People have demonstrated across Britain in protest at Vodafone’s legal £6 billion tax dodge. The protests were great. A handful of people mobilised hundreds—and caught the attention of thousands.
The protests have sparked a debate about the best way to organise resistance and what kind of leadership we need.
Sam Baker, one of the organisers of the Vodafone protests, wrote on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site that he’s worried about the anti-cuts movement resembling the anti-war movement of the early 2000s, “characterised by large, unwieldy, centralised organisations”.
At one level, this seems odd. The Stop the War Coalition, a national organisation with a centralised but open leadership, mobilised the biggest protest in Britain’s history.
Not only that, but the existence of a mass organisation gave people confidence to take initiatives in their own towns and cities.
School students struck. Protesters blockaded roads. Many Muslims became politically active for the first time and led struggle. The movement politicised millions and changed how they saw the world.
Today the political situation has shifted, and for many people the war isn’t the key political issue any more.
But for Sam, this change resulted from how the movement is organised—the inherent conservatism of centralised organisations.
In reality, the division between spontaneity and organisation isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem. Even the Vodafone protests, to some extent, relied upon national networks of people.
The first protest was indeed the result of “a conversation in a pub”, and was called on website Twitter.
But national organisations helped spread the protests beyond London. Revolutionaries in the Socialist Workers Party, for example, called protests in their areas. Whether formally organised or not, every political act involves leadership.
The Vodafone protests were a great example of leadership. A group seized upon the mood against the Tories, called action and organised for it. They produced leaflets and posters, set up a website and posted messages on the internet.
They effectively formed a fledgling organisation—but one whose leadership is ad-hoc rather than elected.
Elected, open leadership is the most democratic way to organise. In an organisation with a clear structure, and “hierarchy”, electing leaders allows you to hold them accountable.
It’s true that there is a danger of conservatism. But this doesn’t mean we should throw out organisation—it means we have to fight conservative tendencies within them. And we shouldn’t counterpose creativity to organisation—we need both.
It’s not enough simply to say that everyone should use their initiative and then sit back and wait.
Under capitalism working class people often feel powerless. A national organisation can try to overcome this by generalising the best examples.
Leadership matters for another reason, too. In every struggle there’s a debate about the way forward. Clear leadership can make all the difference.
Sam writes that we can win the fight against the Tory cuts “as long as we’re willing to get creative tactically”.
But “creativity” by no means guarantees a victory against the Tories. While it’s good that innovative stunts can grab headlines, that’s not the same as winning change.
And we shouldn’t put ourselves at the mercy of the capitalist media and say that the only things that matter are things that get coverage.
By that logic, all the protesters should be naked, because it would get more coverage in the newspapers.
Conversely, if the media attack certain actions, such as strikes, it would lead you to argue we should change tack. This is not a way to decide political strategy.
To change society we need to mobilise people in their millions.
Big demonstrations don’t always win the thing they demand. But they can pull millions of working class people into political activity, build confidence to fight and transform the way that people see the world.
We need lots more protests like those at Vodafone. We need people to take initiatives in their workplaces, colleges and communities, and give confidence to those around them.
Yet for all the talk of the power of Twitter, there was a big gulf between the number of people talking about the protests and how many took part.
Political organisation doesn’t undermine people taking initiative—it creates the structures that can make protests bigger and more effective.