Vodafone's "flagship" store in Oxford Street was shut down on Wednesday by a group of activists protesting the £6 billion in taxes the company has dodged with the approval of HM Treasury. There are great write ups by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman and Adam Ramsay at Bright Green Scotland, reflecting on how a new generation of activists is cutting its teeth in the nascent anti-cuts movement. They can be seen in this short vid by "You and I films" showing the initial occupation and police eviction and the widespread support for the protest amongst passers by.
The Vodafone block-out was spontaneous, creative, and organised almost entirely by social media in the manner of recent climate protests. (A tweet demanding the mobile phone company cough up received 1,952 retweets, ranking it as the 6th tweet in the world on Twitoaster.com having reached 400,000 accounts). As one 22-year old activist explained, "The next five years can't just be about marching on Whitehall to hear Tony Benn speak...We need to get creative".
Inevitably, tax justice will be a key focus for anti-cuts campaigners as it becomes apparent just how much of a sham the government's assurances of "fairness" are. To remind us we're not quite "all in this together" in recent days we've had: (the other, no 'h') Antony Barnett's Dispatches documentary exposing how Cabinet figures, including George Osborne, keep their millions out of reach of the taxman; the Vodafone tax-dodge which was brought to mass attention in a furious Johann Hari column last week; and, just today, news that a secrecy deal between the UK government and Switzerland could let the super-rich off £40 billion worth of taxes. So we can expect more direct actions over the coming months targeting individuals and corporations who, with the government's blessing, steal an estimated £25 billion each year from the public purse.
Consumer action will also have an important role to play. There is now a growing campaign to boycott the 35 companies, such as Marks and Spencer and ASDA, who signed a public letter to the Telegraph, dishonestly endorsing Osborne's spending cuts as essential for economic recovery whilst having no clue where growth is going to come from. A Facebook group has been set up and a website is, apparently, on its way.
With all this activity by disparate groups - some local, some sectoral, each with particular agendas, but linked by a shared opposition to the speed and depth of the cuts - there will be a need for an online hub and network to provide background information and resources for the movement and point people towards campaigning actions in their area. This is the aim of False Economy, a project I am involved in along with a group of bloggers, local activists and trade unionists. It launches in the coming weeks with the aim of appealing to "everyone concerned about the impact of the government’s spending cuts on their community, their family or their job". You can sign up on the email list here, and follow it on Facebook and Twitter.
Popular opinion is beginning to turn against the cuts and as anger builds people will start to look for alternatives. The last comparable moment in this country was 2002-03 and the build-up to the conflict in Iraq. Tragically, though, the anti-war movement never realised the massive potential it showed in the million-plus protests on the eve of the invasion. This is due not only to the sectarianism of its old Trotskyite leaders, but to the means they adopted, which were crushingly dull and conventional, involving endless marches from Trafalgar Square to Whitehall led by the same old central cohort.
The successful Vodafone sit in yesterday, on the other hand, shows the potential for spontaneous and well-targeted direct action to mobilise anger at economic injustice in a popular and creative way. It may just herald the birth of a new type of popular movement.
For a follow up report see here