28 December 2011

Mission Accomplished? Why UK Uncut's battle is only just beginning.

The most appropriate quote with which to start this post (covering, as it shall, matters of hubris) is probably the warning given by Harvey Keitel, playing Winston Wolf, in Pulp Fiction:

But what I have been most reminded of in the last few days, by the mutual backslapping amongst Occupy, UK Uncut and their various cheerleaders, is this:

The battling Sunny Hundal has now demanded repentance from those of us who have been less than respectful about UK Uncut's intentions and effectiveness. Apologies are now to be laid at the altar of direct action because the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons has published a report confirming what everyone knew: there is an enormous great load of cash in dispute between Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue, and some large companies. HMRC say a hefty old chunk of this cash is due in tax. The companies disagree.

Campaigners are claiming that this happened because an activist base has, at various times over the last year or so, sat on steps outside St Paul's. Or in shops. Or in banks. Or in Parliament Square. The awareness which this raised has, according to their arguments, led to this unstoppably revolutionary moment: a Parliamentary committee agreeing that there is something to argue about.

Let's leave aside the possible post hoc ergo propter hoc fallaciousness of this. I have never doubted that, to quote Margaret Mead, a small group of committed, thoughtful citizens can change the world. Sometimes campaigning and protesting is raindancing. Sometimes it really is the only way to start change. Sometimes it's a complex mixture of both.

However, I would be more willing to accept the UK Uncut/Occupy claims of "Victory!" if they had at any point proposed (or simply foreseen) the crucial role that they now claim PAC is playing.  Indeed, haven't these people spent a great deal of time and rhetoric claiming quite the opposite? Aren't they usually somewhat contemptuous of Parliament and its MPs? Almost, in fact, violently opposed to this sort of democracy? Well, its good to see them falling in with us brainwashed masses who think that national, representative forums are still the best way to address issues.

My second problem is that those blogging a jig over the alleged success either completely ignore the other factors that have made up the campaign, or subvert these factors as secondary to the direct action.

The Guardian's John Harris is particularly at fault here. After three and a half paragraphs of near-religious adulation for Uncut's shop occupations, he blithely mentions the judicial review process, led by the movement's off-shoot, UK Uncut Legal Action.

About this time last year, I unfairly mocked the possibility of campaign groups using judicial reviews. I was wrong to do so. They are a legitimate and effective form of activism. And, alongside the reporting from whistleblowers and other journalistic investigations, have been the real reason why PAC started taking on the issue of the tax disputes - in July. Mr Harris seems to be arguing that the money to support the judicial review process would not have been raised if it were not for the storming of the High Street. That seems a particularly blunt way to fundraise in the age of internet-based, small total, large volume donations. So far, UK Uncut Legal Action has raised £13,000. That's not to be sniffed at but it hardly suggests a mass, sustainable campaign that has brought people with it on their revolutionary journey. 

Not that it matters: the lawyers working for UK Uncut are doing it on a no-win, no-fee basis, anyway. Money may be needed if they lose (not that anyone in Uncut even considers their arguments anything other than 100% correct) but it's not needed at the moment.

So what do we have to show so far for a year and a bit of occupations and demos? A select committee report agreeing that there is an issue (which everyone said there was anyway); and a small amount of money raised (that isn't needed).

Forgive me if I'm not kitting out the cellar with everything needed for a life post-capitalism, quite yet.

But don't be disheartened, Mr Harris and Mr Hundal have other successes to point to. 

First, Sunny is grateful for support from what he believes to be an unusual quarter:
But no one had ever tried to raise public awareness of corporate tax avoidance in this way before, and certainly no one had got the Daily Mail on side on it either. Only UK Uncut managed that.
Any student of media or politics should be wholly unsurprised by the Daily Mail joining in here. It's entire business model is predicated on reducing complex issues to a a single headline or slogan, pushing opinion as fact, ignoring countervailing arguments, and generating mock outrage based on self-generated half-truths. As an old-fashioned lefty sort, I'd be very wary if the Daily Mail took up a campaign of mine. The "new left politics", apparently, revels in it.

