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Society, Politics & Law

UK Uncut: Changing public opinion through direct action

Updated Wednesday 9th April 2014

“Starbucks felt so pressured by the public that they felt obliged to pay £20,000,000 to the HMRC.” Our series of interviews with activists and practitioners who organise public participation initiatives speaks next to Sarah Kwei from UK Uncut, the direct action group that works to raise awareness of tax avoidance and austerity cuts through creative forms of protest.

Sarah Kwei: UK Uncut started in 2010, shortly after the coalition government came into power and started to outline their austerity programme. As a response to that a few people got together, having seen a story in Private Eye about Vodafone owing £6 billion in tax, and being let off with that by the HMRC, which pretty much would have covered the first round of welfare cuts that the coalition government proposed in 2010. 

So an almost spontaneous action was started by people who were just going onto Facebook and Twitter, saying they would be in a Vodafone store in London on this Saturday to protest and to highlight tax avoidance. The following Saturday protests all over the country were set up.

The actual name UK Uncut came out of a Twitter hash tag that someone had come up with on that day, and it really grew out of that.

Hilde C. Stephansen: What do you want to achieve?

Sarah: The biggest aim is highlighting the fact that the government-proposed austerity drive and cuts to the welfare state are ideological. The Government argues that those cuts are needed to pay the deficit and to pay off the debt of the country, but the fact is that billions upon billions of pounds are owed in tax, and this never gets talked about by those people who say it’s necessary to say cut the benefits of the poorest and most vulnerable people in this country.  So highlighting those arguments is one of the key aims of UK Uncut. To change the public lexicon – people’s understanding of what this government is doing and what the alternatives are – and to do that using direct action.

That means targeting the government and tax dodging companies in quite a fun and creative way, such as setting up refuges in Starbucks stores – coming up with creative ways to show the alternative.

Hilde: Who are the people who you’re seeking to involve in UK Uncut?

Sarah: I guess there are lots of different people we hope would want to be involved. It’s a nationwide network; protests have happened under the banner of UK Uncut all over the country. The message just goes out to anyone who feels that the cuts to the welfare state are ideologically driven and have a sense of fairness about who should be taking the brunt of the recession – whether it should be the poorest and most vulnerable, or whether it should actually be larger corporations, who in fact owe the state an enormous amount of money in tax that they’ve avoided. 

Anyone who sympathises with that is welcome to be a part of it. This could be people who are affected by the cuts, or people who simply sympathise with that point of view. I think this position covers an enormous number of people across the country.

Hilde: Do you see a pattern in the kinds of people who turn up?  Is there a typical UK Uncut participant?

Sarah: Yes and no. There are a lot of young people who are quite attracted to protest. That being said we’ve often had protests that are very diverse in age, across the spectrum.  We’ve had people at protests who are directly affected by the cuts, such as disabled people and people who use food banks.  There is a core of people who are quite attracted to protests in general, and then there are lots of people who are affected by the cuts who might not usually have come to a protest, but who have been spurred on by their experience and by hearing or reading about what UK Uncut do. I’d say that over the years it’s become quite diverse.

Hilde: I know that UK Uncut doesn’t have a central organisation, but can you say a bit more about how things are co-ordinated?

Sarah: It’s quite a complicated thing to explain, because there are lots of different groups all over the country who call themselves a UK Uncut group or use the UK Uncut banner.  At times there have been as many as 50 UK Uncut protests happening all over the country, and those groups are more or less free to use the UK Uncut name as they want, to start a protest and do an action in the way they want to, set up their own Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts. 

It’s something that gets asked quite a lot  - who’s in charge? - and it’s difficult to answer, because it feels like it’s a name that lots of people will use to do their own actions and protests, and there is not really a lot of co-ordination going on.  In London, there is me, and a few other people who have lots of conversations with other UK Uncut groups all over the country, or have quite good communication links. But everyone’s somewhat free to do whatever action they want to do, at any given time.

Hilde: Do you see UK Uncut as having some sort of role in representing particular issues or groups to a wider public?

Sarah: I guess UK Uncut, as much as any high profile protest group, provides a voice to the people involved and gives them a certain amount of power to use that in a particular way.  People who are involved in UK Uncut can be interviewed by the media, be on TV, talking about key messages around tax avoidance and welfare cuts. This provides a platform, which gives the public a particular image or understanding of those sorts of issues.  I wouldn’t say we really seek to represent people, such as people affected by the cuts.  There are people involved in UK Uncut who are affected by the cuts and people who aren’t, who just broadly agree with one another that these issues need to be raised and that the public needs to understand more about these issues. But I wouldn’t say representation is really the aim as such.

We’re not an elected group, so we wouldn’t really want to seek to speak on behalf of people and try to effect change on behalf of people.  Our aim it so work together with people to try and effect change, in a more participatory way, rather than saying “tell us about your experience and we’ll go out and represent and change that”, we prefer to be doing this together. We’re trying to change things as a group of people affected by the cuts and people sympathising with the issues raised.

