Suggestions for #NetrootsUK organisers

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11:20 am - January 11th 2011

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contribution by Maeve McKeown

The Netroots conference on Saturday was a great opportunity for activists to share ideas and tips and to network in person.

After discussing the day with other attendees, I would like to share five suggestions:

1. Scrap plenaries
The first session of the day was a plenary (the whole conference sits in the main hall and listens to speeches). The speakers were Brendan Barber (TUC), Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Daily Kos), Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Polly Toynbee (The Guardian), Nigel Stanley (TUC), and Clifford Singer (False Economy). These sessions are designed to clarify the aims of the conference and inspire the participants for the day ahead. However, it had exactly the opposite effect.

The anti-cuts and student movements have been exciting because they are the voice of the people. For too long young people, pensioners, people with disabilities, those on benefits, have felt ignored and shut out from mainstream politics and from the public conversation. Starting the day with a panel of big-name ‘experts’ rather than the people who are getting out there and making change happen was not inspiring, but disempowering.

2. Representativeness
There was a session in the afternoon called ‘Digital equality: how can women get engaged online.’ What was supposed to be a talk about getting women engaged in online activistism (which as Laurie Penny pointed out was pointless because women constitute the majority of bloggers and tweeters) turned into an extremely interesting discussion about tokenism.

One of the speakers pointed out that all of the sessions at the event included ‘one token woman’ on the panel and the only all-female panel was in this designated “women’s issues” forum. Then two black women in the audience said they felt ignored because they hadn’t even had a token session or panel member.

Lisa Ansell, made the point that the cuts will disproportionately affect women, the disabled, black people and ethnic minorities, and people in the North, so rather than making these niche issues, they should be at the core of what the movement is doing. There should be activists on gender, disability, race and from marginalized communities embedded throughout the panels in the next conference. I realise this is hard to organise, but that doesn’t mean it should be avoided, it’s important.

3. Participation
The plenary sessions: a panel on the stage with audience members looking up to them with minimum participation, as I have said, is disempowering. The workshop sessions varied on this. Some were largely panel-led, others were more discussion-led. Of course, there is a place for getting expert advice. For example, there was a lunchtime event led by Chris Coltrane on internet security. Having a discussion-based session on this would probably not be helpful, as the aim is to learn a skill from someone who knows it.

However, other workshops could have been more discussion-based. Where this is possible I think it should be encouraged – it breeds inclusivity, empowerment and ownership by everyone of the event. In discussion sessions the layout of the room could be addressed. In UCL Occupation meetings we did this by setting the chairs out in a circle, so it wasn’t some people at the head of the room telling the rest what to do, but a group working together. Also, other procedures could be considered, such as the consensus model, where the aim is to get as many people to participate as possible and all ideas are discussed openly.

4. Don’t become London-centric
It made sense to have the first conference in London, because that is where the organisers are based. However, in order for this movement not to become London-centric and alienating, the next conference should be held elsewhere.

5. Accepting our differences, learning lessons, not creating divisions
In the opening plenary after hearing several audience comments that we should join the Labour Party, I got up and asked ‘why should we join the Labour Party?’ The aim was not to alienate myself from those who think getting Labour onside is the way to move forward, but to show that there are other views out there. We all have different opinions and we should have the space and support to discuss them, especially at events like this.

As I have argued before, there will always be differences of opinion within a social movement. It is better to discuss them and get them out in the open, than to let them fester and rot the movement from the inside.

And it is in this spirit that I am writing this blog post. NetrootsUK was a great event. I met some brilliant people, heard some inspiring talks, learnt a lot and we built in-person rather than online solidarity networks. This is all really positive stuff.

But in every event there are lessons to be learned. That is what I want to highlight here in making these suggestions. We shouldn’t get too bogged down in criticising each other, but rather focus our anger and energy against our common enemy – the Coalition government’s neo-liberal agenda. However, constructive criticism can help make the movement stronger and more effective.

Maeve McKeown blogs here.

