BlogNation 2010; packaging and practicality

Paddles! 20mg Epi! Stat! Get this social movement on its feet!

What follows is a summary of the ten pages of notes I took at Saturday’s BlogNation event, organised by Sunny Hundal under Liberal Conspiracy’s banner. On a personal note, it was great to meet Paul Sagar, Paul Cotterill, Carl Packman, Kate Belgrave, Cath Elliott and Sunny himself, as well as seeing a bunch of other blogoland people I’d met before. Especially gratifying was the piss up afterwards.

There were four main elements to the conference; over the first two, six people spoke from the front of the room about upcoming battles for the Left and how we should address them. After three speakers had their turn, each table discussed the issues, what they thought they could add to what the speakers said and threw out ‘strategic’ ideas.

Part three was much more traditional – there was a full panel of high-profile individuals (which, to the mirth of several of us at the back, was described by Sunny as containing individuals from all across the Left – liberal to socialist), each of whom offered a contribution on Left co-operation, followed by contributions from the floor. For the last part, the conference divided into two – a forum for London bloggers and a forum where anyone could pitch any idea.

Parts one and two – coming battles and how we prepare
Individually, the ‘coming battles’ issues are well known and there’s no point in my only rehashing what the speakers said. Instead I’d like to view what was said – both from the platform and from the floor – through two categories: packaging and practicality. The first was by far the most dominant, which was perhaps expected in a roomful of bloggers and actual or aspiring journalists.

In this regard, some good ideas came out – though not anything that hasn’t come up before. One idea repeated multiple times in multiple contexts was the need for some means whereby to get out anecdotal evidence as well as statistical evidence, something that was also a feature of the stillborn Left New Media project. The immigration debate stressed this; it was noted than when communities were confronted with those who were likely to be deported, or with the realities of Yarls Wood and other camps, opposition developed fast.

What to do with such collated information ranged from the broad and insubstantial (e.g. Anthony Painter’s ‘be positive and passionate about the contribution of immigrants’) to the very specific and activist (e.g. Kate Smurthwaite’s desire that details of sex education in schools should be used to arm a campaign that could provide speakers and organise protests against faith schools and other educational bodies which deviate from basic science).

Only one of these responses moved from ‘packaging’ to ‘practicality’, and the failure to make this transition was a key feature of the contributions of many of those at the conference.

Tim Ireland phrased this problem quite well with his adaptation of the 1-9-90 equation. His argument was that we’re the 1% creating content, that the audience we write for is only another 9%, those who feedback, those who we engage with as activists etc, and that it’s the remaining 90% we need to bring on board – which we can do by appealing to technical wizardry like SEO or more skillful use of comedy and emulation of the soundbyte style of the Right.

Quite clearly these are solution to how the Left ‘message’ is packaged. It doesn’t address the more specifically political questions of whether or not that message is the right one, and what sort of political practice it is that our ideas demand. That the political practice of Right and Left will be different is essentially a Marxist idea predicated upon a class analysis that identifies more fundamental reasons behind the bias of the media than merely the Right being good at PR.

Packaging was also at stake when conferees argued that one of our key strategies should be to change the content of debate. On anthropogenic global warming, for example, it was argued by Leo of Climatesock that we should move the debate from whether or not AGW is for real to “what do we need to do about it” and the policy options. I’m not clear as to whether that means we bloggers should stop engaging with the Climategate controversy.

If so, I think that fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the junk science that people like Nadine Dorries and fellow Tory nutters spout and the currency it has amongst the certain layer of the public. It is my view that it fulfills a social function which is not adequately addressed simply by putting out the opposite story, and especially not by trying to move on to some later stage of the same question.

In fact I would go so far to say that it’s the attempt to move on like this which produces a dangerous disconnection between government and people (an inevitable disconnection under capitalism).

All of that said, from different parts of the hall as well as from Kate Smurthwaite on the platform, there was a serious attempt to address practical measures and not just the packaging; the need to build definite organisations which could organise communities and workplaces. Sunny suggested that the conference should not address ‘movement’ issues, but should speak as bloggers and journalists about issues specific to us.

My view, though I didn’t make any contribution beyond at my own table, is of course that we don’t have any relevance beyond our our movement. Getting people to agree with us is great – but if the only people we’re appealing to are those who are already listening to us, we’re still hitting the thin end of the 1-9-90 wedge. Moreover, we’re failing to appreciate the dialectical relationship between argumentation and organisation.

A key part of the debate Saturday should have been what form that organisation should take, under which aegis all of us bloggers could stand. That would have exacerbated all the tribal divisions – Labour, Liberals, Socialist – but importantly there was a wide swathe of people as yet uncommitted to a party, community organisers and such. Of course there were also the anti-party crowd, but they’ll never amount to much and can be ignored.

