Netroots UK: New wine into old bottles?

Michael Calderbank on the challenges ahead for the online left.
9 January 2011

In one sense yesterday’s Netroots UK conference couldn’t have come at a better time. The student protests and the impressive UKUncut actions against tax avoiders have demonstrated how social media can help groups to organise and campaign with a spontaneity and immediacy rarely achieved through the formal hierarchies of the traditional left.

Yet if the event was all about the possibilities of 21st Century digital technologies for a new wave of radical activism, then the presence of plenary speakers representing organisations such as the The Guardian, the Fabian Society and the Trades Union Congress showed that institutions whose politics were first shaped in the late 19th century are still exerting a certain authority.

This points to a central contradiction in the Netroots UK project, modelled as it is on the Networks Nation in the US (which lined up online activists both Democrat and non-aligned - behind Obama’s bid for the Presidency). So, too, elements behind the UK version are clearly looking to harness the energy, enthusiasm and know-how of young activists in order to legitimise the Labour party’s claim to lead the anti-cuts struggle, while at the same time bestowing official recognition only of those elements that agree to confine their politics within the limits of middle-class respectability.

But it is clear that even amongst yesterday’s attendees (still more of the wider layers of young activists who didn’t opt to spend their Saturday mornings listening to Polly Toynbee), many web-savvy campaigners have little desire to define their efforts according to the priorities of re-electing a largely unreconstructed Labour party. And while there are some signs that Labour is recognising that it’s old “command-and-control” model of organising is not workable in the digital age, its present party structures have little attraction for many young people. Indeed, it is precisely as a consequence of frustration with the unresponsive and unaccountable channels of formal politics and its associated media discourse that these new forms of communication, information and organisation are developing.

There is still an active debate about the extent to which today’s activists are aiming to exert influence over established political figures and the mainstream media, or whether their aim is to bypass institutionally conservative interests and appeal directly to their peers. So while some participants are clearly aspiring to be the bloggers-de-jour of the liberal media and establish their own profile as “the voice” of the new generation (like latter-day Danny Cohn-Bendits), others - such as the UCL student occupiers - were raising more radical questions about how ‘horizontal’ methods of organising are still susceptible to the de-facto manipulation by self-appointed leaderships. Conspicuous by their absence were the established groups of the traditional far left, which seems to retain a residual suspicion of the internal democratic logic of the digital media. But with trade union involvement (predictably given the venue) largely confined to a layer of professional officials, discussion about low level self-organising in workplaces and communities found it harder to compete with the larger institutional players 38 Degrees, and Blue State Digital.

The risk here is that mass e-mobilisations take a lowest-common-denominator approach to political messaging which threatens to soften the more radical edge of campaigns, resulting in a bland, amorphous liberalism. Yet if NetrootsUK was rather too quick to gloss over real political differences, it did nevertheless indicate that an important new front is opening up in a broader social struggle. Whether the new forms of organisation made possible by digital technology will be able to emerge or whether established interests will ensure that new wine is poured back into old bottles, will be put decisively to the test as the anti-cuts struggles develop.

Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


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Lianne 9 January 2011, 21.58

As one of the ‘young activists who didn’t opt to spend their Saturday mornings listening to Polly Toynbee’, I think you make some interesting points.

I particularly agree (as you know!) on the points about re-electing a Labour party and frustration with formal party politics.

It seemed to me that some of the workshops sessions were really good – empowering people through training, so that they can take skills away for lower-level disparate community organisating.

But there’s always the question underlying it all about how inclusive and/or extensive an online presence is.

IMHO it should support, not dictate things that are already happening elsewhere. As someone said in the digital equality session, we shouldn’t expect them to come to us, we should but go to them.

Liam Barrington-Bush 10 January 2011, 11.00

I found the hallway area was a great place to spend the plenary sessions – excellent conversation with various activists, inspired to make the most of the great gathering NetrootsUK enabled, by discussing ideas and actions with some of the other activists present.

This piece highlights the divisions at the event incredibly well, but on some level, one of the advantages to the more networked approach to movement building, is that we’re quite good at adapting to less-than-ideal situations, such as the structure of the day itself.

Many of us who wanted a more loosely-structured event, made NetrootsUK into exactly that, by filling the hallways, Tweeting, making connections with other interesting people, and subverting the top-down authority of the plenary environment, in which the vast majority of participants have no voice.

So rather than criticise the event, I feel it was a great success – I know that I had at least a few conversations which are already starting to grow into new ideas and actions, and for that I’m hugely grateful that NetrootsUK came together as it did! :)

Denny 10 January 2011, 11.27

“Many web-savvy campaigners have little desire to define their efforts according to the priorities of re-electing a largely unreconstructed Labour party.”

I was pleased on the day when I realised I was far from alone in that respect.

As Liam says, I think it was a good event overall… next time I’ll skip the speeches (if they’re silly enough to do the same structure), as although a few of them were good, most of them were pointless time-fillers. The workshops and the random conversations were the meat of the day, and they were well worth the entry fee on their own.

Putney Debater 11 January 2011, 07.57

For a video report on Netroots UK see ‘The Writing on the Wall is on the Web’ at Putney Debater

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