Up the Creek?

The student protests against tuition fee increase and the ukuncut demos against tax-avoidance have been all over the media. Ukuncut is continuing with nationwide protests after Christmas. Needless to say, your reaction to these depends on your age, income, political outlook but everyone agrees peaceful protests are good in a democracy (to that I would add in a public place). And protests do work, I have done enough in my time.

The first thing that strikes me is how the Labour Party seems disconnected to these protests/demos, maybe intentionally so. And the second is how these are organised via social media like Twitter and Facebook, the power of the internet has changed the landscape of protests.

The Who?

There doesn’t appear to be any defined leadership in place. Of course there are people behind the National Union of Students (eg Aaron Porter, President of NUS); and behind the ukuncut organisation (eg. a fine specimen called Aaron Peters, see picture below & Mail Online article here).

I guess they are The Two Rons.

Aaron Peters of ukuncut undressing for the cause

Apart from Aaron Peters, we have Laurie Penny, a tweeter and a columnist for the New Statesman; she is one of the most vocal “role models” for the Student Protests and ukuncut demos. She tweeted “the Trots are basically right” here. She writes in the Guardian CIF:

Anarchists and social democrats are obliged to work together alongside school pupils who don’t care what flag you march under as long as you’re on the side that puts people before profit…. For these young protesters, the strategic factionalism of the old left is irrelevant. Creative, courageous and inspired by situationism and guerrilla tactics, they have a principled understanding of solidarity.

For example, assembling fancy-dress flash mobs in Topshop to protest against corporate tax avoidance may seem frivolous, but this movement is daring to do what no union or political party has yet contemplated – directly challenging the banks and business owners who caused this crisis. (My underlining*)

{* Note : It may be a minor point in socialist eyes but it irritates me intensely – Please let’s not pretend that the “banks & business owners” were the Masters of the Universe & had complete free rein to ruin the country. There was meant to be, at the material time in 2008 & a decade before that, a government in charge of “regulation” and which failed miserably. Read Socialist Appeal‘s article about Brown’s light-touch City regulation. A good must read for those who are unsure about how the City came to be so badly regulated and why the banking crisis caught the last government a tad by surprise.}

Dan Hodges Contributing Editor of Labour Uncut offers a less than complimentary view about the protests:

“Something’s happening out there”, one shadow minister said to me, hopefully. He’s right. What’s happening is that the left is losing its marbles. Freed from the shackles (sometimes called responsibilities) of office, we are acting like children in an anarcho-syndicalist sweet shop. Shall we go on the fees protest? No, let’s hit Vodafone. Wait, what about the demo against the police? Aren’t we supposed to be targeting the Lib Dems’ offices? Or is it Top Shop? And the occupations? Hey, the cuts; what about the cuts…?

The Why?

Out of the Silence of the Labs, a grass-root Direct Action movement headed by activists has been born. Apparently, some young people feel disenfranchised by the party political system and feel that they don’t have a voice. The tuition fee increase fiasco has not done their faith in politics a lot of good. However, their voting record up until recently was nothing to write home about. May be they will be listened to more if they exercise their vote and participate in sensible debates about their futures.

These thousands of students and young people do not subscribe to traditional parliamentary politics and they have a specific agenda – “people before profit“. Their enthusiasm for protests are being encouraged – or even exploited and fanned(?) – by leftwing activists. Some of these leading activists, eg. Laurie Penny, believe in Marxist/Trotskyist principles.

But what does it all mean? Can “people before profit” be translated into coherent policies? Or will there be a revolution followed by high taxes and closing tax loopholes for the well-off (if any exists after the revolution)?

Will the Ballot Box be replaced by placards, sit-ins, occupations, civil disobedience and super-glued protestors? Will a few thousand overturn the votes of tens of millions? Are they trying to force political and legal changes from the streets? I am mindful of the fact that more than two decades of guns, bombs & hunger strikes etc by the IRA did not achieve what it set out to achieve. I am of course not comparing the two “causes”.

The How?

