Sunday 15 March 2009

Taxpayers alliance outed as conservative partisans (surprise, sensation!)

Are the Taxpayers' Alliance a politically motivated, right-wing conservative group?

Doh! Anybody applying the duck test knows the answer.

But not the Taxpayers' Alliance themselves.

It is "outrageous" to claim they are on the right, or that they prefer any political party, their campaign manager Susie Squire spluttered on LBC Radio, when host Nick Ferrarri described them as across "the party political divide" from Labour, and when Chuka Umunna challenged Squire's claim that "we don't have a party preference". (Amusingly, Squire's evidence to back-up the claim that TPA is non-partisan and "totally independent" began with the comment that "I mean, God, I was in Wales at the end of last week" (!) to give evidence to an assembly committee).

I was confused at the time. But I'm more confused now.

Given their insistence on non-partisan independence, logically, how outraged the Taxpayers Alliance to find themselves traduced by their inclusion in Tim Montgomerie's post, intended to dramatically illustrate the "growth of Britain's conservative movement", with two very pretty PowerPoint slides showing a sparse lack of activity in 1997 and a crowded market of ideas in 2009.

Why is this independent, non-partisan group being libelled with the claim they are "Conservatives in Britain" and part of a a "conservative movement"? You might think the TPA would be sending a huffy email, even fantasising about giving the lawyers a call.

And yet, wait! On the other hand, perhaps not. Let's look a little closer. For it turns out that the slides are not Montgomerie's but those of his co-presenter. And who might that be? Montgomerie reveals all ...

I'm currently in Ottawa with Matthew Elliott of The TaxPayers' Alliance. Earlier on Friday, as part of a conference hosted by the Manning Centre, we gave a joint presentation on the state of conservatism in Britain. I reproduce two of Matthew's PowerPoint slides below, showing the growth of our country's conservative movement since 1997.

Outed! By themselves too. Ouch!

OK, I admit this one was hardly a case for Inspector Whicher. And it might not be the most surprising scoop to hit the progressive blogosphere.

Tax Resarch UK - who have considerably more research expertise and depth - have noted the partisan and often shallow nature of TPA "research" focused heavily on simplistic media advocacy. And three cheers for The Other Taxpayers Alliance - rather amusingly, at to contest the nonsense spouted at This small and welcome web-based campaign has been created to scrutinise the TPA's challenge, on behalf of the majority of taxpayers who don't think all taxation is bad.

But I think we can all safely now drop this canard that the TPA are not self-consciously right-of-centre, conservative, and indeed evidently pro-Conservative, particularly as Cameron and Osborne break ranks with every government in the world in their response to spending and a fiscal stimulus in a recession.

Assuming that Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive, no longer wants to defend the Taxpayers Alliance's public statements that they are not "on the opposite side of the political spectrum" to Labour, and that "they don't have a party preference", will he kindly now gracefully withdraw that and cease this trust eroding double-talk to different audiences? (I can't see that a weasel words defence based on whether you capitalise conservative or not would do anything more than keep digging - though Elliott's slides go for the capital C "Conservatives in Britain" just to close that route off. (Perhaps he would like to publish the presentation which he and Montgomerie gave together? Full disclosure, transparency, accountability: all very good things, one often hears from articulate, angry campaigners in popular newspapers).

There is nothing wrong in a democratic society with having an ideologically motivated view, or to be actively promoting partisan agendas. So it would be much better, surely, to just openly say what the agenda is, and stand or fall on that? What has always been obvious to anybody who has followed this - and indeed from the TPA's own account of their motivation too when speaking to the BBC - is that the TPA was created by right-wing, libertarian Conservative anti-state and anti-tax voices to provide a platform advocate a much stronger version of the right-of-centre platform on which the Conservatives fought and lost the 2001 and 2005 elections, for fear that the Tories would (rationally) backslide on continually offering this, simply because the electorate don't want it.

This is a perfectly valid, minority and insurgency argument for a right-wing and anti-spending political campaign to make. What is absurd is the claim to speak for and to represent the interests of all taxpayers when they do so. ("After years of being ignored by politicians of all parties, the TPA is committed to forcing politicians to listen to ordinary taxpayers", they say). Like me, you might have missed the Taxpayer Disenfranchisement Act. There are a lot of ordinary taxpayers. If they are crying out for this agenda, then put up candidates on this platform at the next election and, if enough people agree with you, you can run the country. (With the Jury Team organising the primaries: if the TPA is right, people agreeing with them will walk it). Yet, if taxpayers did all agree with this, we'd alrady be heading for the third term of the Hague government and a small state utopia of the kind that Margaret Thatcher could only dream of.

The TPA are - quite madly - pledged to "oppose all tax rises". (What would they have said in 1939-40?). But that can put them on a range of specific measures on the opposite side of overwhelming majorities of taxpayers, across all parties and social groups, for example on the tax rise for the NHS or the new top rate on higher earners. If and when they have won that public argument, they can minimise spending just as much as they want.

