UK Uncut has a pretty simple mission. They think corporate taxes should be higher than they are. Therefore they protest at the shops and outlets of the brands they have judged are not paying enough. The objective is to force the companies to cough up over and above their legal requirements out of a combination of shame and commercial inconvenience.
It’s a pretty messy approach, catching customers and ordinary staff in slanging matches which should really be between activists and Chief Executives. It has also led to UK Uncutters getting remarkably outraged about the idea that a company might have the right to not allow them on their property.
Last week, the movement had its first major victory. Starbuck’s buckled under the pressure and agreed to pay £20 million to the taxman which it does not legally owe. It was a jubilant moment for the high tax pressure group, but within days they have managed to turn their first victory into what may very possibly be their last.
Successful political campaigning is about stick and carrot, pleasure and pain. I want you to change your position, and to persuade you to do so I need to do two things: 1) make your current position extremely uncomfortable and 2) make the new position I am proposing much more attractive.
UK Uncut have done the first thing pretty well. Aided by the Guardian, which itself uses some complex but entirely legal jiggery pokery to keep its tax bill at a minimum, they have driven large amounts of negative media exposure for the firms they target at the same time as besieging their shops and cafes until they are forced to close. Like the Sith, they may be using their powers in the pursuit of the wrong ends, but you can’t deny their Force is strong.
So, having hammered Starbucks into submission and extracted voluntary payments into the Exchequer as planned, the next step would naturally be to congratulate them. End the boycott and move on to other targets, now the precedent has been set, proving to others that doing what you ask will bring rewards.
But, instead, on Saturday HMRC’s little helpers were back at Starbucks’ door – shouting at customers, grappling with police and making a general nuisance of themselves. Just as they did before the baristas opened their wallet.
This is a fatal error. The message UK Uncut have sent is that if you do what they ask in response to their beating you with the stick, they will put the carrot away and hit you some more.
Other UK Uncut targets will have been watching closely. When Starbucks took the plunge, they will have wondered if they should follow suit – particularly if it would be worthwhile to save them the disruption caused by these fiscal versions of Mary Whitehouse.
The lesson they will take now is precisely the opposite. Why bother bowing to UK Uncut’s demands if your reward is more punishment, more heckling and more trouble? Unless their tactics change, I suspect we won’t see anyone else do what UK Uncut want for quite some time to come.