They believe in protests against big corporations, banks, successful businesses which have legitimately avoided tax. How do they choose their targets? It started off with Vodafone & Philip Green/Topshop, but now M&S, Barclays, Boots are also within their sights. Just because they supported cuts or tried to negotiate tax settlements with HMRC? Are all rich people and mutli-national businesses being targeted now? And why not include the Guardian Media Group which also has avoided tax.

To have credibility, protests must be consistent and principled, and not arbitrarily selective.

And instead of protesting outside Parliament or lobbying their MPs, should these people trespass onto private properties and interrupt law-abiding businesses and other shoppers just because they don’t agree with tax laws? That is a crime of aggravated trespass. Are these businesses going to voluntarily pay more tax as a result of the protests? Are pigs flying past my window?

I believe going after soft targets like shops is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Peter Watt, an ex-general secretary of the Labour Party wrote about the left’s “moral arrogance” here. It was a well-thought out piece and well worth a read. He said amongst other things:

We can’t just condemn or patronise everyone as not understanding just because they say or feel things with which we don’t agree.

The What Now?

The following is from the ukuncut website about the post-Christmas protests at Topshop in London:

The Aims: The aim is to cause long queues within the Topshop store, hoping actual customers will not buy goods there, and thus reduce Philip Green’s income and evasion of taxes. When you refuse to pay for the items, the checkout assistant will have to wait for a manager to clear the transaction before s/he can process the next customer, leading to further delays. Also they will have to replace your items back onto the shelves (We could also use this to target a certain type of clothing, or manufacturer if need be, to clear the shelves).

So, flash picketing then. Will the protests harm the Coalition? Probably not to any material extent.

Will the Coalition’s popularity plummet in the next few years? Yes. Four letters – CUTS. Nobody likes cuts and nobody should be surprised if the Coalition polls near the 30% mark in time. During the party conference season, it promised reforms on tax avoidance & evasion laws, we shall see.

Len McCluskey, the new General Secretary of the Unite union has heaped praise upon the ukuncut and student protests, and he has asked his union members to prepare for battle next year to fight the “Cameron/Clegg class war austerity”. Militancy is firmly back on the agenda and it will invariably lead to reforms of strike laws, watch this space.

The But

Will Marxism/Trotskyism take hold in the UK? No. Four letters again – CUBA.

Is this a “Poll Tax” moment when widespread public protests AND political opposition from the Labour Party changed Thatcher’s policy? No, this is not a “Poll Tax” moment, there is currently little or no support from the Labour Party for laws to close all tax loopholes and tax havens. After all, Philip Green was knighted by Blair and the £1.2 billion dividend was paid to his wife when Labour was in power, plus it took Brown 2/3 years’ worth of belly aching before he finally came up with a £30,000 non-dom tax.

Will ukuncut influence policies? Will we ban all non-doms and stop all tax-avoidance schemes? No, not unless Labour gets into government and turns “hard left” for the first time since the early 1980s when the Militant Left stopped having much influence from the long grass. That won’t happen either, just take a look at the Shadow Front Bench with its Oxbridge middle class career politicians.

How do rich people get rich? Some were born into riches, others were not so fortunate and had to work hard, to take risks by putting their livelihoods on the line to start a business venture. Look at the richest self-made people in this country and you will find the likes of Lord Sugar, Philip Green, J K Rowling, Duncan Bannatyne, Richard Desmond and the list goes on. They and countless others have put personal responsibility, self-reliance and endeavour to good use and have succeeded. In doing so, they have contibuted wealth to this country and help people they employ. They are rich now but many of them were poor once, they should be role models and don’t deserve to have the green-eyed monster staring at them. Surely we all hope to do well in life, and wealth creators should be encouraged, not penalised. Treating everyone equally is different from making them equal around the lowest common denominator.

Sure, the rich have broader shoulders and can take more of the burden but it is a question of balance. There comes a point of “diminishing returns” when higher taxes will have the opposite effect. The respected Institute of Fiscal Studies reported in April 2009 that higher tax rates for the rich may not actually increase the overall tax take. Furthermore, higher tax rates, whether personal or corporation, encourages tax evasion (non-reporting and illegal), use of tax havens (tax avoidance) and reduction of income by other legal means. The Coalition government has said from the beginning that it is looking to close down some tax loopholes and levy special taxes on bankers, but if it goes too far, the country as a whole (yes including the poorest) will suffer as capital and businesses flow out.

