Was the National Union of Teachers’/NASUWT rally in Cambridge a missed opportunity?


Why trade unions must do much better than 20th Century-style rallies

I went along to a rally for education in Cambridge (see here) having picked up something of this nature on social media. As a school governor, I have more than a few concerns about the current set of reforms to the education system. While the numbers turning out were impressive – the venue was packed, and the speeches generally powerful and well-delivered, there was too much that didn’t feel right to pass without comment.

The venue – a plush city centre hotel

The concept of having a trade union rally at such a venue simply doesn’t sit easily with me. If you’re going to hire out such a venue, you need to squeeze out every possible service to get value-for-money. Wifi, audio-visual, the whole lot. If all you are going to do is to pack people into a hall and talk at them, far better to have it in a community or public sector venue that could really do with the cash. Also, it would have helped with publicity in the community too – as  you’d be able to advertise the event within the venue. Not so with the hotel. There was nothing on the hotel’s website.

The hordes of paper-sellers outside

Just as day follows night, so their presence is to be expected at trade-union-organised rallies. Their numbers meant they ended up blocking the entrance and the pavement. That, plus the presence of a large group of mainly men with demo material that has hardly evolved from several decades ago, is hardly the sort of scene that encourages even the mildly-interested to take a peek at what’s going on. Quite the opposite.

The lack of community engagement in the run-up to the event

In particular the lack of grassroots community engagement and a very limited social media presence. On the former, the date coincided with Labour’s national conference – when many of their local political activists head out of town just as over 30 Cambridge Liberal Democrats did for their annual conference in Glasgow. I can’t recall any local political activists on Puffles’ radar commenting either in the mainstream or digital media about this gathering. There were also a number of community organisations and websites that could have helped promote the event – for example Flack Cambridge.


Failing with the social media basics

This goes for trade unions in general, but as institutions they simply cannot afford to have such a poor approach to social media. They are well-resourced enough to recruit some of the most talented social media activists in the country. I was astonished to see the corporate social media pages not having set up the rally as an ‘event’ on Facebook (which then acts as a reminder in people’s electronic diaries), rather relying on people posting and reposting messages. Thus it limits conversations and means you have no idea who is going to come along and from where.

The format of the event – no discussion

Maybe I’m not a ‘rallies’ sort of person. Perhaps they are only for the tribal types. The organisers had nearly 200 people in the hall of the University Arms Hotel. It was packed. Yet there was nothing in the event that encouraged people to get to know others that they had not met before. Little to get people unfamiliar with each other talking to each other, and little to make those who had not been to such an event feel welcomed. Basics such as having a very clear reception desk staffed by people with a friendly and outgoing persona. Even things like stickers where people could write their names on them.

Ideally for something like this – especially where you’ve got many campaigners not familiar with social media (hardly any individuals were tweeting/blogging etc), you use the opportunity to educate your activists on digital campaigning. Whether stalls, workshops, discussions, just…something.

The speeches by the trade union leaders

The mindset of campaigning, reading between the lines, is one that feels based in a pre-internet era. There was no mention of the internet, let alone social and digital media that young people are growing up with as the default. In particular, Chris Keates, the General Secretary of the NASUWT exhorted attendees to ‘write to their local papers’ but didn’t mention anything about campaigning online. Just because you write to a local paper does not automatically mean your letter will get published. Anyway, children and young people (who everyone in the room is campaigning on behalf of) are abandoning newspapers (see here) in favour of digital news sites, blogs and other forms of social media.

Little sense of what to do immediately after the speeches were over

The event started at 11am and finished just after 12pm. That left a whole afternoon with lots of people. Something such as ‘we’re all going for a pub lunch’ could have worked wonders. While it was nice to bump into an old acquaintance from my sixth form college days, I didn’t get a sense of new faces ‘being reached out to’ by either the organisers or regulars at such gatherings.

So…having torn the rally to pieces, did any good come out of it?

Numbers. There is huge potential there and people are clearly passionate about the issues, even if they may not be passionate about party politics. However, moving from a culture of top-down activism to one that is much more autonomous and decentralised – ie less control from a central London HQ – is not something that will happen overnight. For me, something that would be far more productive is something like Shared Planet, which this year is in London. If you’re looking for new ideas on campaigning, and want to learn from and with younger & (generally) more tech-savvy activists, head down there.



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