As The Occupy St. Pauls Protesters expect to be evicted after losing their High Court battle, we look at the protest movement which gathered momentum in 2011 and ask if they can ever achieve real political change. Will they ever replace party politics?
UK Uncut crashed onto the political agenda in October 2010. Seventy protesters, galvanised by reports that Vodafone had avoided £6bn of tax, shut down the mobile phone group’s flagship store on Oxford Street.
In the wake of the huge public sector cuts the coalition had just announced in the comprehensive spending review, twitter allowed the message to spread around the country.
But while one of Britain’s biggest protest movements began with a hashtag, it was up to politicians to act. As the political pressure increased,George Osborne spoke out against “morally repugnant” tax evasion and vowed to act. In January of this year, David Cameron also pledged to crackdown on on big companies who use "fancy corporate lawyers" to get their tax bills down and last week outlined his commitment to a more "moral capitalism."
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have also come in for criticism, with MPs on the Public Accounts Committee hitting out at "cosy" deals with big business.
For Jo, a UK Uncut activist, protest is the catalyst in driving social change, and the group’s actions, coupled with investigative journalism made tax avoidance a “mainstream issue.”
“The alleged Vodafone bill has now become almost kind of common parlance, and that didn’t just happen because private eye had written an article about it. Up-and-down the country people give up their time to kind of shout about it.”
But if, in the end, politicians are needed for change, would UK Uncut ever consider becoming a political party? Jo doesn’t rule it out: “What I would say is that there’s an increased feeling in Britain that people are dissatisfied with all of our political representatives, and that increasingly people are starting to recognise that there are often more kind of systematic failings in the political system which we need to look at.
“It would be great if people started to engage in that. I personally would always say that for political activists it’s really important to look both inside and outside of existing structures when you’re trying to change things.”
Tax avoidance isn’t the only issue on UK Uncut’s agenda - and Jo cautions it is still unclear the group have achieved their goal, stressing “you always have to see what it is being done compared to what is being said by politicians.”
Welfare reform, which the government suffered three unexpected defeats in the Lords, is another issue highlighted by UK Uncut.
An online campaign led by disability activist Sue Marsh helped highlight how disabled people would suffer under the government’s planned cuts to Disability Living Allowance. Marsh, a self-described technophone, organised a campaign of resistance on twitter and published a report which revealed even Boris Johnson had submitted evidence warning the cuts could hurt disabled people.
Fellow disability activist Nicky Clark, who most recently challenged David Cameron for comparing Ed Balls to a Tourette’s sufferer, claims it's a victory for campaigners, not the alliance of Labour and crossbench Lords who voted against the government: “This is not a political victory for politicians, this is a victory for the people involved.”
But as single issue campaigners and grass roots activists gain power, parliamentary sovereignty dictates that MPs are the ones who retain influence.
Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, is willing to share that influence. She told Huff Post UK that pressure groups and campaigning organisations like 38 Degrees and UK Uncut “play a crucial role” in mobilising and putting pressure on MPs.
“The Greens have always seen ourselves as part of a wider movement, as well as a political party – so it follows that many of our members are also represented in groups like UK Uncut.
“But it’s important, too, to recognise that we need progressive voices inside Parliament, along with pressure from outside, in order to bring about real change. I recently gave evidence in the trial of a number of UK Uncut representatives, for example – and work closely with the group on promoting my Bill on tax evasion and avoidance.
“The growth of these movements reflects a frustration with traditional party politics, which so often doesn't seem to be addressing the real issues – the Greens share that frustration, which is why we're both part of the movements, and a radical voice in Westminster too.”
The protest groups themselves, however, are clear where the power lies. 38 Degrees encourage their members to contact their MPs en masse to campaign - and the organisation’s head David Babbs recently defended their right to do so in a blog for the Huffington Post, arguing “getting in touch with our MPs isn't a privilege, reserved for a small group of people.
UK Uncut, meanwhile, encourage their members to contact parliamentarians to get them to sign an early day motion supporting their actions via a link on their website.
For Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at Liverpool University, the digital age means it’s “never been easier” to campaign - and given the decline in political parties, he doesn’t see the situation changing.
“It's never been easier to raise a campaigning issue because you can go online, use social media. Political campaigning has never been easier. So why use political parties as a vehicle? I don't see any reversal of this.
“In the 1950s in Britain, the Conservative party had 1.5m members. The Labour party was a mass organisation as well.
“Now people get excited when the Labour party has a post-Ed Miliband leadership election increase in members of about 20,000. People were almost hysterical that actually the Labour party was on the up.”
But what does it mean for democracy? Professor Tonge argues it’s not healthy: “I think the problem with single issue campaigns is that by definition they tend to attract obsessives fanatics and partisans. You can't simply have governance as an amalgam of single issue pressure campaigns. It doesn't work.”
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