When Tory advisers opened their newspapers yesterday to find a picture of George Osborne styled as the Dickensian pickpocket the Artful Dodger, they would have been forgiven for thinking that the advert was the latest attack from the Labour Party.
But, in a sign of the changing nature of political protest, it was not Ed Miliband's spin doctors – or even a mischievous trade union – who were behind the image. The ad, which ran in several national papers to coincide with the 2.5 per cent rise in VAT, was the work of 38 Degrees, an online protest group that has dedicated itself to causing trouble for the establishment since its formation in 2009.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who care about progressive issues who are not connected with traditional political organisations," said David Babbs, its executive director. "They are not apathetic – they want to take action. What we're trying to do is link all those people together."
Since forming in the midst of the MPs' expenses scandal, the group has attempted to replicate the success of organisations such as MoveOn.org in the United States, which has successfully managed to channel frustration into a coherent, political pressure group.
38 Degrees was launched with the help of a donation from Gordon Roddick, the widower of the Body Shop founder and political campaigner, Anita Roddick. Since then, it has attracted more than 250,000 members.
Using the social media tools of Facebook and Twitter, it has already run prominent campaigns against political lobbying, the abolition of rape crisis centres and even Donald Trump's plan to build an Aberdeenshire golf course. But the £20,000 ad campaign targeting Mr Osborne's record on tackling tax avoidance was its most daring feat to date.
In the spirit of handing power back to the people, its decision to target the Chancellor was made after a vote of its members. The issue came top, ahead of a proposed campaign opposing the renewal of Trident and another championing a tax on banks. "A clear priority was tax dodging," said Mr Babbs, who has a background in campaigning for green groups. "Our members also helped come up with the ideas for the ads."
The current campaign, which also repeats allegations that the Chancellor's family avoided £1.6m in tax, was not published by the Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph. Despite that, the boldness of the campaign has reaped rewards already. Justine Greening, a Treasury minister, found herself confronted with the image of her boss on breakfast television yesterday. She was also asked about what the Government was doing to cut the £120bn lost through tax avoidance every year. There is more to come. Organisers now plan to spend more money to run billboard adverts in the constituencies of senior ministers. "It's really important that, where there was once a conspiracy of silence, ordinary people are talking about tax avoidance," Mr Babbs said. "We will keep piling the pressure on, coming up with more creative ways to make the point."Reuse content