Along with what felt like most of the rest of the UK left blogosphere, I spent yesterday at the TUC’s Congress House for Netroots UK. For the most part I was pretty impressed – though as with all conferences like this there were a large number of different events being run concurrently and I only went to three (not counting the plenary sessions at the start and end), so this account will inevitably be partial and subjective – other attendees’ experiences may well have been different.
I’m not going to go over the content of each talk I went to, principally because it would take too long; videos of the sessions should be going up on the Netroots UK site pretty soon in any case. The opening speeches had their detractors, but were generally worth hearing – I thought TUC Campaigns Director Nigel Stanley’s outline of the state of public opinion on the cuts and the work that remained to be done in changing it was particularly useful – lefties writing blogs for audiences of more lefties (a category in which I very much include myself) can sometimes lose sight of this. The Third Estate got a mention too, courtesy of Clifford Singer (who, as Jacob’s mentioned, also very kindly linked to us on CiF yesterday).
The most interesting – and by interesting I mean shocking – session I attended by far, though, was the lunchtime fringe event run by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). One speaker mentioned matter-of-factly that significant numbers of disabled people (including many of her friends) are considering suicide because of how they’ll be affected by the cuts to disability benefits. When a DPAC activist suggested that this might at least garner the issue some media attention, she pointed out that this is already happening, to precisely no moral outcry whatsoever (that link is the only news coverage Paul Reekie’s death was given in the national media). That could all change if some of the actions suggested during the talk ever come to fruition, though – and I sincerely hope it does.
It’s true that social media and blogging haven’t eliminated inequality when it comes to being able to attract a mass audience – the attendees were disproportionately (though by no means exclusively) twentysomething, male and middle class, and Jacob was probably right to argue, as he did yesterday, that some of the talk about web campaigning and horizontal networks tends towards the hyperbolic. But equally, no one – to the best of my knowledge – has ever claimed that “new media allows us to talk to everyone all the time”. Technology is nothing more nor less than a tool, and no one’s ever denied that. But having the web is better than relying on the telephone. To take the example in Clifford Singer’s CiF piece, there simply wouldn’t have been a Taunton UKUncut action if it hadn’t been for Twitter and the UKUncut blog; no one in Taunton contacted the founders of UKUncut before organising their action – if UKUncut had been convened by telephone, as Jacob suggested on Twitter that it might as well have been, the Taunton action would never have happened. Of course being on Twitter and going to a conference of well-meaning bloggers isn’t going to stop the government in its tracks on its own. But it could be a pretty big help.