Hilde: Why you have chosen to organise actions in the particular way that you do?

Sarah: This is definitely something that seems to capture the imagination. It was unexpected that the first action we did, focusing on Vodafone, would be taken up and be quite as successful as it was. Vodafone’s tax dodge was something that people in the early days of UK Uncut had read about and wanted to try and raise awareness of, and it really, really took off - a message that people understood. It was very clear, something that people were inspired by, and that’s why it became a lot bigger.

These companies are allowed to get away with not paying billions of pounds of tax.  We people who work every day can’t get away with that. We have to put up with having our NHS cut, and we still have to pay our tax. Why don’t they have to?  Why are they considered so powerful and so rich that they don’t even have to contribute to society in the same way that we do?  It’s a very simple argument and it’s something that seems to have really caught on.  So since the first action it seemed natural to keep running with that, and that’s grown further and people talk a lot more about the problems of tax avoidance than they ever did before.

Hilde: Would you say that UK Uncut is underpinned by any particular political ideals or values?

Sarah: We would probably be identified as a left wing political group by people who read about UK Uncut and what we do. That being said, the people who are involved in UK Uncut by no means subscribe to one kind of politics. It seems to me in the conversations I’ve had that the key message is something that resonates with left and right – the idea of fairness and that everyone should pay tax regardless of how rich and powerful they are. 

So although a lot of people reading newspapers will probably be saying that this is a left wing activist group, it’s much more complicated within UK Uncut itself.  People come from a variety of different political backgrounds and the argument itself resonates with a lot of different people from different political backgrounds.

Hilde: So how do you see UK Uncut as positioned in relation to mainstream politics and established political institutions?

Sarah: Protest and direct action need to have a place in any kind of healthy democracy.  It’s not fair for people to be left thinking that the only kind of democracy is the kind where you vote once every four or five years to have a particular political party in charge for the next few years.

A healthy democracy has to have protest, it has to have dissent, and that’s where UK Uncut comes in.  We seek to challenge this government on their assertions and to make them accountable, and I think we have achieved this.  They have tried to respond in particular ways, in speeches, making references to the kinds of issues that we’re raising, and that’s why protest is very important. When hundreds or even thousands of people are protesting about particular issues, it makes the government much more accountable.

Hilde: What have been the outcomes of what UK Uncut have been doing in the last few years?

Sarah: The argument around tax avoidance has really affected people’s opinions as a result of UK Uncut actions and engagement with the media. One instance in which we had a huge impact was in connection with the protests against Starbucks, who had not paid any tax at all in the UK for ten years. There was a massive public backlash about that and Starbucks responded by offering to pay £20 million in tax over the next two years. 

Arguably it wasn’t really tax, because it was voluntary and they just came up with this figure themselves. But that’s quite an enormous response from a massive international corporation. They felt so pressured by the public that they felt obliged to pay £20,000,000 to the HMRC. Those sorts of responses from corporations show that it is possible for protest to really change things and have a massive effect on the way that corporations think. 

Hilde: Does it also have small-scale types of effects on the people who participate in the actions?

Sarah: Yes. For instance, there was news recently that Atos has decided to end its contract early, and we’ve worked a lot with disabled people affected by the cuts, so that was a massive victory for a lot of people affected by Atos and their work capability assessments. Stories like that really matter for people affected by the cuts and activists who are on the ground, working day in, day out to try and effect real change. Those kinds of victories really make you feel it’s all worth it, and encourage everyone to keep on going.

Hilde: What are the main challenges that you face?

Sarah: Sometimes the police response to our actions has been heavy handed.  That has been difficult for people involved in the movement, who really want to take a stand but are quite worried about being arrested and not knowing how the police are likely to respond on any given protest.  That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that we face.

There are a lot of people involved in UK Uncut who are increasingly affected by the cuts, as sanctions are brought in, as they have work capability assessments and that sort of thing. That really shifts their attention away from trying to create actions towards simply just surviving.  That is a massive challenge that requires a lot of support from everyone involved, for those people to be able to do both, as they want to do.  But if you’re trying to survive on a daily basis, trying to avoid being evicted, trying to avoid having your benefits cut, it’s very difficult to then be massively involved in organising and going to a protest.

Hilde: How you see UK Uncut developing in the near future?

Sarah: Over the next year, year-and-a-half, we’ll be looking at what we’ll be doing coming up to the 2015 election, and really trying to effect real change in those terms, as millions of people are going to have a say in what happens next with this country.

Raising the arguments around austerity and tax avoidance will be of prime importance during that period.  This will be a critical time for us, in terms of how much we’re able to do leading up to the 2015 election and the kind of change we want to see.

 

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