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Saturday 18 February 2012

Netroots Reflections

Today I joined dozens of other bloggers, campaigners, activists and no doubt members of the routinely curious at the Netroots North West event, kindly hosted by the University of Manchester. It was good to finally say hello to folks including Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, Clifford Singer of False Economy and The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance, Carl Roper, and Peter Middleman.

What I learnt was a variety of useful tips, anecdotes, and most memorably stories from those who have campaigned, often in adverse circumstances, and all too often against a Government that has already made its mind up not to listen, or, worse, to cast itself as being right, while characterising those in opposition to it as being wrong, misguided, foolish or just plain bad.

There are a number of reasons for Governments of all stripes to behave in this manner: the tendency to centralise and rule from the comfort of the Westminster Village in itself distances those in power from those directly affected by its decisions, while the disproportionate influence of the Fourth Estate distorts the prism through which those that govern see the world.

On top of all that, the use of Astroturf lobby groups – which have little or no grassroots support (check out how many Twitter users follow most of those at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), for instance) to effectively bypass the electorate and buy influence distorts yet further. Then there is the information overload to which so many MPs and peers are regularly subjected.

Small wonder, then, that those in Parliament do not always listen, to the clear frustration of campaigners like that convocation of the less able who brought us the now legendary Spartacus Report. Moreover, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been shown to have serially misinformed the public on the subject of benefits, as has the press.

That last does not surprise me, and nor did it surprise Clifford Singer: after all, former TPA staffer Susie Squire went through the revolving door to become a SpAd at the DWP after the last General Election. But what groups like the TPA and their friends on the right are playing is a very dangerous game: people shut out of the process of Government and demonised in the process do not merely run along quietly.

And that isn’t a threat: it’s a fact. Another fact is that this is not a purely left-wing thing: some on the right have forgotten about their pals in the Countryside Alliance, who were also frustrated not to be heard. Given the toolset offered by social media and the support of a network of like minded people, folks will be heard, whatever their political stance, especially if they are the many and not the few.

All of which should make for an interesting future in and around politics.

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