As the speakers were broadly in agreement, much of the audience felt a more participatory format would have better fitted the ethos of the event, but the session did capture both the key challenges for anti-cuts campaigners, especially in Nigel Stanley's very good opening presentation, the means of doing this (from Clifford Singer), while also touching on some of the potential pitfalls for a diverse movement of different campaigners.
As Nigel's slides show, tracking polls suggest that the public have now moved from "necessary and fair" to "unfair, but still maybe necessary". As he argued, this could be the route to getting a sustained majority for "unnecessary and unfair" but arguments about growth and economics have been more difficult to get traction on.
I argued that we should be confident about our ability to persuade the public - based on our success in winning the fairness argument over the last six months, as I set out at Left Foot Forward yesterday. It is the "there is no alternative" argument which was increasingly preaching only to the already converted. Having won the pointy-headed battles of the graphs this summer and Autumn, we now had to personalise and localise these issues - as the cuts themselves become less abstract and more concrete, and geography and place become ever more important as local cuts come in - as False Economy is seeking to do with its testimony banks.
So I agreed with Nigel, but my central point was about the limits of marching-in-step unity give the scale of the diverse and plural coalition we will need. The event brought together hundreds of people, representing organisations and networks with the ability to mobilise many tens of thousands. We are never going to agree about everything - and have to make that a strength for a broad coalition whose job is to persuade 15 or 20 million people that these cuts aren't inevitable or fair.
There is a shared project. False Economy articulate the common ground succinctly:
"False Economy is for everyone who thinks the coalition is cutting too much, too fast and wants to do something about it".
How we handle inevitable disagreements within that will be one essential test of whether the movement can be a sustained and successful one. My point was along the lines of: "If you want to oppose the closure of your local library, you don't have to produce and cost an alternative Comprehensive Spending Review, while its different if you are the Shadow Chancellor: people will expect at least the broad brush strokes of your an alternative budget".
Laurie Penny of the New Statesman - a talented writer, who has a rising profile as an emerging voice from a new generation of the radical and feminist left - rather misrepresented this point, whether accidentally or just to serve a polemical purpose, by mangling this comment on twitter into:
Sunder Katwala says it's the shadow chancellor's job to propose economic alternatives, not workers'. Pity Labour has no idea
I certainly don't think about the shadow chancellor and "workers". Indeed, I didn't mention "workers" - except that I went on to to say that unions have a distinctive role too.
So I'd like to clear up the idea that I want everybody has to fall in behind the Shadow Chancellor, given that I was making precisely the opposite argument. My point was the (surely self-evident?) one that different actors have both different motivations, ambitions and goals in a plural coalition. (Of course, anybody campaigning against a cut to their local library might also be advocating a different CSR and a strategy for economic growth - but they wouldn't be well advised to make George Osborne's lack of a strategy for growth the focus when talking to the local newspaper about the library. This was the gist of my comments on this at the event:
That broad coalition of those campaigning against the cuts are going to provide a range of alternatives, not a single alternative.
We come to these issues because we are motivated by different things. Some people want to stop their local library closing; a small number of people still hope all of this will somehow lead to the revolution. More of us will want to elect a Labour government; build up the Green party, or perhaps try to shift the LibDems towards the kind of party that many of their voters thought that they were. Envionmentalists whose priority is to shift towards a low carbon economy, feminists, those whose priority is jobs and growth campaigners on race or disability, local campaigners on specific services in their area and others will all bring different starting points, ideas and ambitions to a plural coalition.
There is not going to be unified leadership, or one unified alternative agenda. It is in the nature of such a campaigning coalition that people will propose a range of different alternative strategies.
So we are going to disagree - sometimes over really quite big questions.
Some people will think stopping half of the cuts would represent tens of billions of pounds of real change in people's lives. Others would think that would leave tens of billions of further cuts which should be stopped too.
That's going to be an important policy argument. But we can and should respect those differences while making common cause.
For me, the biggest test of our ability to find common ground and then disagree with respect within a broad campaigning coalition is that we agree that we share responsibility for shifting public opinion against the government on the question of whether its cuts are both necessary and fair.
The thing we're not going to do is create a unified leadership that agree on everything. So I think it would be a mistake to think that it is somehow a failure on the part of Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Polly Toynbee, the unions or anybody else if they haven't somehow articulated the alternative plan for a fairer, greener economy and society which can bring everybody who opposes the government's cuts on board.
The argument "we must have complete unity - and we will get there on the basis of everybody agreeing with me" will be futile, whether it is made by Alan Johnson, Brendan Barber, Caroline Lucas, Sunder Katwala, Laurie Penny or indeed SWP-style perspectives, perhaps captured by the passionately anti-Labour speaker from the floor, who lambasted Labour as a complete sell-out over Iraq and everything else, before saying "Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us".
There is not going to be a central coordinating committee where UK Uncut, the trade unions, Age UK, Greenpeace, the Green Party or the Labour frontbench get to agree or veto the advocacy of other groups. Thank God for that (and/or a plural range of non-deities as appropriate). Nigel Stanley was right to say that they need to do better than "don't cut us; cut somebody else" and engage with broader strategic arguments.
