Agitation and the web

Could a new wave of online video help transform politics?

The last few weeks have seen a new spate of agitational web videos, accompanying the amazing upturn of politicking in Britain in response to the brutal, ill-considered and philistine cuts proposed by the coalition government which took office last May.

Last May, as I noted at the time, was the first time an election in the UK had encountered Web 2.0, and "the intrusion of blogging, interactive amusement, social networking, twitter and user-generated content, including videos." Surveying the trends in those election videos, I found them "enjoyable but mostly not very honed, either aesthetically or politically." Which meant "that internet culture still has a long way to go, at least in the arena of national politics in the UK, before it moves on from reactive political agitation to a more progressive mode of active intervention."

It is now, I think, beginning to move on.

There are good selections of current web video at Coalition of Resistance and Counterfire. There are several strands to be observed. The first is video of actions-in-progress, mostly filmed with mobile phones, minimally edited and posted rapidly on the numerous blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter tags which have sprung up as part of the campaigning. For this is a form of politicking which thrives on social networking, as several journalists have realised.

The BBC education correspondent explained how "the protests that took place last week weren't organised by any conventional political organisation, but they managed to mobilise youngsters in towns and cities from Bournemouth to Edinburgh." Said the BBC man, they were "run through social networking websites, with little centralised control," adding the curious comment that "This DIY radicalism has its own news channels, on Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and blogs, leaving the traditional news organisations and political commentators looking in from the outside." Curious, because it's a rare admission of what is actually always the case with professional media journalism -- always on the outside looking in, usually through tinted spectacles (the kind with blinkers on them).

In short, as I wrote a few days ago, the dynamic of mass protest has been shifted by mobile media and social networking, which now constitute a new extended dimension of politicking. It is not only extra-parliamentary, but also outside of existing associations within civil society, like the National Union of Students -- except that they opening up new networks within civil society, or rather, at its fringes. Probably the best description I've come across of what is happening from inside the movement can be found in a poetically-titled post at Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition, On our chaotic swarm:

The occupations have formed a swarm network. This network is very hard to destroy. For every occupation that is forcibly evicted, five more have sprung up. We do not rely on leaders or student unions. And in doing so we lack weak links. We can afford to lose connections and nodes in this network, for new ones are continuously forming in their place.

As a networked, chaotic group we can act powerfully and unpredictably. We can appear larger than we are. More powerful than we are. From our nodes we can mobilise, organise. Entirely chaotically. We are inspirational. These are not my words. Our movement have been receiving global solidarity, and global coverage. Internationally similar protests are spawning. And they are looking to us for that inspiration. They are looking to us for methodology.

A tad utopian, but I'm an old 68-er, so I'm not complaining!

The presence of video in this chaotic swarming is well represented by the UCL Occupation, which has set up its own channels on Vimeo and YouTube. Examples here include video solidarity messages, addressed to other occupations or delivered by visitors to the UCL occupation. This extends to spots by celebrity guests at the occupations like comedians Mark Thomas and Richard Herring, and the singer Billy Bragg. Longer items include talks by supportive academics and writers, like Michael Sayeau on the power of advertising, or the economist Graham Turner on "The Economic Crisis - Where are we headed?" -- in other words, examples of what was called in the 60s the teach-in.

Occasionally, the scene is shot with a cinematic eye, like this brilliant single-take of the UCL occupation which at the aesthetic level could hardly be bettered.


One of the purposes served by these video-posts is to impugn in several respects the coverage of the television news channels (whose choicest bits are of course rapidly posted and tweeted and retweeted, especially when they involve some politician being embarrassed by an interviewer's question). For one, they counter the promotion to front-page infamy by the mainstream media of rare moments of protestor violence, by projecting a different image of the demonstrations, especially non-violent street actions. Flash mobs protesting tax-evasion by Vodaphone and TopShop clearly articulates popular anger. They not only focus "disaffection with the failure of conventional politics to respond to widespread concerns about tax justice", but annouce in symbolic form that there is a different way of funding the deficit.

Second, videos which provide evidence of the misbehaviour of the police, correcting the spin the police try to put on events. Examples here and here. The general rule, of course, that governs the creation of video for the web is to keep it short, but this is not an unsophisticated audience. There's a post of 11 seconds showing a policeman punching a demonstrator; an extended version was posted up in response to a viewer's request to see the context.

Third are videos from inside the occupations, which communicate the enthusiastic atmosphere, cooperative behaviour and positive attitudes which prevail among these protestors. Most of these are made by aficionados -- who doubtless include students on the creative practice courses which, because they belong to "arts and humanities", will have their public funding cut off. But they also include professional work by independent film makers like the Guardian team, such as their video of the UCL Occupation. This is a piece of professional reportage, sans the unctuous voice of a reporter, which corrects the bias of the meagre television reportage of the events. There are several similar videos here.

In short, agit web video serves to re-write the "narrative" (as in the PR man's lament that "we got the narrative wrong"). But it isn't just a trendy accompaniment to a chaotic movement. It not only punctures the dominant version of the mainstream media, but enters into its own circuit of positive feedback, both as counter-propaganda and instrument of mass action.

Overall, what strikes me is that one can see a range of videos here that are strongly reminiscent of the variety of sub-genres in recent activist video movements in Latin America, like indigenous video (video indigena) in Brazil and Bolivia etc., and the movement in Argentina which exploded into action nine years ago, known as cine piquetero. Not necessarily the same subgenres, but appropriate ones for the context. Is there something about the short form of agitational video which predisposes this kind of arrangement?

There is also a currently lesser trend made up of campaigning videos produced to support the new movement. They are mostly semi-professional, or the political work of multimediamedia professionals, lending their talents to the cause. They turn up within this circuit because they provide points of attachment to the wider oppositional culture to which the student movement as such necessarily belongs. Some of them are video lectures by eminent Marxists. Other examples include:

"An important message about the arts" -- a simple aninmated video by artist David Shrigley, which is amusing, but perhaps ideologically a little confused in giving too much emphasis to economic arguments to Save The Arts.

Poet Danny Chivers contributes Shop a Scrounger

and perhaps my favourite, a brilliant music video from Captain SKA:


Michael Chanan is a documentarist and film critic. He blogs at Putney Debater, and you can view his video of the Turner Prize teach-in here.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.