Lessons from NetrootsUK

Inspired by the success of the American movement Netroots Nation, UK blogs and organisations False Economy, Liberal Conspiracy, and the TUC, amongst others, decided to organise the first NetrootsUK conference.  The aim was to harness the power of the progressive left blogosphere and online anti-cuts activism.

The conference was a great opportunity for activists to share ideas and tips, and to network in person.  After discussing the day with other attendees, I would like to share some suggestions:

1. Scrap plenaries – the first session of the day was a plenary (the whole conference sits in the main hall and listens to speeches).  The speakers were Brendan Barber (TUC), Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos), Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Nigel Stanley (TUC), and Clifford Singer (False Economy).  These sessions are designed to clarify the aims of the conference and inspire the participants for the day ahead.  However, it had exactly the opposite effect.

The anti-cuts and student movements have been exciting because they are the voice of the people.  For too long young people, pensioners, people with disabilities, those on benefits, have felt ignored and shut out from mainstream politics and from the public conversation.  Starting the day with a panel of big-name ‘experts’ rather than the people who are getting out there and making change happen was not inspiring, but disempowering.

2. Representativeness – There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Digital equality: how can women get engaged online.’  What was supposed to be a talk about getting women engaged in online activistism (which as Laurie Penny pointed out was pointless because women constitute the majority of bloggers and tweeters) turned into an extremely interesting discussion about tokenism.  One of the speakers pointed out that all of the sessions at the event included ‘one token woman’ on the panel and the only all-female panel was in this designated “women’s issues” forum.  Then two black women in the audience said they felt ignored because they hadn’t even had a token session or panel member.

Lisa Ansell, made the point that the cuts will disproportionately affect women, the disabled, black people and ethnic minorities, and people in the North, so rather than making these niche issues, they should be at the core of what the movement is doing.  There should be activists on gender, disability, race and from marginalized communities embedded throughout the panels in the next conference.  I realise this is hard to organise, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, it’s important.

3. Participation – The plenary sessions: a panel on the stage with audience members looking up to them with minimum participation, as I have said, is disempowering.  The workshop sessions varied on this.  Some were largely panel-led, others were more discussion-led.

Of course, there is a place for getting expert advice.  For example, there was a lunchtime event led by Chris Coltrane on internet security.  Having a discussion-based session on this would probably not be helpful, as the aim is to learn a skill from someone who knows it.

However, other workshops could have been more discussion-based.  Where this is possible I think it should be encouraged – it breeds inclusivity, empowerment and ownership by everyone of the event.  In discussion sessions the layout of the room could be addressed.  In UCL Occupation meetings we did this by setting the chairs out in a circle, so it wasn’t some people at the head of the room telling the rest what to do, but a group working together.  Also, other procedures could be considered, such as the consensus model, where the aim is to get as many people to participate as possible and all ideas are discussed openly.

4. Don’t become London-centric – It made sense to have the first conference in London, because that is where the organisers are based.  However, in order for this movement not to become London-centric and alienating, the next conference should be held elsewhere.

5. Accepting our differences, learning lessons, not creating divisions – In the opening plenary after hearing several audience comments that we should join the Labour Party, I got up and asked ‘why should we join the Labour Party?’  The aim was not to alienate myself from those who think getting Labour onside is the way to move forward, but to show that there are other views out there.  We all have different opinions and we should have the space and support to discuss them, especially at events like this.  As I have argued before, there will always be differences of opinion within a social movement.  It is better to discuss them and get them out in the open, than to let them fester and rot the movement from the inside.

And it is in this spirit that I am writing this blog post.  NetrootsUK was a great event.  I met some brilliant people, heard some inspiring talks, learnt a lot and we built in-person rather than online solidarity networks.  This is all really positive stuff.  But in every event there are lessons to be learned.  That is what I want to highlight here in making these suggestions.  We shouldn’t get too bogged down in criticising each other, but rather focus our anger and energy against our common enemy – the Coalition government’s neo-liberal agenda.  However, constructive criticism can help make the movement stronger and more effective.

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9 Comments

Filed under Education, NetrootsUK, Student Protests

9 responses to “Lessons from NetrootsUK

  1. Pingback: Reply to Sunder Katwala | Student Theory

  2. If you stay as an academic post PHD get used to conferences always sucking. That sums up most conferences I’ve been to. Boring keynote. Sessions which most people spend reading email. Then brief social periods where stuff actually happens.