Let’s not forget, the “richer” the country, the more the government can spend on the public sector and services. Poor countries will have per capital much lower public spending. In other words, the poor of a rich country are richer than some of the rich in poor countries.

So what if banks, big businesses and rich individuals were forced to pay more tax and did pay more tax, who will they pass the increased overheads to in order to maintain the “bottom line”? Well, it won’t be the shareholders or the directors. Instead, their employees will find pay-rises slowed or stopped, some banks/businesses may move to more “tax-friendly” jurisdictions and in many cases, prices of goods and services could go up as business almost invariably pass the increased overheads to consumers (eg. VAT rate rise, Bank of England base lending rate rise will lead to mortgage rate rises etc) and hit the pockets of “ordinary people” who ukuncut is supposedly trying to help.

Even if I assume that the tax take does go up, what will the extra money be spent on? Will that stop the proposed reforms to, say, the welfare benefits system? The answer is likely to be a “no”. The welfare benefits system is no longer the safety net envisaged by Bevan, it has become a life-style for some. Both the previous and current governments agree that the benefits system needs to be reformed to encourage work, not state dependency. Labour specifically referred to reforms of the housing benefit system in its 2010 Election Manifesto. And extensive re-balance of the welfare state and its underlying cultures has been recommended by Labour MP Frank Field here. I hope his report will get serious attention from the Coalition and the public.

So apart from annoying businesses, shoppers and taking up valuable police resources to evict “sit-in” protestors, ukuncut’s aims, if achieved, could ultimately end up prejudicing the standard of living of the very “ordinary people” it claims to support….

Is ukuncut heading up the creek and shortly without a paddle? Oh well, we can always live in hope with this.

Update 28 December 2010 : Ed Miliband plans to sever “big money ties with unions”, see The Independent here. Below is how Unite’s General Secretary responded:

Len McCluskey warned Mr Miliband not to weaken the unions’ influence. “If anybody is attempting to sever the link with the unions, we will oppose that. This is our party,” he told Tribune newspaper. “What Ed needs to understand is that the trade union movement created the Labour Party. If there are people who just see us as a cash cow, the dotty aunt and uncle who are… just brought out to sign cheques, then that’s not going to happen. We want to make certain that our views and beliefs are listened to.”

With the Coalition government considering the reform of trade union strike laws (requiring at least 50% of members’ support for a strike) and Labour severing money ties with them, it looks like the unions are probably also heading up the creek, right behind ukuncut.

Further Update 30 December 2010: A series of strikes have been proposed by the unions in the spring of 2011, and they will be joining forces with the ukuncut movement. It will be interesting to see how the unions (with their vertical hierarchy and leaderhip mode) gel with the latter (“intentionally” leaderless and decentralised mode). It also appears that the objective is to stop the spending cuts, period.

Is their aim to paralyse the country, its infrastructure and public services in order to bring the Coalition to its kness? Is that democratic when over 15 million people voted for the parties in the Coalition and 8 million people voted for Labour? And all three parties agree cuts are necessary? Will public opinion turn against them and strengthen the Coalition?

It will be a battle royale and politically fascinating to watch.

The wild card is of course the Labour Party, how will Ed Miliband play his cards? Support the strikes or distance himself from them? Make the wrong decision and he could be heading up the creek too… with David Miliband watching and waiting in the wings.

Art Li

About Art Li

Briefly, I am a lawyer, keen amateur photographer, dog lover and politics junkie but not a member of any party. Full details on Biography page. Follow me on Twitter @Art_Li.
This entry was posted in Coalition Government, Freedom of speech, Politics, Ukuncut. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Up the Creek?

  1. Pingback: Blawg Review #292 « Charon QC

  2. Pingback: Is it just me? | Art Li's Mumblings

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