Lessons on Tax Protests from a British Cousin

After the dust settled from the April 15 tea parties and before the inevitable ratcheting up for the July 4 protests, I thought I would ask a expert on tax protests how he viewed those hardy souls that ventured forth in the early spring to let their voices be heard all across the U.S.

Matthew Elliot is head of the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) in the UK. It's an organization that  has held politicians and bureaucrats to account over their over-zealous tax and spending habits. Elliot provided the following insights:

AID: Do you think your taxpayer rallies have any effect on the powers that be?

Mathew Elliot: Tax rallies are hugely important because they demonstrate grassroots support for the low tax cause. It's very easy for any campaign to set up an office in the capital, say that it represents millions of voters, and put a talking-head on TV, but actually getting people out on the ground  -- getting people to give up their time for a cause  -- is much more difficult and demonstrates real public support.

AID: Would you ever consider a mass movement on the same day in the UK, like the tea party movement in the U.S.?

Mathew Elliot: At the Taxpayers' Alliance, we typically hold action days to gather names on low tax petitions and we organize protests outside government buildings and local town halls. We have never held a mass rally, but we have held a rally in Trafalgar Square in London against rising council taxes, which attracted about 500 people, and we organized 4,000 bikers to descend on Westminster Council when they brought in a motor bike tax recently. The Countryside Alliance rally against the hunting ban of over a million people and the anti-Iraq War rally of several million people has really raised the bar. We'd have to be able to match those number to ensure a mass rally was a success.

AID: Do you have any advice for tea party planners in the U.S. based on the experience of the the Taxpayers' Alliance?

Mathew Elliot: The most important piece of advice I could give from our action days is to make events fun -- and the tea parties have followed this admirably. If people are going to give up their time to attend an event, they don't want to be surrounded by sour-faced protesters. They want to feel positive about their activism, so using humor to convey a serious message is essential.

AID: What do you think of the tea party movement?

Mathew Elliot: What I most admire about the tea party movement is the spontaneity of the organization. People talk about how Obama used the Internet to mobilize his grassroots. The tea party movement has learned this lesson. These protests can't be micro-managed by organizations in Washington. They require volunteer organizers, whose activism also demonstrates the grassroots nature of the protest.

AID: What would you say if I participated in the tea party movement partly due to your organization's efforts in the UK?

Mathew Elliot: I'd feel privileged that our campaigning in the UK had inspired activism in the U.S. I'm over in Washington, D.C., at the moment to learn from the TPA's sister organization that has spearheaded the tea party movement in the U.S. Groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, and the National Taxpayers Union all deserve credit for inspiring and facilitating this spontaneous uprising across the country.

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The last question was not a sycophantic one on my part, though it might seem so. I have attended at least one TPA event in the UK and thought that a similar type of event in the U.S. would be a good thing. The success and influence of this organization all across the UK is testament to its emphasis on grassroots/local events rather than merely meetings in the seat of governance. It's fine to have a strong presence at the national level, but it's local networks that get things done.

I was unaware that Matthew was in the U.S. meeting with organizations not unknown to those of us who helped plan the tea parties in the U.S. I am sure that he was well-equipped to give them advice on how to move the movement forward and what national organizations can do to help the grassroots organizations. I am also sure he was able to advise them how to avoid the pitfalls of too much intervention from the above. There were many in the movement leading up to to April 15 who were rather perturbed by such pressures on their local events from national organizations.

There were others who were less diplomatic in their efforts to influence outcomes of the April 15 tea parties. We are still hearing tales in this regard from various outlets for the national movement. Much of it is very useful and assists new organizers on how to avoid such situations.

Let's hope that tea party organizers, coordinators, and national partners all listen to what Elliot has to say about the TPA's experience with organizing tax protests.