    It’d be better to have set up a left wing mass speed date / moonie wedding.

    (p.s also categorise your posts so then people can choose which ones to read easier 🙂 )

  3. agree with your points, particularly about plenaries of ‘big names’ which now just feels so totally outdated as a way to inspire and empower people.

    the workshop I attended on investigative journalism and blogging was so bad one guy stormed out in disgust: a panel member went on for over 35 minutes reading from a PPT, and the chair did nothing. What a waste of the energy and innovation sitting in the audience, totally untapped.

    More ‘unconference’ thinking (http://www.unconference.net/) is needed for the next netroots (which should be here in Newcastle, I think, as you’re right, regions such as the NE are going to be hit hardest).

  4. Thanks for a good summing up. This is definitely the way the old model works and I’m so glad that the benefits of hallways and less formal settings made themselves felt. I certainly hope this will develop and reach those of us out in the sticks and develop meaningful links between theory and creative, effective, constructive action. The live feed which featured a disabled audience member talking about how to work with local press triggered extremely useful feedback from Johann and renewed thinking based on my own experience and was the most productive bit of all for me. Many thanks to all involved!

  5. I felt like the plenary could have worked, if it had been structured differently. I think there’s definitely some value in having some sort of shared, collective opening to the event, so as to get everybody on the same page. But as you said, the closed nature of it was a bit disempowering, and for me felt a bit like starting the school day with an assembly through which you must sit. And the order of the speakers (or rather what they delivered) was such that with Polly Toynbee effectively closing it by telling us what we already know, it felt like it came to a rather dull anti-climax.

    For me, the highlight of that opening session was your “outburst” – until that point, it was starting to feel like the majority of the people speaking up in the audience had interpreted the purpose of the day to be some sort of “get Labour back into power using the Internet” project. And I’ll be honest, I’d started thinking that way myself, where pragmatism trumps pluralism and “Labour is the only real alternative” stops one from thinking about better alternatives. Your contribution snapped me right out of that, and was a great reminder of why it is that the grassroots can’t move towards Labour, it has to be the other way around. So thanks for that – as far as I’m concerned, it was easily the most important audience contribution of the session.

  6. Tom Pain

    I don’t think the rank and file of Labour Party activists appreciate the depth of the mistrust felt towards their party over Iraq, etc. It’s as though by appointing a new leader, the fact that they all went along with it – including the new leader – will suddenly forgotten. It will not, until they have a Clause 4 re-run over whether or not the party will eve take the country into a pre-emptive war without a full UN Security Council mandate.

    LibDems are about to go through the same thing, years of self-denial at how seriously they’ve blown it. They won’t get it till all they’re left with is the opposition benches in Scotland.

    None of them get that political parties are going through their Napster moment. They’ll be back but – like the music industry – a shadow of their former selves.

    All the questions about representation that you rightly raise will them have to be looked at again when the qualifying threshold of participation is blogging and tweeting.

    Gender may be less of an issue but representation of minority voices may be.

  7. Stephen Whitehead

    Good points well made Maeve.

    I totally agree about the format of the day. To me, many of the sessions felt like they were built around a false notion of ‘expertise’ where we could come and learn how to do online activism from people who had all the answers. Whereas, in reality, no one has all the answers about how to do online activism, and for the most part there aren’t any fixed answers anyway.

    It seems to me that the event would have been better off trying to throw people together to let them build enthusiasm, exchange ideas and experiences and get to know potential collaborators. I would have liked to see more, smaller groups with much more time devoted to discussion amongst the participants.

    Still, as you said, it was a good day and a chance to meet some interesting people – including yourself, and I’m genuinely grateful to the people who invested their time and energy in putting it on.

  8. Pingback: Netroots UK: first reports | Netroots UK

  9. Good article.

    I mainly agree but will say that as someone new to activism, the workshops I attended were really useful as the discussions brought out all sorts of stuff I didn’t know.

    (I went to this one http://www.netrootsuk.org/workshops/engaging-with-politicians-online/ and this one http://www.netrootsuk.org/workshops/countering-the-cuts-in-your-area/.)

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