Sunday, 1 July 2012
Putting the hyper into hyperlocal: Mrs Angry @ Netroots 2012
Attending last year's Netroots conference, the first one in the UK, was something of a revelation for Mrs Angry. She had gone along, out of mild curiosity, and was rather taken aback to find her modest efforts in this blog mentioned in one of the workshops (yes: how not to write a blog, and a warning to all aspiring citizen journalists) and it occurred to her that perhaps it was after all worth continuing. More importantly, it was clear that what she was doing, in her idiosyncratic way, was in fact part of a much larger phenomenon, a grassroots movement, using the new social media in a way which is transforming the world of political activism.
More than a year later, here we are, and Mrs Angry has arrived at the second Netroots UK event, this time in fear and trembling as she had been persuaded, against her better judgement, to take part in the panel for a workshop on hyperlocal blogging, and give a short talk about her own work to a grateful audience of would be troublemakers and casual onlookers who couldn't get into any of the other acts on offer.
The day started with a brief introduction by the TUC's Frances O'Grady (the conference is held at Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC), and then a welcome from the organiser Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal Conspiracy, the first speaker was Raven Brooks, who had come from Networks Nation in the US to talk about the history of the movement. Mrs Angry had expected to see someone in leather, with long black hair, piercings, and interesting tattoos, but rather disappointingly Raven turned out to be a very mild mannered man in a nice pink shirt.
The first image on the screen for his talk appeared to be a representation of the beginning of the universe, which rather surprised Mrs Angry, as she thought the Netroots movement had only been going for about ten years, but then, she mused, political activism itself is as old as time, and has adapted, by a process of natural selection, ever since, and here we are, sitting in Congress House, a centre of resistance to Tory government policies in the seventies and eighties to, oh, well a centre of resistance to Tory government in 2012, but members of a new species, ready to take over the old habitat.
The achievements of the netroots movement in the US - from policy defeats for the Bush administration to taking a leading role in the success of the Obama presidential campaign, and now acting as a focal point for the advocacy and lobbying of new ideas and policies - has adapted too in response to the development and proliferation of social media networks and activism.
Last year, at the previous Netroots event, we were discussing how in Britain we were just beginning to feel the strength of the newly emerging and influential left wing blogosphere: nearly eighteen months later, energised by the terrifying reality of a radical right wing coalition government the blogs and twitter campaigns are leading a movement of opposition and resistence on every front.
The really radical aspect to the new way of campaigning through social media is that it democratises the political process and gives accessibility and influence to those who were ignored by the more traditional forms of activism and party politics. This is a truly empowering development: and hugely significant for individuals and interest groups representing the most vulnerable members of society, those who stand to take the greatest, most damaging impact of new government policy proposals on welfare benefit and the NHS, for example.
The next speaker was someone who is well placed to talk about this issue: the wonderful, inspiring Sue Marsh, who writes the 'Diary of a Benefit Scrounger' blog and dedicated herself to the 'Spartacus' campaign which so nearly stopped the shameful Welfare Bill in its tracks. She described how the issue of disability rights and the impact of the proposed changes was largely overlooked by the mainstream media. Using the blogoshere, and - crucially - twitter, a campaign formed, grew and then became an almost unstoppable force, lobbying on behalf of a previously ignored section of the community, and setting an example to all other social campaigners in the process.
Through Spartacus, ordinary people, telling their own stories, presented the real experience of disability - 'changing the narrative ourselves' ... This is England, as she reminded us, 2012, where disabled people are living not as 'benefit cheats' but simply struggling to survive. Two years after starting her own blog, she told us, out of frustration, horror and fear, Sue was on Newsnight discussing the Welfare Reform Bill - and being listened to seriously. Finally, she said, the mainstream media had woken up, and jumped on board: the Guardian leading the way, and others following. Better late than never, eh?
Now the politicians were being forced to listen too, all parties, both houses. When lobbying the House of Lords, one peer had the nerve to complain that his email box was being flooded by 600 messages an hour. Calm it down, he demanded. Six hundred an hour? Good, she told him: next time we'll send you 1200.
Sue Marsh received thunderous appplause from the audience: as well she should. For all the criticism about the negative impact of the internet and social media on our changing lives, here is a perfect example to demonstrate the force for good that it also represents.
Next came time for the morning workshops. Mrs Angry wandered into one with a promising title: 'Fighting the cuts through the courts'. This workshop was sparsely attended, unfortunately - most people had probably been lured by the one offering Paul Mason of 'It's all kicking off' fame.
In fact, this workshop was also very inspiring, and extremely useful, giving three fascinating examples of campaigns which have taken legal action - and won. So inspiring and useful was this, in fact, that Mrs Angry will be keeping some of it to herself, for personal use, here in Broken Barnet. Be afraid, @BarnetCouncil, be very afraid ...
This discussion was chaired by the excellent Kate Belgrave, a journalist who has often written about the activism here in our borough, and was full of praise for the Barnet blogosphere. How interesting it was, however, to hear how people in other parts of the country have responded to issues such as a local authority cutting adult social care, or trying to replace library staff with volunteers, or a PCT set on handing over healthcare to a so called 'social enterprise' scheme - an arrangement which has little to do with social need, and everything to do with private enterprise for the benefit of profiteering companies.
Without going into details, the lesson from all three examples is that community campaigners with limited funding can and have won important legal challenges, judicial reviews, by proving that their local authorities or PCTs have failed properly to consider the impact on the most vulnerable users of the services they provide. These legal challenges can be funded with legal aid when pursued in the name of individuals who stand to be directly affected by any proposed changes. Unless the body pushing for these changes has properly and fully consulted users in relation to their proposals, they themselves are vulnerable to challenge. Here in Barnet, luckily, our local authority is so incompetent and desperate to avoid engagement with the community that it is almost certain that every new policy it proposes will be compromised by a flawed process of consultation.
Oops. Oh dear. Let's see, shall we?
After lunch came the bit Mrs Angry was dreading: her performance on the panel of the workshop on 'Hyperlocal media and campaigning online'. This was to be chaired by Sarah Hartley, of 'Talk about local', with speakers Adam Bienkov, Annette Albert of 'W14', and James Hatts of 'SE!'.
Oh dear. Thankfully by now Mrs Angry's medication was kicking in and she probably could have flown out of the top floor window of Congress House, if invited. Luckily she was not invited to, but still, was expected to produce a coherent talk on blogging. She warned one or two individuals from Broken Barnet - who told her gleefully that they were coming to the workshop - not to look at her, listen to her, or ask any awkward questions. She was told, in return, not to worry, as they would be too busy heckling. Good.
What should Mrs Angry say? Hold on: what is hyperlocal blogging? Mrs Angry explained to the audience (a packed roomful of expectant activists) that until recently she had not realised that that was what she was doing. In fact she did not really know what she was doing. They laughed. She tried a joke about a local Libdem activist who keeps complaining that the name Mrs Angry is silly. Which it is, but as we know now, so is being a Libdem, but she is too polite to point that out. No, she admitted, that is a lie - in fact she has pointed it out. Regularly. (Tip for other bloggers making speeches, jokes about Libdems get Big Laughs - not sure why, are you?).
And then we were away ... Mrs Angry had prepared her notes, like a responsible blogger, and sort of knew what she would say. Of course if she were a real journalist, of many years experience, a veteran, even, she might have prepared a power point presentation, and got up that morning, decided she wanted to go back to bed & pull the duvet over his or her head, and pretended her pc had crashed, or something. Ha -as if that could happen.
But she didn't need the notes, in the end. Winged it, see. May try stand up next, like Councillor Longstaff, her new, golden arsed twitter follower. Oops, just unfollowed. Never mind.
In fact, once started on the subject of the Barnet blogosphere, it is difficult to stop.
It is fair to say that the reaction of the audience to the Barnet story is one of incredulity when told about the idiotic policies and actions of our Tory councillors - oh, and one in particular.
Put your hand up, requested Mrs Angry, if you have heard of someone called Brian Coleman ... to her amazement, about two thirds of the audience groaned, and put up their hands. This made it a little easier to explain the context of so much that has happened here.
It is hard to explain just why the Barnet blogosphere, and the Barnet Spring (another popular reference) has had such an impact. Mrs Angry referred to her notes, written in rather a bad temper the night before: something about the foetid atmosphere of a London borough run by a lunatic collection of mutant, dim witted neo Thatcherite Tories. Mild, by her standards, of course. Possibly though, she thought, when the laughing had stopped, I should have been more outspoken.
Talking to Kate Belgrave earlier about this point, wondering why Barnet has produced such a phenomenally active blogosphere and network of activism, she used the term 'perfect storm'. She is right: all the right elements have come together here, and now we have the perfect representation of what is happening all around the country: the deconstruction of a public sector, resisted by an informed, articulate and determined community. Keep your eyes on Broken Barnet, readers: settle back, and see what happens next.
At the end of the workshop, the chair asked if anyone had been inspired to start blogging. Some foolish people put their hands up.
'Don't', said Mrs Angry.
The day ended with a return to the main hall and a few more speakers, such as the naughty Clifford Singer, of False Economy and My David Cameron, giving a whirl wind tour of some of the rather more amusing political websites, including this unorthodox appraisal of the chancellor's talents.
Finally, the closing speech was made by Owen Jones, who wrote 'Chavs, the demonisation of the working class', and is a cocky little bugger, and clearly destined for great things. He looks incredibly young, and in fact is nearly as young as he looks, but he has a precocious talent and is a brilliant role model for a younger generation just awakening to the realities of political activism.
Jones talked about the government's policies of divide and rule, redirecting the anger of the middle classes to the working poor, the non disabled to the disabled, the cynical lie that there is no alternative to the austerity agenda. The traditional media is hostile to working people, unions, and any form of alternative political vision, so what can social media do? Sue Marsh and the Spartacus campaign has shown us what it can do, for one thing. He talked about the Miners strike in the eighties: Mrs Angry smiled to herself and imagined that Owen Jones was probably not even born then - but he made an interesting point - if social media was around at the time of the battle of Orgreave, would things have turned out differently?
Mrs Angry reflected on the thought that the power and influence of twitter now not only reflects the reality of political developments around the world - the Arab Spring, in Egypt, Greece, and anywhere someone has access to a mobile phone, increasingly, perhaps, it directs the course of the events themselves, simply by its existence and presence, as a form of witness, a form of defence.
We are not, Jones declared, simply the sum of our online avatars, of course, we are a part of a collective movement for social justice, and we must translate online activism into offline action.
And that message, which was a point made at the beginning of the day by Raven Brooks, made again at the end of the Netroots day, is the reality: social media, for all its new power and influence, can only do so much - the rest is down to campaigning in the real world, face to face.
There is a battle to win, online, offline, on the street, and on the doorstep.
Let's get started.