Protest works! With the right action on the right issue at the right place and time, a small band of people can win the day – or at least strongly influence the national debate. That’s the message after the Right to Work far-left group hit the small Tesco store opposite the House of Commons, protesting against a workfare scheme that pressed people to stack shelves for free for a rich company. The issue was neat, precise and winnable.
No use demonstrating outside the Department for Work and Pensions, but companies are highly sensitive about their image. Private companies take risks if they take on ideological government policies. So, what a joy to see the rapid retreat of others from workfare – Sainsbury’s, Waterstones and Matalan among the fastest to escape.
Atos does the government’s work capability assessments to test people on incapacity benefits, but it is said to be wary of applying to do the newpersonal independence payment tests, even more controversially replacing the disability living allowance. Who wants to cut out disabled children? Atos is notorious already for assessments that see 40% of complainants’ cases overturned. Demonstrations outside its offices by people in wheelchairs suggests this is a toxic contract.
Workfare is transparently unfair to most people, substituting slave labour for big companies. Michael Heseltine’s scheme that was dubbed workfare had three vitally different ingredients. He paid jobseeker’s allowance recipients extra for working, he ensured the work was for charities or community projects – no risk of job substitution – and the job market was rising. Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling breached all those, absurdly calling objectors “job snobs“. The protesters gave them the bloody nose they deserve.
After today’s court judgment, the St Paul’s Occupy protesters may move on or be removed. It’s time to refresh and think up a new protest. Unlike the Tesco short, sharp targeted operation, Occupy has been broad canvas, thoughtful, and sometimes inchoate. They were never going to bring down capitalism – nor expected to. But Stephen Hester can probably blame them for the loss of his bonus. Would the archbishop have come out so strongly against the deformities of the City without them? Look how every political party turned its rhetoric against over-mighty finance as a result of their action, once polls showed popular sympathy was on their side.
Traditional mass marches have some impact when hundreds of thousands turn out from all over the country. But the UK Uncut model of quick and clever hits against Topshop, Fortnum & Mason or Barclays makes a big noise with a few people on the right popular issue: everyone is outraged at the scale of Vodafone or Goldman Sachs’s tax avoidance. See how George Osborne and HMRC are now under pressure and watch as next month’s budget includes new anti-avoidance measures – all praise to UK Uncut and Occupy. What next?
By Polly Toynbee