How the Robin Hood tax campaign took off

Max Lawson of Oxfam tells John Plummer that the idea of taxing financial transactions to fight poverty and climate change has attracted widespread support

No charity campaign has generated more coverage in the first quarter of 2010 than the Robin Hood tax lobby.

The campaign, which calls on governments worldwide to generate up to $400bn (£264bn) a year to fight poverty and climate change by taxing financial transactions, began in the UK in February.

Since then, it has generated vast media coverage, developed a Facebook group with 130,000 friends and created a catchy campaign symbol - the green mask.

The campaign is fronted by actor Bill Nighy, but the man coordinating its activities is Max Lawson, head of development finance at Oxfam.

Lawson was heavily involved in the Make Poverty History campaign, during which he got to know the screenwriter Richard Curtis.

Curtis told Lawson last summer that he was interested in developing Oxfam's work on what was then being referred to as the Tobin tax, named after the economist James Tobin, who first suggested the idea. Long debates followed about what to call the campaign.

"People don't like the word 'tax', but we felt the Robin Hood nature of it made it oxymoronic," says Lawson. "It's a popular tax that transfers money from the richest to the poorest."

Fifty charities joined the coalition at the launch of the campaign. There are now 95 on board, including Barnardo's, Crisis and the Salvation Army.

Lawson says the founder members had a "whip round" to fund the campaign and "called in favours" for marketing.

So far, the campaign has no major financial backer. "Make Poverty History was eventually helped by Tom Hunter, and that really helped,"

he says. "More money means more advertising."

Nevertheless, the campaign is thriving on low-cost social media.

The Facebook page is attracting about 3,000 new members a day and the campaign website, which calls on supporters to take different action each week, has provoked 2,500 letters to MPs.

Lawson wants to increase the pressure for action as the general election approaches. He says the election, public anger towards bankers and the huge volume of financial transactions happening in London mean "the stars are aligned in a way that's difficult to ignore".

The members of the coalition meet every fortnight to discuss tactics. Lawson says there haven't been any major disagreements so far.

"It helps that we're asking for so much money that everyone would get a piece," he jokes. The campaign will continue until at least the American mid-term elections in November.

Lawson says it has greater potential than Make Poverty History and has attracted wider support in the voluntary sector.

Will the coalition continue after the campaign? "It depends on where things go," says Lawson. "There's certainly an appetite to work together on issues such as inequality and development."

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