Harris goes even further with his welcome to new, supposedly surprising, allies:

First, there is the small matter of Occupy LSX's achievements: sending the Church of England into such a spin that Rowan Williams suddenly had to align it with what he termed "deep exasperation with the financial establishment"; prompting no end of coverage of the byzantine Corporation of London; and playing a huge role in the pushing of a host of issues around equality that began to snowball in the culture from mid-October onwards.
You're kidding, yeah? The time when the CofE could be described as "The Tory Party At Prayer" is long past. In the last 20, arguably 30, years it has jumped on every populist, trendy liberal bandwagon that's passed down Great Smith Street. Especially so under Rowan Williams. Of course, none of this desperate issue-chasing has had anything to do with declining church attendances. Oh, no. They've all been faith critical, of course. Sharia law, Middle East conflict, republicanism, 'broken Britain', positive discrimination, paganism, ecology, international development. Have I missed anything? If I were John Harris, I'd have been worried if Lambeth Palace did not align with UK Uncut and Occupy. But unsurprised when it did.

The point on City of London transparency is a better one and has the potential for a popular, constructive campaign. But just as it was beginning to gain momentum, Occupy overplayed their hand, mixing sensible proposals for local government reform in the Square Mile, with silliness such as a "truth and reconciliation commission" (lack of perspective, much?) and claims the Corporation is above Parliament.

My favourite bit of his eulogy to Occupy, though, is this:
For sure, their self-comparisons to the rebels of Tahrir Square can easily grate.
To which I would only like to add:
For sure, a Guardian journalist's support for anti-tax avoidance campaigns on the pages of a newspaper owned by a company that practises tax avoidance can easily grate, too.
But I digress.

He ends with a call to "highlight failures which are truly systemic" and to promote them to even greater prominence. 

Highlight. More prominence. Yawn. It is way past time for this phase of the campaign.

The danger now for UK Uncut and its network is that even the argument on tax avoidance can still be lost, despite The Great Leap Forward of the PAC report. As the Committee's inquiry progresses, Uncut's targets will have their "day in court". The case for the defence of Vodafone, for example, has been well articulated here (and that's just one example). Nowhere has there been a rebuttal of points such as these. Nowhere has Uncut or Occupy truly engaged with the debate. They repeat - endlessly - their initial positions and beliefs. They offer little by way of constructive argument.

I certainly want to see the promotion of solutions that do more than take us back to a status quo ante. And I want to see an effective vehicle for radical and effective challenges to the mistakes that got us to where we are now.

But, on their current trajectories, neither UK Uncut nor Occupy will be it.

2011 has ended without one cut being reversed, and without any extra tax income being identified and collected. Is there any reason to assume that 2012 will be any different?

But what would I do? (Thank you both for asking).

Occupy: as you were. Seriously, don't change a thing.

Uncut: first, pray for warm weather and hope that Occupy will take advantage and continue the trend for trustafarian urban camping, with all the leaderlessness and nebulousness and general irritatingness that comes with it. That'll give you something to define yourself against from the other side and position yourself as a practical alternative, dealing with the effect of fiscal policy on real people's lives. 

That's the easy bit. To take advantage of that, you'll also have to better reflect the current debate. Maybe start by admitting your own mistakes (e.g. the attack on Barclays in February, which was an unfortunate misunderstanding of how business works, and was very off-putting). Then recognise that alongside the benefits of taxation and public spending, there are also costs (embodied in concepts such as tax incidence and the Laffer curve) and opportunity costs. You could even start discussing what sort of (whisper it) public sector reform could and should be taking place in our post-Credit Crunch world. This will all establish a context for negotiating in from your current unsustainable positions of rejecting each and every cut and wringing every last penny of possible tax from business. 

That's my (before tax) two shekels' worth, anyway. 

In short, the issues are coming of age. It's time UK Uncut were, too.


  1. The big 'what if' is what if the poster boy villains of UKUncut are proven to be in the right in court The Vodaphone case looks fairly clear cut (although I base that solely on Tim Worstall's analysis). You rightly point out that the Mail like to reduce their slogans to single headlines but in the era of Twitter campaigns so do protest groups. Very few on the UKUncut front ever differentiate between avoidance and evasion. Companies are legally obliged to maximise their shareholder returns and to do this requires them to minimise their tax payments. I'd be much more in support of their efforts if they were campaigning for a simplification of the tax code with a resultant rise in tax revenue rather than the 6th form politics of 'evil' companies not paying their 'fair' share.

  2. The issue of the tax code and tax simplification should be a good example of where the likes of Uncut can establish consensus on something practical.

    But now that the Taxpayers' Alliance has beaten them to the punch in terms of the response to the PAC report, it's more likely that their sixth form aversions will prevail.