The Worrying Rise of Lefty Internet Activism

Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking.   Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already.  He points particularly at  ‘Movement Activism’.  This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about.  The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts.  We don’t need, nor wish, to be led.  We don’t suffer fools gladly.   Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.  Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and  limited to specific issues.   The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election.     Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create  a sense of being part of a real  ‘movement’ for those who use the net to  engage with them.

Does this matter?  Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t.  Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless.  The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame.  The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth.   My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’.  Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever.  They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action.  They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures.  My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it.  Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.

Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little.  They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’.  Suddenly it is quite scary.  We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets.  Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.

Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices.  People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc.  You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right.  The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd.   Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line.   ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’.  Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left.  Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc.  That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example.   Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage.   We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.

I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but  I do know what the wrong response would be:  The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting.  My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot.   We are living in testing economic times.   Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people.   New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process.  We need to watch it and keep level heads.



Filed under Politics, UK Politics

19 responses to “The Worrying Rise of Lefty Internet Activism

  1. May I suggest what you could do?

    Recognise that your interests and those of your family are truly served through the creation of a society that is more equitable and fair than is the case with our present one.

    Although the £6bn figure may be “dodgy”, the principle underlying these protests is not. Vast global corporations are highly motivated and powerful enough to practice tax avoidance and are evidently doing so. That practice does not contribute to the common good.

    See you at the next demo?

    • Al: I have no issue with people who demonstrate – it’s a democratic right. But I do have a huge issue with people who don’t understand the boundaries of peaceful and appropriate demonstration, and people who know what they are ‘against’ but don’t know what they are ‘for’.

      The Vodaphone protests are a classic. What are the protesters asking that we do? That we mandate any company with significant operations in the UK to pay tax again on profits from transactions which took place in another country where local tax was paid at the time? Do we really want to go back 200 years to a world of protectionism? If I understood what a concrete proposal was that increased our tax revenue without driving away these companies and jobs I would be all ears.

      • James

        Surely the key is for the consumer to choose to frequent businesses that do not practice such blatant (albeit legal) tax avoidance? That is what some of the Uncut rabble want to see happen.

        As for your comments regarding a small minority who choose to be violent, I simply ask – is it acceptable to criticise “the right” on the basis that they are anti-society uncompassionate Thatcherites? I would say not, because, as you say, you are individuals. Weirdly, so are many on the left, they just share political views. Surely the infighting that so bedevils the left and so benefits the right is proof that your idea of a homogenous partyline-toeing left is just hogwash.

        But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of the half-truth!

  2. Rob

    “That we mandate any company with significant operations in the UK to pay tax again on profits from transactions which took place in another country where local tax was paid at the time? ”

    Took place in another country? The Monte Carlo branch of Top Shop must be enormous.

    • We were talking about Vodaphone. Arcadia is a different kettle of fish. But let’s take Arcadia anyway – what would you do? Would you stop people leaving the UK if they wish to make themselves tax exiles? Would you stop Foreign ownership of firms? I’m sympathetic to the complaint but I cannot yet see a pragmatic solution that doesn’t cause more damage than it cleans up. If there was I would support it. (lower our tax so people don’t exile themselves is the best I’ve heard yet by the way). One way it would sort itself out would be if Green’s wife gets sick of him and divorces – then his tax planning may not seem quite so clever…..

    • Praguetory

      Nobody is claiming that Arcadia didn’t pay its tax on profits (corporate tax). If you object to the fact that people aren’t paying tax on dividends from companies which operate in this country, take it up with Bill Gates.

  3. Chris

    I can see why you might think that seeing so many people coming together to support a cause you don’t necessarily believe in is such a bad thing.

    Although, in reality, it’s no different from me complaining about the “worrying” number of middle class country folk that came together to protest against a fox hunting ban, armed with nothing but bloodlust and tradition.

    • You rather make my point for me there Chris. I am no Countryside Alliance type (very far from it) – but I would note that for all their pent up ‘bloodlust’ they wandered in to London a couple of times in large numbers on three or four issues, walked very politely with their banners, chanted some anti Blair slogans in fancy dress and then went home. They then waited for the election to vote the Government out and were unsuccessful twice. They endured what for them must have felt like a horrific government which they perceived as an attack on their very way of life, for thirteen years, without resorting to riot, criminal trespass or criminal damage. The radical left (who let’s face it are just as middle class as the Country Side Alliance when you analyse their leaders) seem not to have lasted six months before being like dogs let off a leash with contempt for the democratic process.

