Britain's austerity measures push activism - and funding - online

Boosted by student protests and a plethora of self-styled ‘grass-roots’ groups, Britain’s left is now looking to build up a broad antigovernment coalition online.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Britain's parliament buildings are seen near a vandalized telephone box in Parliament Square in London, Dec. 10. A student protest over a tuition fee increase caused damage around Parliament.

With the opposition Labour Party still finding its voice under new leadership, the real energy behind the fight against stringent government austerity measures has often appeared to lie with Britain's students, who have taken to the streets en masse to protest.

But boosted by the students and self-styled "grass-roots" groups springing up nationwide, Britain’s left is now building up a broad antigovernment coalition online that many from its ranks hope will change the face of politics in Britain.

During Labour's 10 years in power it was bloggers and others from the right who were Britian's online political trailblazers. But change is now afoot with a Conservative-led coalition government and draconian cuts giving left-leaning bloggers a cause to rally around.

Learning from the right

“I do actually think [the left is] at the beginning of something special in oppositional politics," says Tim Montgomerie, the founder of Conservative Home, a website set up to represent grass-roots conservative opinion that wields huge influence within the Tory Party.

A major weekend gathering in London organized with the help of the trade union movement was just one sign that the British left is catching up with its better organized online cousins in the US.

“You could call it the perfect storm,” says Sunny Hundal, the voice behind the left-leaning "Liberal Conspiracy" blog and an organizer of Saturday’s "Netroots UK" summit, which brought together bloggers, union leaders, and "direct action" campaigners against corporate tax-avoidance. “In one sense there is much more unity and anger on the left because the Conservatives are in power again pushing very strong cuts and attacking the welfare (state) full on. That has united the left in a way that was not possible a year, maybe even six months, ago.”

Modeled on the Netroots Nation event that has been taking place in the US since 2007, Netroots UK found a home Saturday in the London headquarters of the Trades Union Congress.

Catching up to the US

Hundreds spent the day in workshops such as "Investigative Journalism for Bloggers" and learning how to make campaign videos, lobby MPs, and use humor in protests.

“It has taken a while and we are still catching up with the US, where blogs have much more [in terms of] resources,” says Hundal. “But I think even now with some of our blogs we have got some substantial audiences, as much as 100,000 unique readers a month, which is not small and is (the) kind of stuff the Daily Kos was doing, proportionately. The UK also now has the anger and the example of some very good student movements.”

Moment of opportunity for Britain's left

What will come of such momentum remains unclear. Many on the left hope that it will provide a focus for campaigners to raise funds and marshal resources to stage protests against the cuts and fight future election battles. However, deep divisions remain – and were evident at Saturday's summit – about whether the ultimate political project should be to focus on propelling the Labour Party back into power, shifting it further to the left, or building an entirely new alternative.

For now however, those suggesting that progressives and left-wingers have an unprecedented opportunity include one of their opponents. Mr. Montgomerie, the right-wing blogger, was one of the more unlikely guests. He dispensed advice to a packed room of anarchists, Labour Party activists and others.

"The right has perhaps dominated the blogosphere, the Web, and twittersphere for a number of years," he said. "But I am certainly fascinated because if you play it right this could be a huge expansion of the Labour movement and the left.”

“Your great opportunity has come because of events. We have got the deepest cuts in a generation,” he said, suggesting that the Web could provide a fulcrum for organizing the fight against such cuts on an ultra-local basis.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.