Britain’s Netroots must turn online activity into offline protest in 2011

The Netroots UK conference has been a huge success. The ethos of the 570 delegates has been one of learning from each other but single-mindedness about the challenge ahead.

By any measure, today’s Netroots UK conference in central London has been a huge success. On the first weekend in January, over 570 activists with a range of skills, passions, and ideas have come together to collaborate and agitate. The ethos of the day has been one of learning from each other but single-mindedness about the challenge ahead.

It is worth reflecting on the key events that have led to this first, mass gathering of Britain’s online progressive grassroots community. Over the last five years a series of new technologies has increased the ability of activists to share information and organise. As Johann Hari outlined in a session this afternoon, the old campaigning model of marches and petitions is breaking down with online tools aiding a series of new campaigns. Just in the last year:

38 degrees have grown to 300,000 members raising funds from its membership to take out adverts in several national newspapers against George Osborne’s tax avoidance, place ironic ‘For Sale’ signs around the country on the forestry land that the Government is seeking to sell, and will – in the next few weeks – facilitate 200 local meetings on the government’s plans to dismantle the NHS;

Hope Not Hate has grown from 6,000 online supporters to 150,000 who mobilised to push back the BNP all around the country;

• The Robin Hood Tax campaign attracted 230,000 fans on facebook and is building up pressure on in the European Union for a transaction tax;

False Economy is capturing stories and testimony about the impact of the cuts to individual families and communities;

• Left-wing blogs have made great strides and arguably overtaken the right with a wealth of information and debate taking place outside the mainstream media;

• Rod Liddle was prevented from becoming editor of the Independent due to grassroots pressure;

• Trade Unions are catching up with, for example, CWU organising an active online campaign against post privatisation and, as mentioned by Tom Watson this afternoon, Unison is experimenting with online branches;

• The UK Uncut movement has organically grown (aided and abetted by Twitter) with activity in over 50 towns and cities on a single day before Christmas to get across the message about tax evasion, tax avoidance and tax justice;

• And, of course, the student protests and occupations at the end of last year were largely organised using social media and text messaging.

The right are clearly rattled with their bloggers and tweeters criticising today’s conference throughout the day. Sam Coates, the thoughtful Head of Digital Media at the Conservative party, even came along and told me that it was a “chaotically brilliant” event. But today has not been a celebration of the left’s advances online, it has been a call to arms for online tools to enable offline protest and articulate a different approach.

The first session of the day outlined the full impact of how the unfair and unnecessary cuts will destroy public services and affect people right across society (and especially women). Meanwhile, higher education budgets are being slashed while tuition fees treble; the NHS is being dismantled without any electoral mandate; the planet carries on burning; and poverty continues to rise at home and abroad.

All the energy and ideas generated by today’s conference will mean precisely nothing unless the activity can be transferred offline and used to put roadblocks in front of the coalition. The days multitude of workshops and panels looked at the means to do this. Delegates discussed how to raise funds for their campaigns, how to persuade the media to cover what they’re doing, how to engage politicians and get them to push for legislative solutions, how video can be used to enhance and enforce a campaign message, and how to generate local action.

Five years ago, Netroots Nation in the United States inspired a generation to organise online and campaign offline against the greed, human rights abuses, and economic folly of the Bush administration – ultimately resulting in the election of Barack Obama. In a video message at the start of the day, top US blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos urged delegates to mobilise against greedy corporations, the bankers who caused the financial crash, and the right-wing media. We must never forget that blogs and twitter are amazing tools that help spread information but they don’t by themselves change the world. Click-tivism must become activism.

So if 2010 was the year that the left overtook the right online, 2011 must become the year that the left uses the web to beat the right offline.

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