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Nation-wide Vodafone block-outs show the potential of anti-cuts protests

I don't generally do patriotism and that sort of thing, but watching Vodafone stores being spontaneously shut down across the country on Saturday, in protest at the mobile phone giant dodging billions in tax, with the co-operation of HMRC, gave me more than a little frisson of pride.
Guy Aitchison
2 November 2010

I don't generally do patriotism and that sort of thing, but watching Vodafone stores being spontaneously shut down across the country on Saturday, in protest at the mobile phone giant dodging billions in tax, with the co-operation of HMRC, gave me more than a little frisson of pride. It also gave me hope that the Coalition's blitzkrieg against public services, the low paid and welfare recipients, will be met with some spirited and well-organised resistance.

Inspired by Wednesday's successful action in London - which I wrote about here - activists banded together online to shut down their local Vodafone stores. I followed the action on Twitter in the morning, via the #UKUncut hashtag, before heading down to join in the protests at Oxford Street where two Vodafone stores had been pre-emptively closed.  Around 24 stores were shut in total by protesters in Liverpool, Manchester, Brighton, York, Birmingham, Oxford, Edinburgh, and several other cities. 

One of the organisers, "Sam Baker", describes how things unfolded over at CiF:

The 65 protestors who gathered on Wednesday morning did not know each other, did not belong to the same organisation and had not had a planning meeting. We called the action after a conversation in a pub, a few speculative emails and a decision to issue a mysterious call-out on Twitter.

As we handed out flyers to passersby, something incredible started to happen. Using the hashtag #UKuncut, people started to follow the protest on Twitter and talk about replicating it in their own towns and cities. By that evening, UKuncut had gone from a simple hashtag to a website, complete with an "action map" listing the shutdowns being rapidly planned all over the country....

This description of events mirrors almost exactly what happened with the purple "fair votes" protests we organised through Take Back Parliament following the election back in May. A call went out through social media for an initial protest in central London. Because it was well-timed and well-targeted  - catching Clegg in the midst of Coalition negotiations - it broke through to national media attention, releasing a wave of popular energy that sparked off self-organised parallel protests everywhere from Penzance to Tunbridge Wells. 

Recently, there has been something of a backlash against digital activism, and it's true that over-inflated claims are often made on its behalf. The important point to make, however, is that the web isn't a replacement for more traditional forms of protest - in the end, the physical power of people turning out for a cause, still matters - but it can supplement and reinforce them. At the same time it allows organisation that is more decentralised, reactive and non-hierarchical - and hence, more creative and adventurous.These popular mobilisations, using the web, give the lie to the revered teachings of some schools of thought which say that people never self-organise, and must always be led.

Thanks to the web there is less need for cumbersome and unwieldy coalitions of established organisations and NGOs who must agree interminable "policy" statements amongst themselves, and who fret endlessly about damage to their "brand" by doing anything too radical, or alternatively jostle for pre-eminent position once they see that they have a success on their hands. As Baker writes, "Tools such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs ignite the potential of bypassing these hierarchies and mass rallies in favour of a more decentralised, democratised, spontaneous model of protest."

There are still some people, of course, who confidently assert the futility of any kind of protest and direct action, and smugly point it out when it doesn't fulfil its immediate aims. Comedian and activist Chris Coltrane has a good response to this on his blog:

I tweeted saying that the protest had been a complete success. Some h8rz (as I believe is the common parlance) replied saying that claiming success was ludicrous, because Vodafone hadn’t paid back the money.

As if Vodafone were going to cough up six billion pounds based on a few protests. This was never the aim of the protests.

Of course, it would be a tremendous victory if they did, but the aim of the protests was to raise awareness of the fact that the narrative that the government and the media sells us – “We’re all in this together, the cuts are inevitable, the cuts are unavoidable” – is claptrap. If the rich paid their tax, you wouldn’t need to make a single cut to any essential service.

Others have questioned why target Vodafone at all, repeating the line favoured by HMRC and Vodafone that the protesters' accusations are an "urban myth". This is Sunny Hundal's in a simple Q & A guide:

The story first originated in the current affairs magazine Private Eye (1273, 3-16 Sept, 2010) and then spread to other outlets. Read the story here.

The issue started when Vodafone bought the German engineering company Mannesmann a decade ago for €180bn, using an offshore company in Luxembourg. Private Eye says:

"An epic legal battle began, with Vodafone resisting the taxman’s efforts to get all the information on the deal and arguing through the courts that the British laws striking out the tax benefits of its deal were neutered by European law which granted, Vodafone claimed, the freedom to establish anywhere in the EU (including its dodgiest tax havens) without facing a tax bill."

The battle continued until last year when the HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) head Dave Hartnett, known to be “friendly” to big multinationals, moved the case to a department more willing to cut a deal.

"The fruits of these talks, conducted without consulting HMRC’s litigators and specialists in the tax law concerned on the chance of success in the courts, was a bill for Vodafone of £800m, with another £450m payable over five years and, remarkably, an agreement that the arrangement can carry on into the future with a promise of no challenge from HMRC. The Eye understands that the settlement also swept up several other Vodafone tax avoidance schemes."

The amount of money forgone is estimated to be £6 billion.

Vodafone owe money not just to the UK taxpayer but also in India, where a court rejected their appeal (reg. reqd.) and asked them to pay $2 billion in tax for buying an Indian company. The charity Action Aid says that money could feed lots of starving people in India.

You can read more of Sunny's Q & A at LibCon - and the discussion in the comments that follow - and sign up for more info on direct actions at UKUncut.

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