Part three – scope for co-operation on the Left
From the get-go this discussion wasn’t going to be the one people wanted. The key mistake, I suspect, was involving James Graham of the Social Liberal Forum. He was meant to introduce the discussion and instead spent his time sermonising the hall on why we shouldn’t regard the Lib-Dems as liars and traitors to a Left ideal lest we drive them into the arms of the Tory Right.

Claude Carpentieri has already addressed this at Lib-Con and Dave Osler did so from the floor of the conference, rubbishing Graham’s contribution as partisan self-justification which glossed over the fact that a large part of ‘the Left’ don’t believe the Lib-Dems deserve that soubriquet. This received loud applause and cheers from the floor, stretching far beyond the Labour members present.

One of the most egregious comments Graham made was to suggest that while we need to guard against the Tory Right, Labour must rein in its own ‘headbangers’ (and mention was made here of those who ‘sabotaged’ a Lib-Lab deal). Evidently the conference wasn’t willing to stomach denunciation of Neil Kinnock-like proportions when hiding behind the remarks is a political party quite happy to sustain Tory attacks on workers, the disabled, pensioners and the unemployed – basically every disadvantaged group.

Beyond this, quite a proportion of the speakers kept their remarks focused on Westminster and the happenings there – on what one faction should do to woo another faction, on what ‘compromises’ must be made to stop further inroads being made against the issues we consider to be vital. Perhaps this was to be expected when members of the panels are MPs or former MPs (Evan Harris, Michael Meacher) or commentators on parliament (Graham, Alex Smith).

There was also room for comments that could be filed under the “bloody stupid” category – such as Rowenna Davis’ statement that since joining Labour she’d felt more ‘tribal’, more willing to defend policies she didn’t believe in simply because they were being evinced by her own party. While that’s useful for all readers of Ms Davis’ future contributions, her attempt to generalise this is of course nonsense – clearly she’s never met a real Labour Leftie, because as I can attest, smacking about Labour policy takes up a large part of our time.

Another stupid comment came from the floor, that it should be ‘disinterested groups’ who we look to, to campaign against the budget etc as the trades unions look too partisan. It’s in the interest of workers to campaign against cuts, therefore their motives are suspect. That one was beautifully shot down by Justin Baidoo, a community activist from Peckham. Implicit to a lot of this liberal dithering is the Aristotelian golden mean – which is a worthless concept in a society that cannot be anything other than dominated by particular interests. All we need to do is decide which.

Where things did become interesting (briefly, before wandering off again) was in the discussion around what Evan Harris said about Labour party democracy. His statement was clear; if Labour wants to win back the Left, they should give members a say again. I couldn’t agree more – though Harris’ subsequent elevation of the Lib-Dems to status of ‘people’s party’ by virtue of their internal workings is rather a laughing stock bearing in mind what the parliamentary party subsequently decided to do – i.e. go into coalition and toss out half the ‘member agreed’ manifesto.

Alex Smith’s view that we need to ‘build institutions to re-wire the progressive architecture’ drew plenty of attention – particularly his addendum that this means ‘more than just parliament’. Yet it was clear from subsequent remarks that what this means is up for debate – Alex appealed to a MoveOn.org style solution, returned to time and again by his queries, “How did the Americans do this?” and “How did the American Left win?”

The twists and turns of the Obama administration should give us pause for thought – as should Obama’s complete failure to articulate a relationship between politicians and popular movements beyond the wish that they should come when called and otherwise twiddle their thumbs. It’s this very factor which threatens the credibility of the Democrats at this year’s mid-term elections, especially given that the Dems have adopted policies hostile to the very movement which pushed them to a landslide victory in 2008.

It was left to Michael Meacher to say that he had no truck with ‘aspirational views’ as regards the Con-Lib coalition. He rightly said that it was this year’s disastrous budget which was likely to dominate politics for the next 5-10 years. Judging by IDS’ (less blunt) repeat of Tebbit’s “On yer bike” outburst against the unemployed, Meacher’s assessment seems bang on. Meacher said our only response must be to line up with the popular movement that develops to oppose the Tory agenda.

Where Meacher went completely off-beam, I thought, was his remark that, “Vince Cable and all the rest are decent people, but are completely overruled by the Tories”. No doubt Meacher made this comment in response to a clear tension between the Lib-Dem elements to the room (though several Lib-Dems, such as Linda Jack, proclaimed their alienation from their own party) and the rest of the conference – but the reality is that such a view merely obscures the real problem – that policies like supposed equidistance from labour and capital cut the Libs off from the Left.

This is why the Liberals found it so easy to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Lib-Dems who want to quibble with the Left about the ‘good’ the Liberals are doing in office are basically performing the political equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and singing “Lalala, I can’t hear you”. Thus Evan Harris’ comment that the ‘budget is not a Conservative programme” – reassuring ammunition for those of us on the Left who can point to the £11bn cuts and only £2bn in new tax revenues.

