At the weekend I travelled down to the London for the UK’s first Netroots conference. There are already been plenty of reports on the day’s proceedings elsewhere on the web, from the Guardian and Total Politics to Red Pepper and Counterfire….so surely another one won’t hurt.
On the whole it was a useful day – although I’d agree with the criticisms of the fetishisation of the Labour party and the over-reliance on establishment speakers voiced by many – but my aim here is not to critique Netroots, either as a concept or as an event, but to briefly sketch what I learned from the day that might be of use to activists in Scotland, and beyond.
In the morning plenary, Nigel Stanley from the TUC made a strong pitch for showing people that the cuts are both unfair and unnecessary: we are not all in this together, the Con-Dem coalition has no electoral mandate for cuts. Stanley made a number of very useful points: we are not yet in the majority, we’re in danger of mobilising a minority, coalition narratives are strong, we need to make the case for alternatives such as Robin Hood tax, end to tax dodging, and a return to growth.
Excepting my scepticism about the possibility of growth as we know it returning the Western world – that’s an argument for another day – Stanley, and Clifford Singer from False Economy both made strong cases for the primacy of creating new narratives against the cuts that can grip the public consciousness. This is definitely something that we need to take up in Scotland, where the mainstream media has, broadly, accepted the logic of government cuts even if many leading commentators have not.
Surprisingly one of the recurring questions heard at Netroots was whether personal stories or facts and figures are the best way to persuade the public that the cuts are wrong. This Manichean division struck this observer as rather unnecessary: surely individual stories supported by broader context about the economic and social situation in the UK, and Scotland, provide the most effective framework for creating anti-cuts narratives?
I went to Netroots with one main aim – to learn from others about the best way to help grow and develop the anti-cuts movement in Scotland. With this in mind, in the late morning I attended the ‘Theory of Change: Planning Your Campaign’ session, which highlighted the fact that winning the argument isn’t enough (cf. Iraq, Climate Change, etc), we need to use on-line in tandem with physical and economic power.
Here in Scotland the inspiring occupations by students in Edinburgh and Glasgow have shown the physical power can achieve results, while the UKUncut boycotts have demonstrated our economic power. Developing new, creative forms of such protest in the coming weeks and months seems crucial.
Julielyn Gibbons, from the New Organizing Institute in Washington DC, talked of the importance of mobilising around a key date. In Scotland the Holyrood election in May is the most obvious red letter day in the short-term for anti-cuts activists.
The afternoon session on ‘Countering Cuts in Your Area’ was excellent. Jim Cranshaw from Oxford Save Our Services spoke of the need to be creative, something I’ve written about before, and also to think about how anti-cuts groups market themselves: instead of coming across as some sort of hard left proxy force (which we’re not), we need to focus on our own, and others, concerns as residents in a neighbourhood.
Cranshaw also highlighted the need to create a clear, attractive website, to organise in a non-hierarchical way and to try to make meetings fun: ‘I’ve never thought that fun is a counter-revolutionary concept’.
Matthew Scott from Community Sector Coalition had excellent advice for getting voluntary and community groups on board an anti-cuts campaign: show solidarity with local campaigns; listen to community groups rather than telling them what you need from them; avoid jargon; put a premium on collective rather than individual action; get beyond funded brokers to grassroots level; get the whole community involved; start from where people are physically at; never try to go beyond the experiences of your own people.
Much of this might sound self-evident but we all have experience of movements and campaigns that broke many of these rules – and failed as a consequence.
Given that the overwhelming majority of those at Netroots were based in and around London, that the situation in ‘the regions’, and particularly in Scotland, was rarely discussed was no great surprise. But that is not to say that campaigners in Scotland cannot learn from the broader UK anti-cuts movement.
In Edinburgh, where I live, we already have a vibrant student campaign against the cuts as well as community groups opposing the government’s spending policies. But we need more; we need an up-to-date website that allows people to see clearly what cuts are being made where; we need to make the cuts THE issue of the Holyrood election; we need to broaden the movement’s appeal to encompass people from all walks of life; and we need to find creative, innovative ways to organise and get our message out.
Perhaps a useful bridging step would be to organise our own ‘Netroots Scotland’ conference, there are certainly enough grassroots activists and innovative thinkers out there to make this worthwhile.
We also need to build a Scotland-wide anti-cuts movement and to get the cuts onto the political agenda – which is more difficult given the fact that Holyrood is passing on Westminster edicts.
But first off I’m working on building an anti-cuts group in Edinburgh. Everyone is more than welcome to join – just drop me a line.