Netroots UK

Netroots UK: day of workshops at TUC Congress House London 8 January 2011

There is an assumption that political consciousness is no longer being shaped by the traditional media or institutional politics but by self-produced social media and the blogosphere. Whilst political valorisation of new media is not new, how can we really assess how the two things, electoral politics and e-activism on social media interact with each other? Behind all the presumptions and opinions, what are the actual convergences? An opportunity to ask these questions came with the Labour party’s netroots UK conference. Billed with the slogan ‘building the progressive grassroots online’  Netroots brought hundreds of e-activists to spend a day indoors with the Labour Party.


Netroots came out of US electoral campaigns in the 1990s; so why a Netroots UK today? The phrase itself, a suggestive amalgam of 'net' and 'roots' was coined by ex-environmental activist Jerome Armstrong whose project was to challenge 'old-school politics with a new kind of popular political movement that combined the grassroots, labor unions and big donors.... returning power to the edges'. The way to this returning power to the edges was through new web-based tools, these days known as social media. In 2003 Armstrong used his myDD platform (my Direct Democracy) in the infamous Howard Dean campaign for the DNC (Democratic National Congress). This campaign introduced a so-called ‘map changer attitude’ to fight the old-school ‘battleground mentality’ of orthodox politics:
'The Republicans realise exactly which races are the battlegrounds, and focus all of their resources on the same races… they invest hundreds of millions of dollars into new media, machine politics and database inventories that give them superior voter targeting capabilities.
In contrast, the mapchanger attitude utilizes tens of thousands of grassroots activists in every state and congressional district. The power of people becomes the strongest resource and gives the national Party the ability to pour resources into those states or districts that become surprisingly contested.

The map-changer was specifically about electoral politics; its thinking eschewed any association with other forms of political agency. Colin Greer in described all this as being the ‘politics of calm’ - not about risks and ideals but about winning elections, gaining power. As a consequence 'rather than risk being marginalised for taking a strong stance against the right, progressives now espouse “safe” positions in order to appease what they believe to be the majority of Americans. They define this imaginary mainstream public by its disdain for radical views and direct action, and retreat from both in the vain hope that such caution will bring political reward.'


All this would have nothing to do with new political movements of the type we have been witnessing in London and across Europe – street protest, university occupations, occupations of public squares that are perhaps about game-changing, not only map changing. If there was an underlying acknowledgement of this at Netroots UK, the response was to try to talk up the potential of ‘traditional’ politics.
Come in and take over” said Simon Weller, the National Organiser for ASLEF the train drivers union, explaining how most union meetings were extremely open to participation and were horizontally run. The apprehensions of appropriation within the twitter camp were predictable.
@PennyRed Laurie Penny We’re listening politely whilst appointed arbiters of the centre-left mow the grassroots into a neat, acceptable bourgeois lawn.

But once the party machine relaxed, the workshops could do a different kind of talking by ploughing through practicalities. Simon Collister of led the way with the decisive observation that in order to self-organise to achieve change we no longer need large infrastructures. Why? Because the social web is 'built around individuals, not organisations'.  All one needed to start a campaign was shared visions, shared goals to work together online. The way is simple:
1 establish your presence in online space and tap into networks with pre-existing ‘ad-value’ to what you want to achieve
2 embrace disruption
Ad-value is a strange choice of words but is regrettably close to the truth. Collister suggested, 'Social media consists of pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of ad value'. Ubiquitous in sidebars of Facebook, google, so forth, ad-value is lost in the buzz of activism but is something we are passively resigned to: by using platforms like Facebook, google, Twitter, that is the tools that people are already using, we not only reinforce our dependence on such platforms, we co-produce them and yet hand over the intimate details of our private lives to private monopolies.
Andrew Walker of tweetminster prefaced with a confession – tweetminster merely aggregates political data. Of the 93 Labour MPs on Twitter, for example, 60 tweeted during the last Labour conference and you can download the data here. tweetminster argues that whilst corporations like Samsung, nike are tuned-in to social media, politics is still on the broadcast model. With politics, traditional models of campaigning are shoehorned into new media as an extension of the broadcast model. A future approach to politics for tweetminster would be the ongoing mining of opinion, through online activity, twitter surges, and then to build the politics around what people are thinking. “If you have mined the data, then so you can say I have 10,000 who… to back up your own gut feelings”.
tweetminster advocates a move away from top-down but confesses “we haven't got the new politics as yet but, when it arrives the new politics means engaging with real people. The public will tell you what we need, so mine the data and traffic and resonate with their own values!
There are different possible visions to read into here: of the social web as a new informational-service sector, endlessly interpretive, or, of a new theatre of politics as an auto-updating invisible hand of political consensus. The problem is that both seek to mine and manipulate the status quo, not challenge it. “Tap into the networks and the political solutions will appear as low hanging fruit”. But somehow this points to a dangerous seamlessness between e-commerce, e-democracy and e-activism.