  4. This use of movements also shadows the transfer of political activity from party based to single interest group based activism.

    The left have been used to the rainbow alliances of small self serving interest groups as alliances of movements. However to some extent this is also what trapped the left in its own little dream world that everyone else viewed as a nightmare, until Tony Blair and the third way came to rescue them.

    If the left are going to repeat their mistakes of the past perhaps we should follow Napoleon’s advice and not interrupt them.

    Though of course the danger is those databases of email and electronic contacts that they will build up. My guess is the Unions and other left wing organisations will be heavily funding this sort of work. Who will do it on our side ?

  5. James (at 3:32 above) – “. Surely the infighting that so bedevils the left and so benefits the right is proof that your idea of a homogenous partyline-toeing left is just hogwash.”

    In the interest of some brevity I deleted out a paragraph that acknowledged the left suffered from infighting during its time in Government but it was easier for them to unite in opposition (where you can all argue for utopia without regards the boring detail of reality that you have to acknowledge when in Government). I think we’re seeing the compass of the left move more left – and the radical left will use that to cause civil strife (which will of course be blamed on Tory policy). To Man in the Shed you do have a valid point in just letting them get on with it – the silent floating voters hate that kind of nonsense.

  6. chbeckett

    I think that the idea that the centre right is different in personal character from the left is wrong. You say:
    “The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts. We don’t need, nor wish, to be led. We don’t suffer fools gladly. Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.”
    That is precisely how I would describe most of those who work in the lefty blogosphere. That’s why they are always having rows and forming new groups or websites. Look at Wikileaks which is simultaneously blossoming and falling apart.

  7. Quite. Democracy exists so that the majority cannot be oppressed by a minority that seeks to use force to get its way. The class war that Labour initiated two years ago is not going to end well.

  8. Pingback: Platform 10 » Blog Archive » The Blogosphere’s Best Thinking – Must Reads 20 December 2010

  9. Never have workers needed to get their heads down, workforces needed to become efficient, students had to study harder, businesses had to pay all taxes on time, ought public buildings be allowed to operate unhindered, than ever before. But not all understand this.

  10. cjmckeon

    Not sure all the stuff about the left not being about ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’ actually stacks up, I’ve never had much time for that sort of caricature. I think the really interesting point about the student protests, UKuncut etc. is that it isn’t the big top-down operation that the right thinks the left are so enamoured of. My experience of it has been that it’s all very grassroots and democratic.

    As for your complaints about the method of demonstrations, I quite agree that rioting is probably not the way forward, at least not in a democratic society, but it should also be noted that the vast majority of the movement has been peaceful, and those of us without the means can’t really operate the back channels that lobbying involves. And since when did writing to an MP actually change their mind?

  11. brian


  12. I just came across this blog, but I agree with @cjmckeon: you are letting caricatures prevent you from seeing what’s interesting about these latest protests and the role of social media etc.

    I think there may also be an element of the grass is always greener on both our sides. I set up the Other TaxPayers’ Alliance website because I was concerned with how many goals the TaxPayers’ Alliance was scoring. Equally, far from left-wing “discipline” many on the left despair at factional squabbles and in-fighting, and look at Conservatives’ ability to unite around issues that matter to them with envy.

    Clifford, False Economy

  13. Clifford – welcome.
    I don’t doubt there is a significant mix of thinkers/independent minded types on the left. You just need to read some of the quality of writing in the blogosphere to realise that. I just observe – having been involved in more leftist politics as a younger man – that the ratio of sheep to thinkers is higher on the left (sorry – loaded language, can’t think of a less pejorative word then sheep right now – you know what I mean). I guess the Tories have relied on the ‘blue rinse brigade’ in the past for the foot soldiering- but that generation is passing.

    The old phrase a “lie is half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on” – in this social media age is under-estimating the speed of the lie…. This really does put an onus on those who control new media sources that are accepted as credible by the slacktivist generation to properly fact check before putting a sensationalist spin on half truths.

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