Of course, party activists, MPs, trade unions and other left voices are going to produce and debate different economic alternatives. Relatively recent contributions have included those from ippr, Compass, NEF and the green new deal, Will Straw of Left Foot Forward, False Economy, Danny Blanchflower, the TUC, the Green party, the Social Liberal Forum of the LibDems, and indeed the Socialist Worker too.
These cover a range of sometimes complementary and overlapping, sometimes contrasting and competing perspectives.
Not every alternative is going to happen.
Ultimately, the central purpose of politics is the articulation, negotiation and resolution of differences in society.
I want to make it possible to create an alternative government, if we are to have a different overall strategy. Such a government would have to make choices - and shifting coalitions of support and opposition will no doubt emerge in response. Any party or group that wants to seek election is going to have to agree and put forward its own specific programme and secure sufficient consent to make it happen. Labour, the Greens and perhaps the LibDems by 2015 have to do that themselves. The strategies for change of other groups are different where they don't involve seeking election, but their public-facing advocacy has the potential to do quite a lot to shape the context in which those choices are made, on central issues like growth, spending and taxation. Tax avoidance campaigns are one potentially effective example of this.
So disagreement with respect absolutely can't and shouldn't mean closing down disagreement. Obviously, my argument entails that it is entirely legitimate for Laurie Penny and everybody else to advocate entirely different strategies to both shifting public arguments and producing radical alternatives. Wherever a more plural, no doubt sometimes unruly, campaign can help to shift the argument that the government's strategy is unavoidable and unfair - including to make deeper changes possible, I am often going to want to support that, including where effective arguments are coming from a different political perspective from my own.
But I am going to (respectfully) disagree with campaign tactics or policy arguments which seem to me likely to make winning those public arguments more difficult, and I will try to reserve head-on and vocal challenges only those contributions made in a language of "betrayal", especially where these seem designed to close down the space to build alternatives, and to persuade people to choose them.
However, disagreement with respect is going to work better where we can disagree on the basis of what people are actually arguing, rather than to caricature or misrepresent arguments, even if this facilitates Penny's further (and entertainingly) polemical claim on twitter that:
We're listening politely whilst appointed arbiters of the centre-left mow the grassroots into a neat, acceptable bourgeois lawn
Not my project - though I will admit to being enormously sceptical about "bourgeois" as a rhetorical tool of political persuasion. Beyond its hoary, coalition-narrowing desire to brand all non-prole participation as illegitimate, there is some considerable dissonance in that being deployed by somebody who so identifiably represents an emerging strand of the Staggers' proud - mainly middle-class - radical traditions. The middle-class left have historically been one significant strand of many effective campaigns - from anti-slavery and votes for women to the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, the abolition of the death penalty, liberal equalities campaigning on feminism, apartheid and gay rights. A particuarly obvious example is the student protests and occupations of recent weeks. (Indeed, can anybody identify any major social change from the French Revolution onwards which did not depend on a cross-class coalition of support?)
Still, whereever Laurie Penny and her unruly, unmowed grassroots can successfully shift attitudes and appetites for greater equality, let a thousand flowers bloom, and no doubt one or two weeds too.
A netroots wrap
Thanks to Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, John Wood and his colleagues at the TUC, and the many other campaigning groups who helped to put it together.
Contributors preview the event at Comment is Free.
OurKingdom's preview from Niki Seth-Smith on how far online activism has come.
Reuters reports on Brendan Barber's opening contribution on building new alliances
Duncan Robinson of the Staggers says the central theme was hacktivists of the world unite
Nigel Stanley challenges for campaigners.
Sunder Katwala on how the government lost the fairness argument at Left Foot Forward.
Clifford Singer on the potential for alliances with the angry middle of the Daily Mail.
Shamik Das sums up the opening session - and which arguments we're winning on Left Foot Forward.
Useful summary from Nick Anstead on both speakers and audience debate.
Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy on the goals of a netroots movement.
Guido Fawkes website produces a pretty straight report on what the blog calls the "nutroots" event, while right-wing libertarian Old Holborn really didn't have anything better to do than blog and tweet about why it was all pointless.
Workshops and plenary
The Guardian's Matthew Taylor blogged across the day
Jon Worth wanted less on cuts and more about online advocacy. We could learn more from netroots Sweden than the US, he argues.
Nick Anstead on engaging with politicians online, and Mark Pack talks about how to do that.
Gethyn Williams has a delegate's report and lots of handy netroots links and resources too.
Caroline Crampton of Total Politics found delegates wanted more practical advice and less general commentary.
Latte Labour is a netroots sceptic.
Left Foot Forward on Heather Brooks' advice on how freedom of information can help anti-cuts campaigns.
Luke Bozier has posted his netroots presentation on engaging locally online
Jessica Riches opens her new blog, on her talk to the event on organising the UCL occupation.
Raven reports for London Masala and Chips
John's Labour blog has a quick post, with a promise of more today.
Will Straw on the growth and future challenges of the netroots movement.
And much tweeting at #netrootsuk.
If you've blogged about the event too, do please put a link in the comments here, and I'll try to add a few more to the post.