Activist Chris Coltrane of @UKuncut enthused about the organising potential of social media. Producing several hundred tweets and re-tweets a day, he explained how with twitter, he could harness 400 followers within an hour. Recounting old memories of activism, of 50 person demos waving placards with a lingering sense of futility, he asked “what was the point?”
But along came the ‘game-changer’: social media. “Now if you have an interesting protest, it's 50 people PLUS the internet PLUS the media.
All this meant @UKuncut could shut down 3 vodafone offices at the same time. And its' all non-hierarchical, we just set a time, set a date, gave infrastructure… it's all horizontal people can unite thanks to social media it's that empowerment that gets people excited
”. @Ukuncut has secured a large media profile with very little resources and worked across the generation gap.
The problem in all this is what is being disguised by the hype; nascent media always feels horizontal but the pyramidal structures are hidden below the hype.

The intersection of political analysis and Internet theory is a busy crossroad of cliché, where familiar rhetorical vehicles – decentralized authority, emergent leadership, empowered grass roots – create a ceaseless buzz,” wrote Gary Wolf in Wired.  It’s the continuous buzz that’s integral to Twitter culture. Follow it over time and a certain typology of communication emerges; there is the blurring of the private with the public dependent on a large volume of echoing through RTs (retweeting) – self-affirmations within tribal formations. Ukuncut has 14,376 followers, whilst individual participants of @Ukuncut may have over a thousand.  All this can be used to heighten focus at particular time and place through a twitter surge but it can be a hard job keeping the flow going when not much is happening. However one tries to stitch together a narrative from the flow, the twitter buzz.
rosebiggin: If you don’t eat enough meat to get into heaven, you go to Burgatory.
chris_coltrane Chris Coltrane  Avoiding a few million quid in tax. #Jerseying
aaronjohnpeters Aaron Peters  In a global village a leak is a tidal wave.
But the key to @Ukuncut lies in the conjunction of the words  ‘if’ and ‘interesting’. And what if you are not? And what if what you are interested in is not interesting to the media? How does one configure a political space in such situations?


Not surprisingly mentions of facebook and twitter fade in the workshops on the ‘hyperlocal’.  Luke Bozier, the Managing Director of who worked for Tony Blair, rolled out the stats. 69% of households have broadband access, 50% of those under 44 years of age had replied to a blog, 16% of web users had contacted a politician directly through the web,  20% admitted to signing a petition. Bozier proclaimed could “revolutionise the relationship between us and our political representatives” through statistical transparency.
Nick Micinski from the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (MRCF) in West London coordinating their Digital Activism Project, suggested that on a local day-to-day level, social media instead of augmenting real life was perceived to be replacing real life. ‘Alchemy comes from the one to one, having a coffee together’. His blog report on netroots is insightful.
But nonetheless the truism that emerges is apparent:  in the age of austerity the only surplus left to the people is information, the so-called cognitive surplus.  We have an abundance of it. And we now have the tools to utilise the surplus to allow it to allow us to self-organise, possibly in new ways.
Thus over the course of netrootsUK two things emerge:
firstly, that the intense processes of assimilation of such tools into current political processes is well advanced and,
secondly that at the same time there is a widening gulf between the language and potential for the practice of politics through such tools. Together the contradiction is that of being able to ‘see’ the other, the new politics, see the possibilities, but an inability to move for fear of losing power and all bearings. Critically the trend is that the gulf between the two is widening but there isn’t the tipping point as yet to force a different way of thinking onto the political structures.
If that was the case we might have had a different range of workshops, perhaps a working group for new political structures or systems. But Netroots UK could never dive far from the surface, always keeping in touching range with old sureties. For the finale MP Stella Creasy kept the focus on formal politics with a compelling appeal to ‘be part of the process’ as it’s the only way to exercise political power “the only way to make a difference is through party activism”. It’s a belief but the stats say that 75% of those below the age of 21 do not vote, and that only 1.8% of the population influences the vote outcome. For the majority, voting as a way of engaging the political process feels pointless or, as some-one put it “the engaged have disengaged”. Thus a more pointed question would be to ask what are practical possibilities, here and now, for those who are the majority to exercise political agency?

Re-posted to  Sept 2012