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.