As a last note, probably the scariest and most reactionary part of the conference came whenever Alex Smith pontificated for several minutes on the need for a new “national narrative” as a means to restore the pride of being Left-wing. By this he meant a “chronology” about how “we” (presumably the British, though possibly the English) “built the NHS” and “defeated dictators” and that we needed to stress “Labour’s place in that”. All I can say is yikes.

The contributions concluded with Michael Meacher denouncing careerism, and the disengagement from communities, and his call to reinvigorate the Left at a local level. James Graham then summed up with another self-righteous justification; that he remembered similar talk about ‘localism’ in 1997 but that here were are, 13 years later. He said that “so long as most spending is decided in parliament, the daily parliamentary grind must be central to our concerns” – thus completely missing the point of Meacher and others that this means nothing without a popular movement.

Part four – 5 minute pitches
Since I’m not a London blogger and am thus spared having to listen to people angling to endorse Oona King or Ken Livingstone (and I’d prefer Genghis Khan to Oona King), I attended the session which permitted anyone to make a five minute pitch. Paul Cotterill made his expected presentation on the need for a local media effort, in print, that could take information to the masses and be a focal point in resistance efforts – especially important in light of current events.

There was a pitch for a MoveOn.org style organisation, to bring pressure to bear against individual candidates – and again the American example got cited. Amnesty International made a pitch about involving people in corporate responsibility campaigns. Reclaim the Pubs pitched something that sounded like speed-dating for politics; meet ups in pubs, open to all, designed to encourage political engagement, advertised to anyone who wants to come.

People around the Labour Values website announced that they’d be holding meetings of those outside Labour, to try and garner ideas from that angle, and that they would be establishing a blog with case-studies backing it up. David Babbs outlined the reach of the organisation 38 degrees and pressed everyone to tell his group what they should campaign on. One P. Casey argued for a British version of American groups like Factcheck.org.

A particularly interesting pitch was by the chap behind Political Scrapbook, in response to recent cases of left bloggers facing nuisance lawsuits, for a collective fund to fight such cases. This proposal was the ‘ultimate development’ of co-ops which could start small, by inviting bloggers to bunch together to purchase high quality hosting, and later premises in London with video editing facilities and access to subscription-based databases – as a lot of the mainstream media is about to become, online.

If anyone is interested in any of those, they should contact the relevant organisation or website. More can be read about the event at Liberal Conspiracy and on the pages linked to.

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Overall, I was happy to attend the conference. Even where someone disagrees with what is being said, it’s important to meet people outside of the controlled environment of the internet, where people can’t pre-vet what they say. Our little group of activists is only ever relevant based on the roots we put down in social movements – and what roots I have exist offline. But what to do with those roots – what tactics we use – is debated everywhere, online and off and it’s always good to get a fresh perspective. I look forward to Blog Nation 2011.

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  1. dawnhfoster
    June 28, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Any chance you could correct the section
    on the Reclaim the Pub pitch? It’s nothing to do with London Skeptics, it’s a feminist networking/discussion forum. And we get persistent jokes that it’s a handy vehicle for blokes to come along & pull, so could you scrap the reference to speed-dating? Sorry!
    Dawn

    PS. Good post!

  2. June 28, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    If you weren’t there in person, this surely is the best blog entry to consult to see what you missed.

  3. June 28, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    You forgot my proposal about building a network of community organisations in every local authority to fight the cuts that are coming…

    I’ll write the proposal as a blog article soon to clarify.

  4. June 29, 2010 at 7:28 am

    I did. I also left out whatever the Take Back Parliament proposal was because I didn’t really get what they were on about. Your proposal, Justin, however, is so crucial that it comes up in every third or fourth post on this blog, though I think those community groups should also express their needs politically, with affiliation (not necessarily official) to a political party.

    • June 29, 2010 at 10:49 am

      Well you definitely should include it because I’m not saying the same thing as you. At the moment you are saying activists should choose either a party that has signed up to the cuts (LD) or a party with no internal democracy that has signed up to 50% of the cuts (Labour) or a party that is essentially liberal social democratic and willing to form coalitions with the Tories (The Greens).

      What is needed is an independent and strong labour and social movement aimed at fighting these cuts. Giving morally bankrupt political parties (I include the Labour & the Greens here) leadership is folly. The social movement against the cuts is needed to engage those inside and outside political parties, if those who happen to lead it are Labour Party members then all the better for the Labour Party.

      But I think Labour needs to get its own house in order before it can assume leadership of the trade union movement, let alone a broader social movement that is currently being built.

  5. June 29, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I’m a Socialist Party member – and I agree and regularly say that we need a strong labour and social movement. I regularly point out the problems with Labour democracy, the ideological distance between the Lib-Dems and any such movement such as we want to see and the contradictions that exist within the Green Party.

  1. July 11, 2010 at 9:56 am

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