influence of the blogosphere on the Swedish election of 2010, to a special session for disabled activists and a non-technical guide to internet security. I attended the session on the student fightback which was led by Guy Aitchison from Open Democracy and Aaron Peters who has been such a successful front for UK UnCut that he has been subjected to a specific attack in Mail Online.

Peters referred as part of his contribution to the theory he has developed of how there is always a kind of "cognitive sharing" occurring in struggles since everyone is capable of having good ideas of how to take actions forward and that this is one of the reasons why the general protest movement has structured its actions in such a way that it tries to avoid reproducing leadership structures. It may be doubted, however, whether this is entirely successful! One of the tensions within the student movement has concerned its relationship to the formal national union, the National Union of Students, not least because of unhappiness with its leadership. Some discussion was had about this but it was rather inconclusive. The shadow of the Labour Party's relation to the movement again lurked but was not seriously tackled.

Afternoon sessions now began, again focusing on a wide range of areas, from local campaigns against the cuts to how women can be engaged on-line to a specific session on how to use satire on-line. I chose to attend the session on blogging in 2011 which was subtitled "how to build an infrastructure for the left". I misunderstood this title since I had assumed that by "the left" what was meant was the general protest movement but, in fact, what turned out to meant by this sub-title was the Labour Party.

Speakers at this session included Mark Ferguson from Labour List, Donnacha Delong from the National Union of Journalists, Laurence Durnan from Political Scrapbook, Sue Macmillan who was until recently the head of new media for the Labour Party and Tim Montgomerie from Conservative Home. With the exception of Delong this was a set-up for the political establishment. It was put into an oddly small room and there was, to be truthful, very little real discussion of blogging. Macmillan made the stern early point that whatever campaigners thought they were doing that political parties had only one real point which was to get elected. Ferguson and Durnan congratulated each other on running great sites and Delong advised bloggers to join the NUJ as bloggers are regarded by the NUJ as journalists just as much as print writers are. Montgomerie gave much the most interesting of the talks in this session pointing out that the really interesting thing when it comes to blogging is not the raw numbers of followers but the nature of them so that the aim should be to get influential followers. He also indicated that the blog did not only reflect his views but also things taken seriously by his readers.

Montgomerie also spoke to a brief of the opportunities and problems for the left in the current period indicating that the opportunities lay in exploiting the cuts, running local campaigns and exploiting the migration of talent from government to campaigns. He also, rather more controversially, indicated the real "problem" for the movement which consisted, in his view, on "infiltration" from extremists, something that led to protests from the floor and from Delong despite Sunny Hundal trying to close this down. As Delong pointed out the recent actions were not led by "extremist infiltrators" but by genuinely very angry demonstrators and, as was added from the floor, it is in any case somewhat offensive to be given such advice by someone who supports the current government and compares the "far left" to racists and fascists!

The disappointing session on blogging was followed by a final plenary that both cemented the disappointment and also confirmed its source. Ari Rabin-Havt from Media Matters gave a narrowly focused but very fine talk on the baleful influence of Fox News in the US and urged all present to do everything they could to prevent Rupert Murdoch consolidating his hold on media in this country. He was then followed by the scarcely believable Labour MP Stella Creasy who gave a very long and boring speech saying precisely nothing. Creasy talked at great length about how good it was to campaign though she only gave two examples of anything she had campaigned for, namely, returning puppies to their owners and against loan sharks. She also reacted in a contemptuous and condescending manner to questions from the floor which grew increasingly hostile. After this appalling performance, a reminder of everything bad about the Labour Party, campaigners were summoned to the mic for plugs of different action groups but were given only a very brief time each at the mic, something, after the awful speech by Creasy, that was pretty offensive.

I had to leave at this point and missed the final speech by Will Straw of Left Foot Forward. My impressions on closing were very mixed. On the one hand, there is still tremendous energy in the campaigns that came together at the end of last year and determination to take on the coalition government. However there is a great risk of this being dissipated and the relationship of the protest movement to the Labour Party emerges as a serious problem. The official line of the Labour Party, repeated as a clear refrain at the event by all its official representatives, is that the campaign against the government is a long-haul thing that will take the length of a whole session of parliament. Effectively they see campaigns as simply facilitating, as Sue Macmillan put it, the task of winning an election. They do not see the point of the campaigns being to force the government to collapse and to do so quickly.

Unfortunately this Labour perspective seems to be shared also by many in the wider movement as was evidenced by Sunny Hundal's talk of being in this for a "long-haul" and by statements made by some in the student session that if some want to lobby parliament and others do other protests that this is fine also. There was lots of talk in this latter vein of "pluralism" but this appears to be a watchword for keeping campaigners away from pressuring the Labour Party and trying to drive it into a more radical posture. Whilst Labour remains committed to the idea that this government will serve a full term and it is allowed by campaigners to persist in this line then there is serious danger that the energy of the movement will dissipate as the agenda of the coalition becomes entrenched in the wider society. Unless the movement takes the wider perspective that it is imperative to have an early and decisive action to close down this government's chance of governing then it is only too likely that the movement will simply go down to defeat. I hope I am wrong about this and I hope the movement adopts a more urgent posture but the evidence from this event was, despite everything at it that was of interest, unfortunately discouraging.


Guy Aitchison said...

Very interesting post.

I do think there is a genuine need to be pluralistic and calls to respect diversity shouldn't merely be treated as attempts to dilute the radicalism of the movement. At the same time, I share your concerns about the complacency of the Labour party, and its senior officials who attended the event. I agree we should be focusing on escalating the movement and making the country ungovernable, rather than thinking about the "long haul" by which time the coalition will have completed its savage assault on the welfare state. We should be looking to bring down the government, and create a powerful force, independent of any party or indeed any centrist gatekeepers, that will shift the political centre to the left whoever is in power.

ps - my name is Guy Aitchison (no 2nd "n"!)

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for your reply Guy and apologies for mis-spelling your name, something I have now corrected. You might also be interested in a further commentary on the day by my partner over at:

I agree entirely about the genuine need for pluralism since clearly different types of actions are appropriate on different occasions and it is good to have an eye for different audiences but I'm heartened by the degree of our general agreement and hope that a movement of the type we support can really emerge and fit off the shackles of the Labour leadership!

Guy Aitchison said...

Thanks Gary - I have a long piece on all this stuff with Aaron, drawing together some of the debates we had on Saturday, coming out soon which I think you may be interested in.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for telling me about this Guy: please send me a link when your piece appears. You can also contact me on Twitter @Kantian3