UK uncut: a successful example of direct actions campaigns

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Since the UK uncut movement started in 2010, they have succeeded in raising awareness on tax dodging and on the existing alternatives to austerity measures. Before UK uncut few talked about tax dodging as an issue and now this topic has become a core debate in UK politics. What is this movement, who are their activists and which are the key elements of their successful campaigns? GEF interviewed Adam Ramsay, member of the Green Party of England and Wales and an UK uncut activist, to discuss the organisational and campaigning methods of this particular grassroots movement. 

UK uncut sit-in at a Vodaphone store, highlight the threat to library funding that tax-dodging poses 

“UK uncut is a movement taking non-violent direct action against cuts to UK public services, against austerity measures, and particularly to focus the attention on tax dodging companies”. That’s how Adam Ramsay defined UK uncut, a movement whose tactic has been to organise peaceful occupations of tax dodgers’ businesses in quite humorous ways and linking their tax dodging to a public service that is being cut. The idea behind these grassroots actions is to highlight alternatives to the government’s spending cuts. For instance, to clamp down on tax avoidance by corporations and the rich people, which is estimated to cost the UK public exchequer £95bn (111bn €) a year.

The movement started in 2010 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the UK Minister of Finance), George Osborne announced the deepest cuts to public services since the 1920s. That day a group of 70 people decided to go to Oxford Street and sit down inside the Vodafone flagship store with placards highlighting the fact that Vodafone was dodging £6 billion of tax. The video of this occupation was published on the internet and quickly went viral. Some of the people involved decided to set up a website and reinforce the already existing hashtag #UKuncut. Through the website, Facebook and Twitter, UK uncut called on people to imitate this action across the UK. That same week between fifty and sixty groups of people across the UK started their own UK uncut actions. That was when Adam Ramsay became involved in the movement.

It is all about actions!

As with Adam Ramsay, many of the people that got engaged in UK uncut had been involved before in the “Climate Camp” (a large camp organised every summer from 2008 and 2011 that called for action on combating climate change and which also employed civil disobedience). UK uncut also managed to mobilise many other activists, from many parts of the country and even some people that had never been involved in politics before, all with the purpose of engaging in direct action.
Although there are people responsible for the Website, Twitter and Facebook accounts, the movement has benefited from being open to so many people. The lack of a formal structure has allowed it to grow quickly and helped activists easily organise actions:

UK uncut activists protesting in front of a Topshop

  • The function called “ACTIONS” on the website is the main feature of the movement. In this section everybody can list an action, communicate the city and business where you want the action to take place. In a map you can see where all the actions are taking place.
  • Twitter has been a really important tool for UK uncut, not just to spread the actions, but also it has been a platform that the movement has used for debates. There have been debates over when to organise a series of national days of action and discussions on which corporations to highlight as tax dodgers and if they should include banks as a target of their actions.

Adam Ramsay explained us that “to understand UK uncut you have to think about it as brand that people decide to use when doing a concrete action. Their activists are usually involved in other movements, NGOs or organisations. For instance, at the Green Party Cardiff conference in spring 2011 UK uncut had organised a national day of action and many Green party members organised an action, which we listed it on the campaign website and encouraged other members to join. In that case it was an action of the Green Party group but under the UK uncut label”

Be New, Funny and encourage others!

UK uncut is also known for its very good use of the different kinds of social media. Adam Ramsay argued that the movement has succeeded in communicating via Twitter, Facebook, blogs and videos by being relevant and fun. The idea that gives UK uncut consistency is the human, funny and entertaining tone of all messages, with the aim of avoiding being seen as angry, mad and shouty. Some groups have invited stand-up comedians, have organised dancing or plays performances while occupying the shops.

The videos produced by UK uncut activists have been a key element in defining the UK uncut fun and provocative style and at the same time have hugely helped in motivating people to action. Adam Ramsay showed us a typical UK uncut video, “How To Do Your Own Bail-In” where with the help of a little text, it is explained in an original way how to organise your own UK uncut action in 5 easy steps:

Step 1: “Choose a cut”. Choose which cut you would like to relate the tax dodge company with. For instance, Topshop or Vodafone’s tax dodging result in cuts to the NHS, Social housing or Education cuts
Sept 2: “List the action” in the website.
Step 3: “Tell everyone”.
  • Check out the the actions map and get in touch with people near you.
  • Get in touch with organisers of previous actions in your town by searching on the actions page.
  • Tell friends, family, colleagues, the dog and the postman
  • Put up posters in public spaces and in sympathetic shops
  • Get in touch with as many local groups as you can; trade unions, sympathetic political party groups, anti-cuts groups, student unions, local campaigning groups… you never know who might want to get involved.
  •  Set up a Twitter account and tweet, tweet, tweet using the #UKuncut hashtag.
  • Several days before an action call up your local paper and radio station. Tell them what you are doing, make a good pitch and sell your action. Try and get them to come down on the day. Take photos which you can give them.

Step 4: “Get your props” Organise the funny performance of the action. Get all the materials you need for the performance and from the UK uncut website download stickers, logos, pamphlets…
Sep 5: “Bail in”: Go to the business or bank. Wait for other activists to come, enter, sit down and begin your performance. Although the vast majority of UK Uncut actions pass off without incident, it’s still worth knowing your legal rights. The Activists’ Legal Project have a model ‘bust card’ (link) that you might want to print and distribute along with the number of a good local solicitor. From the day of your action, you can attach photo galleries and videos and write reports of your action on the UK uncut website.

UK uncut performance at a Vodaphone store

What’s next?

The reaction of the UK uncut actions was very positive in the media and many famous people also participated in some of the actions. Adam Ramsay claims that UK uncut have succeeded in raising the problem of tax dodging, making it one of the core debates in UK politics, with the government now being forced to talk about it. A committee of the UK Parliament investigated the issue in 2012, where it was found that Starbucks had avoided paying tax on £1.2 billion of sales since 2009.

The movement has now lost some energy, but Adam Ramsay pointed out that bigger organisations are now pushing for this topic. After the UK uncut actions many NGOs have started working on tax dodging which ensures that more research will be carried out and more institutionalised campaigns will be done, and that these organisations will keep on publishing information on tax dodging and dedicate paid staff to the cause.

Adam considers that “Although there is still future for UK uncut, ultimately there will be a new and different movement that will substitute it, and it should be like this. The aim of UK uncut was to do specific kind of protests that was needed in a particular time. The same thing happened with Climate Camps, UK uncut predecessor. Organisations as UK uncut succeed because they are very much of the time centred in a particular topic in a specific context and because they are new enough to be controversial, but at the same time funny and soft enough to build massive support.” These types of movements that are about actions and not infrastructure have to be constantly evolving in order to remain new, controversial and exciting. The legacy of these movements is the next organisation that will be set up, as for instance Occupy London that is raising new topics and bringing new excitement to activists.

Activists of the UK uncut movement in an action against tax dodgers.

 

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