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Reader comments

Last night I watched a film called Secrets of the Tribe, which looked at the way that anthropologists had been studing, exploiting and squabbling over the Ya?nomamö people of the Amazon rainforst. By the end the Ya?nomamö didn’t seem much better off, but the academics were throwing huge bonanzas; celebrating ideas they’d never put to use; chucking over rivalries that had achieved, well – fuck all. Basically, any Conference ostensibly directed towards fostering ideas to help the wider people needs to do everything it can to avoid such complacency.

Bensix, thanks for that. My dissertation is based on communication, so will look that up because although I see this daily, as well as through history, this scenario sounds like good reading material towards my research. Its a very lefty thing to do…

Anyhow, good article. Couldn’t agree more. This is one of the reasons I seldom attend events anymore. STOP talking at me!

The worst thing is that, a lot of these events, especially the ones I attend, the listeners or attendees are just as qualified or even more so. Even if they may not be big names, they are all pretty bright people who don’t need to be spoon fed info they already know.

There’s a lot of the ‘you don’t say awards’ going on in these conferences.

HUGE fun of open events and sessions. Have a massive effect on the attendees and people leave with outcomes.

Hmm, not sure I’d scrap the idea of having a plenary. But I would definitely increase audience participation substantially.

One of the things I really like about attending Lib Dem conferences (And I’ve seen similar at Green conferences) is the clear way that ordinary members can participate and lead debates, and there’re very few speeches from on high. When there are panel discussions, they’re overwhelmingly Q&A format.

But overall, from what I’ve read elsewhere and here, I agree. That it happened is a credit to the organisers, but there were many flaws, inevitable for the first one, and they need to be addressed.

The tokenism problem, and the ‘women’s issues panel’, definitely major problems. Perhaps trying to engage people from other online places, like, for example, Mumsnet, which are definitely politically active but in a different way?

Couldn’t make it on Saturday due a post Xmas lurg but having organised countless events over the last 7 years I could tell you just looking at the itinerary that there were too many speechs at the top end.

Events like this, essentially training seminars and strategy sessions, don’t need the audience to sit through 4/5 people speaking. What you need is a short intro from a key organiser welcoming everyone and outlining how the day will work then get on with the practical experience.

I don’t want to sound too critical as I know just how much work goes into organising any event of this size, and the logistics involved (and headaches!) but getting to the practical experience is critical in this context.

By the way, was there anyone from London Citizens doing a workshop on community organising?

Another thing, I’d probably shy away from it being too party political orientated and pivot toward grass roots organisations and geeky types, these are the two groups that really need to get together, one because they’re going to be wiped out by the cuts and the other because they have a great deal of practical knowledge to share.

@ MatGB, sorry but disagree, people talking at an audience runs counter intuitive to what the net and especially social media is about. These tools are levelers, conversations between equals but a top table with fawning audience types there to listen politely and ask the occasional question.

You don’t need speeches, by all accounts which bored too many people, you need to get on with organising, training and developing strategy so that people can leave after fired up with a great many new contacts and practical info to go make a change locally.

LEon, I broadly agree. But having at least one sesssion where everyone is in the same room and able to contribute is normally a good thing.

Speeches from on high are bad. Contributary sessions, including Q&As, can be good, if done right.

Letting Toynbee drone on for ages was, from what I could see online, Very bad. Of course, to me, inviting her in the first place was bad, but I’ve never been a fan.

I’m still more inclined toward my outline above but can see some limited value in something like a final round up session at the end of the day, perhaps where people are asked what they learned, what they want to do next, what the next event of this type should include, basically as a feedback session…

The thing is you don’t want ‘discussion’ at the top of the day as it kills momentum, you need to get people active and into the day, the time for reflection comes later, and usually in the pub! :D

Hi Maeve,

Thanks for spending the time with the suggestions.

I can’t speak for what will happen because I’m not the only one behind the conference – the TUC have put most of the effort into it.

Point by point:

1) I doubt this will happen, mostly because not everyone there is/was already up-to-speed with the latest arguments and where we are at. I did lobby to make plenaries shorter, but the event also featured a lot of trade union people, NGOs and other orgs who aren’t as politically engaged, and it was felt that we had to talk briefly about where we were at.

I think Polly Toynbee’s speech completely misjudged this, but others liked her – we’re never going to please everyone. But I think that is the source of much antagonism towards the plenary. It will be a lot more tighter next year I promise.

