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Chasing the corporate tax avoiders & fighting the cuts
By Ellie May O’Hagan – article courtesy of http://www.newleftproject.org
Life is full of serendipitous moments, as Vodafone executives found out recently when they escaped a gargantuan tax bill. It was something I found out too, when I decided to organise a protest about it in my home city Liverpool. I’d love to portray myself as a gutsy, political firebrand, but the reality is it just wasn’t like that. Organising the protests was something I did clumsily, arbitrarily, yet – in contradiction to my pessimism – successfully.
For those of you who’ve forgotten, the Vodafone protests – organised by people who loosely associate themselves with the banner ‘UKUncut’ – started on 27 October when a group of about seventy people met up in London with a secret target, and an urge to dissent. The group went to Vodafone’s flagship store in Oxford Street, and occupied it until it was forced to shut.
As the protest rippled through the internet I felt hopeful, galvanised even, for the first time since the cuts were announced. It was the first demonstration that wasn’t about chanting, placards, and organised routes: it was about taking control; it was about forcible disarmament. It was people power. I knew I had to get involved somehow but, having been raised on May Day marches and anti-war demos, I fell into my comfort zone, emailed the organisers, and waited to take orders. The mischievous reply I got took me by surprise: ‘you could always organise one.’
After some initial deliberating, the next forty-eight hours were occupied by frenzied phone calls, emails, facebooking, and tweeting; all of which, in my mind, cemented the fact that I was an utterly ineffectual organiser, and that my efforts would culminate me cutting a solitary figure outside a Vodafone shop, tragically chanting to a baffled public.
It was a relief, then, to approach the meeting point to greet a group of expectant, smoking protesters, whose efforts were hampered before they’d even begun: Vodafone, they informed me, had shut their shops in advance. But we protested regardless, just long enough to make sure it wouldn’t be worth the shops re-opening.
It was an exhilarating and unifying experience, permeated by bursts of bitter reality in the shape of well wishers, some with disabilities and some with children. Talking to those people underneath Vodafone’s luminous frontage was, for me, confirmation of the vicious unfairness of the situation. Some moments were heartening; like two young army cadets who got involved, and gave lie to the ‘Broken Britain’ adage by reproaching their friend for swearing in his uniform. Other moments were just plain bizarre, like a woman who seemed to think I worked for Vodafone and started questioning me about SIM cards, and a man whose eyes widened when he realised the shops were closed and asked ‘But how am I going to top up?’
What struck me most about the protests was not how hard it is to make a difference, but how easy. Just for that day, I prevented a FTSE 100 company from trading in my city altogether. Little old me caused such a fuss that a multi-billion pound corporation retreated, and I barely even had to get out of bed to do it. That’s what I think I learned most from that day: that the symbols, suits, and slogans we associate with these companies mean very little because, actually, they are totally reliant upon us; the consumers. Companies like Vodafone survive thanks to their veneer as societal behemoths – but even the most inconsequential level of dissent reveals how flimsy, how easily permeated, that veneer really is.
True, we may not have made the top story on BBC News that evening; we may have not forced Vodafone to pay a penny of the tax it owes. But, on 30 October 2010, we demonstrated that the people do have a choice over whether they accept the actions of their government, and that corporations can be held to account. These actions made it that little bit more unacceptable for private companies to make money from a country without contributing towards the wellbeing of its people – as demonstrated by PR Week’s report on Vodafone’s subsequently dented reputation.
Yet it doesn’t stop there. The Vodafone protests were the entrée to a long fight against these cuts, and the beginning of an attack upon the ideological debate that frames them. In late November, a group of UKUncut protesters from across the country will be meeting to plan more action and more engagement. We will prepare for a national day of disobedience on 4 December. And we will be telling as many people about us as possible.
I must admit it is strange to be caught up in this battle as a result of a single, cheeky email on a Thursday afternoon. I feel like I’ve gone from being just another blogger to being in the midst of the resistance – and all it took was a couple of calls to the TUC and a few rabble-rousing tweets. But that’s the thing about standing up for your rights: it’s a lot easier than you’re lead to believe, and a hell of a lot more important.
On a personal note, spending my Saturday outside a Vodafone shop with thirty shouting strangers wrested me from my cynicism. The obligation I feel to protest had always been accompanied by a sense of futile despair, until then. So as I stood there, listening to our group singing ‘power to the people,’ watching the police eye us uneasily, I took my cue from Aristotle: ‘In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.’
Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a blogger, activist and occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy.