Rooting for the left
Rich Millington reviews Netroots UK and explores how it may be effective in changing the political landscape
Image: Netroots UK
Modern technology is of such fundamental importance to our nation's economy that it can't fail to have a profound influence in the political arena. The future of our political life lies not only in our freedom to use modern technology, but also in our ability to use it tactically and effectively. Netroots UK is a landmark movement that picks up where digital rights leaves off: promoting effective use of the powers and freedoms that we have obtained through digital technology. The event drew together hundreds of liberal individuals and organisations with the aim to increasing their clout through technology, and “building the progressive grassroots online".
It is no surprise that the left is in a state of flux: out of government and deprived of anything like the same level of influence wielded by industry lobbyists and interest groups. The first question facing the left now is "what comes next?" The Netroots UK event over the last weekend may have been the answer.
Hosted by the TUC at their Congress Hall HQ in London on 8 January, Netroots UK attracted a wide range of activists (tickets had sold out by 5 January). The left was represented in all its forms: anarchists, feminists, migrant's rights workers, trade unionists, disability activists and Johann Hari. The feeling that "we might be onto something" kicked in early during the morning plenary, and persisted throughout the day. The outside world was treated to Matthew Taylor of The Guardian reporting from inside the event, with the item attracting a number of comments.
The day began with a message from Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, confirming that we were very much in the land of the unions. He came across as reasonable and realistic, however, and struck a positive chord, as did the video message from Daily Kos blogger himself, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. The plenary session followed with key organiser Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), along with Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), more TUC from communications head Nigel Stanley, and Clifford Singer (False Economy).
The workshops I attended were brilliant; the range of subjects covered was impressive, with everything from video-making through to campaign planning, blogging, and social media tips. The aim seemed to be to give attendees the chance to attain a functional standard of digital campaigning in all areas, or at least help them identify what they need to be knowing and doing. It makes sense at this early stage to concentrate on achieving a certain proficiency in digital activism. If there were a national curriculum for this sort of thing, it would look a lot like the Netroots workshop programme.
The prevailing message recognised both the power of the net and the importance of unity, with Clifford Singer commenting on how social media can both bypass and influence the mainstream media, and Polly Toynbee warning against the movement becoming mired in old style left-wing sectarianism. But the mood this time, she says, is different; the reason for this is potentially present in the title of the morning session: "Strategy for Campaigning Against the Cuts".
The cuts are galvanising activists against a common opposition with notable effect. Not only does the alleged Tory "shock doctrine" demonstrate the core ideological difference between "them" and "us", it also has a real impact. People are seeing the effects of the cuts in their day-to-day lives, making the issue less abstract and far more visceral. It is, in essence, the perfect storm for Netroots UK to apply itself to altering the current political landscape.
It was suggested, once or twice, that all present should join the Labour Party, which resulted in some low-key, indignant mumbling and awkward glances of "Are you sure? Is that really appropriate?" - enabling critics to argue that it was just a "Labour recruitment event". But Labour recruitment or propagandism is not helpful in the least; the movement must be critical and formative, not blindly partisan.
The hallowed Labour-Trade Unions axis, revitalised with Ed Milliband's ascension, was well represented at the event, but if Labour think that this association can yield results, they're wrong. Labour will still be the party of the deficit, Iraq, 10p tax, the private finance initiative and Peter Mandelson for a while to come.
Ultimately, the Labour Party are not deserving of Netroots UK's endorsement, as they are incapable of representing the various groups that attended the event, and certainly do not demonstrate the same progressive liberal values.
Labour can move back to the trade unions if they like, and the TUC can position itself at the head of the online progressive grassroots and the anti-cuts movement, but why should non-union members believe that union leaders represent their interests any more than industry lobbyists or incumbent right-wingers would? Labour and the TUC will be seen as just more narrow interest groups with a disproportionate influence on policy.
As it stands, Netroots UK is a little lost for political focus. The only way to remedy this—and make the UK's progressive movement truly effective—is to find elected representatives who can carry progressive values into parliament with some level of integrity and credibility. Without this, the left will remain divided and conquered: able to construct eloquent campaigns on policy issues, yet unable to support cohesive election campaign.
Although a powerful opening shot in the progressive liberal counter-attack, unless Netroots UK can organise a fresh party political movement, we're locked in the current stalemate for the foreseeable future.
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