2) We didn’t end up with 50% parity on the sessions, but that was partly because we gave moderators some leeway in organising their own sessions. The main sessions mostly had female moderators. It was the plenaries that skewed things wrongly (though the two big-name speakers on the plenaries were women: Polly, Toynbee, Stella Creasey). The womens session was organised because the moderator Jessica Asato pitched the idea of a session to have practical discussions on how women who are already engaged online could be more visible in the political discourse.

Unfortunately this has been taken by many to assume we were saying women weren’t engaged in politics, which of course is untrue. But the exact complaints made by many: that despite women engaging, they are not being listened to, was what Jessica wanted to talk about / remedy in that session.

These are valid concerns about representation nevertheless (esp ethnic minority women and access for disabled) and we’ll look to improve that.

3) I think that will depend on the context. My suggestion in the future would be to clearly mark each session as: training, discussion or strategy; and then have a different format for each. Training clearly won’t work in a open-planned sort of way, since 1 / 2 ppl have to do the training.

Its a mixed bag, because some people found the session on investigative journalism incredibly long and without-discussion (and someone stormed out) but others said to me it was the best session they went to.

We’ve had a lot of excellent feedback, but about the only universal thing people disliked was the length of the plenary sessions.

4) Yes of course. I’m hoping we can quickly learn from this, gather resources, and then take it across the country. Have to speak to the TUC about resources though.

5) Yes, agreed, in theory. But as Sunder Katwala says, we will have different ideas of what works and what doesn’t. Some will say join the Labour party, others will say join the Greens… other unions etc. We want to provide the space for all opinions, rather than having to censor anyone (as some actually suggested to me that Tom Watson MP shouldn’t have been allowed to say that).

Thanks Sunny.

Brief replies:

1. The plenary. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be scrapped – that is a utopian dream for the future – but it was worth flagging up. A shorter session with fewer speakers, who are briefed beforehand, and have something specific and constructive to say, would certainly be a good start.

2. Glad that representation will be worked on. It’s important in principle and important for the “progressive left” to be seen to be leading the way on this.

3. Agreed. Differently structured sessions tailored according to topic/theme would be great. Of course, a lot of this is subjective, but if there’s more choice then hopefully more people will find what they’re looking for.

4. Great. Let the Londoners know early so we can book cheap train tickets!

5. The main point is that everyone can state their opinion without being ostracised or marginalized for it. So if you want to say ‘join Labour’ you can, but if you want to say ‘don’t join Labour’, you should also be able to do so. I think it’s essential that we can discuss our differences openly and nobody should feel they can’t say something they believe to be important.

cheers for the response Maeve
5. The main point is that everyone can state their opinion without being ostracised or marginalized for it

This I definitely agree with (thanks for responding despite your doctor instructions!) though I got the feeling there were far more people antagonistic towards Labour than positive there. So its unlikely you were in the minority :)

12. Sunder Katwala


Good post. Think the common ground with Sunny’s reply is encouraging – and I think its fine to have a gender session but needs work on being part of the whole thing. think all of the organisers of all of the sessions deserve credit for getting something new and experimental going.

I appreciated the constructive tone of your other post challenging the way I commented on your criticisms of Labour’s record. I think the point about being able to disagree openly without being ostracised is definitely correct – these exchanges have got to some common ground about that, while showing there are going to be some genuine tensions, but also some misunderstandings too of where people with different positions are coming from, with a danger of caricaturing positions rather than engaging with them, as my post probably did in referencing your comment.

Sunny – the point you make about labelling seems useful. there may have been an issue for some people about the framing of the whole event.

It seems to me the motivation was “netroots against the cuts”, and there is a question whether that is a consistent focus (in which case it might be best projected as such).

Some people (eg Jon Worth) have written, why was it so much about cuts and current politics, and not enough about the net – ie, more general netroots.

Others have said ‘why wasn’t this a much more representative group of the people directly affected by the cuts’, – and too much about the bloggers, etc – which is a good point about a general anti-cuts event or movement, though a netroots event isn’t trying to be the central or sole alliance.

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