Sunday 9 January 2011

Netroots UK: an online rebellion

So: there is trouble in paradise, and, here in Broken Barnet, the natives are restless.

But what is happening elsewhere in the country, around and about this earth of majesty, this septic isle?

Are there signs of resistance beginning to emerge in opposition to the apocalyptic political agenda of the Coalition government, or are people just sitting back and waiting for the worst to happen? What can we do about it anyway? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out.

A few years ago, while America was still squirming under the heel of the Bush administration, across the nation there emerged a new grassroots political phenomenon, the Netroots movement, which, through the use of new online resources and social media, created active opposition to the Republican government, and strengthened support for progressive political causes, directly contributing to the success of the Obama election campaign. The Netroots movement has become so well established and influential, in fact, that the President himself sent a video address to the 2010 conference.

On Saturday, the first Netroots conference was held at the TUC HQ in Bloomsbury, drawing more than 600 interested bloggers, tweeters, journalists, and other online activists, to hear speakers from the media and politics, and take part in various workshops. Mrs Angry was there: she would not exactly claim to see herself as an organised activist, but thought it might be interesting to attend, and it certainly was. And it was amusing, and flattering, to -ahem - hear this blog singled out for praise in one of the workshops by someone I guess we have to describe as a 'veteran journalist' (tweet that then, Dave Hill - although of course, really, I'm only a girlie blogger writing about knitting & kittens & stuff ... )

This event even attracted the interest and attendance of a few token Tories, including Sam Coates, who, we were told towards the end of the afternoon, had described the day as 'chaotically brilliant'. Even poor old Guido Fawkes got his knickers in a twist about it (I'm guessing he wasn't invited) and with all the wit you might expect from him, labelled the event - go on, go on - yes, 'Nutsroots'. Actually, it was markedly short of spotty geeks and nutters (apart from the token Tories in their kipper ties) and contrary to Fawkes' prediction, we were not plied with unlimited amounts of alcohol and subsidised food all day long. The hosts being the TUC, I had of course expected beer and sandwiches, but disappointingly we were handed paper bag mums packed lunches of the sort, in a post Jamie Oliver world, that you're actually not allowed to give your kids anymore: stuffed with crisps and Ribena. Ribena! But anyway ...

What was a real revelation to me, throughout the course of the day, was that much of what is happening in our borough, with the flourishing blogosphere, and the unprecedented interest - by normally apathetic voters - in both local and national political issues, is part of a much bigger picture. People are restless, and frustrated, and not connecting to mainstream politics or finding expression in media such as the press, tv and radio. they are taking matters into their own hands.

One of the first speakers on Saturday was a guy from the TUC, who made some very interesting points about the changing perception of electors, as recorded in a series of opinion polls since the May election.

When the Coalition government first announced the necessity for a blitzkrieg of spending cuts of such ferocity, the good old British public accepted, like the dimwits they take us for, that this course of action was unavoidable. Increasingly, however, people are beginning to have serious concerns about the speed in which the programme of cuts are being introduced, the effects they will produce, and they are rapidly realising that the cuts are in fact inherently unfair. The number of voters who think they are going to suffer directly is rising, whilst those who think the cuts will be good for the economy is falling to zero. And of course all this is happening before any of the proposed changes have really begun to take practical effect: what happens then will be very interesting indeed.

Journalist Polly Toynbee spoke eloquently about what is heading our way: the full impact of change on our society, the effects every citizen will see in their local community, and in their daily and family lives. The impact of loss of budgets for schools, further education, training, libraries, hospitals, the police, ambulance and fire services. The effect on young and old: childrens' centres, youth centres, elderly day care centres. Tuition fee rises, the loss of EMA. Old and young, the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. She pointed out that most cuts will fall hardest, of course, on children, the poorest children. Forget about 'every child matters': staff in certain government departments have already been forbidden to use this phrase. Benefits lost or cuts or frozen rates; changes to housing policy and the increased difficulty of finding affordable accommodation: almost every cut you can think of will have a direct impact on the youngest and most dependent members of our society.

Every child suffers, in Coalition Britain.

Toynbee warned that Cameron and friends, in what she described as a 'brutal' government, are recklessly creating 'a social deficit of incalculable cost'. The repair of such damage will be so much harder than any kind of financial repayment, becaus what is being planned, is so much huger than anything that Margaret Thatcher ever dared to do. She left her own legacy, of course: a lost generation of young people, brought up dependent on a welfare system: Thatcher's children, the point where Britain got broken, in my humble view, Dave. Your turn now, you, and George and Nick: see how big a mess you can create, why don't you?

But there is hope, as well as bleak foreboding, in what Polly Toynbee had to say. She noted how political opposition to the government is so much more united than in similar situations in past history. And if the impact of the cuts is going to be felt on such a local, personal scale, then perhaps much of the solution to fighting the onslaught is also on a local, personal scale.

Time for communities to fight back, and take control of the argument. And in the age of online activisim, blogging, tweeting, social media, there is a new accessibility for ordinary people to do just that. I think it's true to say that there is obviously now a completely dysfunctional relationship between Parliament and the vast majority of voters, and there traditionally has been little interaction between local government administrations and their local constituents. I think that fury and frustration is already forging a new lack of tolerance for the self serving politicians of the parliamentary world and indeed those misfits skulking about in the Town Hall chambers of local authorities. Voters are wising up. So much information is now available online, and this is where so much political debate is taking place. Politicians need to rethink their preset ideas, and the mainstream, traditional press and media, both national and local, need to adapt and change if they want to survive.

One of the later speakers was a very interesting guy, Ari Rabin-Havt, who runs 'Media Matters', an organisation in the US which monitors press coverage of politicial issues. This, as we are reminded so horrribly today, is a very important function. He warned of the 'Fox Effect': the way in which a right wing television channel presents political issues in sensationalist and seemingly unregulated ways; a practice which can have a truly catastrophic effect.

Many citizens in America form all their political views from such toxic sources. We watched a film of a presenter called Glenn Beck, raving, ranting about Nazis and Socialists, footage reminiscent of the movie 'Network', you know, 'I'm mad as hell etc ' - which appeared to be a spoof: it wasn't. Think of Sarah Palin, and her surreal world view: we laugh, but many Americans hold the same attitudes and dangerous opinions, having been fed for years on a newsdiet of such crap. What happened in Tucson this weekend is already being linked to the poisonous atmosphere engendered by such dangerous and irresponsible political coverage and debate.

Will we face problems like that over here? Hopefully not. But we have our own difficulties: most of our national newspapers are tediously right wing, and the famous neutrality of the BBC is something which requires eternal vigilence. But that takes us back to the Netroots idea: cutting through the barrier of the hostile or indifferent old school media, and giving ordinary people and ordinary communities a voice, and a say in their own futures. Empowering them, you might say, if you were a Big Society kind of person. Who'd got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Because - it's localism, Dave.

But not as you know it.


Anonymous said...

That would be the Nutroots conference, no?

Mrs Angry said...

Doh: yes, Mr Hope, do try and keep up,dear ... PS what's happened to t'Bugle?