This might all be good knockabout political stuff. The real shame is that there is a serious debate to be had about taxation, spending and the public disconnection from why they are necessarily linked. The Fabian Society's work on taxation and citizenship took that seriously, including investigating the paradoxes in public attitudes, and strategies for reconnection. That had a significant impact, politically, and as Samuel Brittan's FT column captured, with academics and with commentators from different perspectives, not just those who supported the left-of-centre effort to reconnect and legitimate taxation. This debate will return - and more sharply in this recession. All parties will need to offer grown-up arguments about how much we want to spend, on what, and how we want to pay for it. But when it comes that, the Taxpayers' Alliance simplistic anti-tax play for screaming headlines is (just as much as anybody from the left who wants more spend more on everything without footing the bill) part of problem, not part of the serious debate we need.

A couple of other points about the claims being made for "the conservative movement" and "Conservatives in Britain" by Elliott and Montgomerie.

Firstly, I wonder whether Elliott or Montgomorie have asked the organisations involved whether they self-identify as part of the conservative movement, and are happy to be included under that umbrella of "Conservatives in Britain"? Perhaps they have. Clearly, the Taxpayers Alliance are, despite the conflict with other public claims about their political position.

Now, they may have checked (I simply don't know) but I rather doubt whether the same would be true of Reform, for example. It is a pro-reform, smaller state and lower tax advocacy think-tank. But it takes great pains to stress it is an independent and cross-party body, and has charitable status. Does it consider itself part of and allied to this movement, is it agnostic about it, or does it object? I don't know, but would guess the latter. (Having asked that question, I will out of fairness drop Reform's communications team a note to see if they wish to respond; of course, we would be happy to publish any response they wish to make here on Next Left). What about the Countryside Alliance? And several others.

Secondly, the claim intended by the 2009 and 1997 graph strike me as a misleading one. This is a bit silly, as I think the conservative movement has a strong story to tell: ConservativeHome in particular is an impressive innovation, and Labour is right to ask why it has worked well (and, ideally, to spot too that the combination of professionalism with the lack of explicit or implicit party control is the key to its credibility and success with party activists, supporters and the broader right).

Yet all of that is rather badly undermined by what seems to me to be the implausible exaggerations in this dodgily selective dossier. The issue is less whether the 2009 list is accurate but about the 1997 contrast: the idea that conservatives had - outside the party - in 1997 only the IEA, the CPS and the Adam Smith Institute is dubious to anyone who was there at the time.

Why leave out the Bow Group, created half a century ago, and carrying on today. (Perhaps they are Trots, in this context!). But that wouldn't apply to Politeia (founded 1995), headed by the well known Sheila Lawlor, if something like the 'New Culture Forum' merits attention today. (I hadn't heard of it before). I would also certainly have included the Institute of Directors, given the role they played in 1997 on issues like the minimum wage (and in a more ideologically-defined way than, for example, the CBI). And there are many others which no doubt others could identify.

If UKIP are in in 2009 (interestingly), why not Bruges Group (which was very active at that time); the Campaign for an Independent Britain, UKIP itself which was a smaller party, or the Referendum Party, and myriad other 'sceptic groups? (There were even some pro-European parts of the conservative movement in 1997, but I think those have mostly gone).

The magazine Standpoint is on the 2009 list, but would anybody claim the new magazine has (yet?) been anything like as influential as the Salisbury Review journal was under Roger Scruton, who was editor until 2000, though that may be its aspiration. Since magazines are included, surely The Spectator should feature on both lists.

And why draw a line between magazines and newspapers? Any martian arriving in Britain and asked to identify which organisations were doing most for conservative advocacy and to structure and provide a forum for the conversation on the right would immediately note the role of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph (and The Guardian on the left). For some conservatives, this is an asset; for Cameron would-be progressives, perhaps a headache. But it can't be denied that it has an impact. (I would draw a distinction with other newspapers - for example, the Sunday Times - which provide a great deal of space for the groups identified here; but may well be doing so primarily from a media agenda of creating a stir, compared to the more explicit sense which the Mail and Telegraph have of their role as political agents).

I think it is plausible to claim that the conservative movement is more plural in 2009, having adapted to the age of the internet. But whether or not it can claim the strength (and coherence) of the New Right in the mid-1970s - best described in Richard Cockett's book 'Thinking the Unthinkable' is another matter. And there is also be an interesting discussion about both how far and why that was missing by 1997. It would be a qualitative, not a quantitative, judgement.

I can't see that the claim which Elliott's slide and Montgomerie's post intends stands up even to an initial glance. So do take some gentle advice from the centre-left: if you've got a good story to tell, beware of over-spinning it!

And as for the Taxpayers Alliance, why not stay "Out" and proud, and we can all take you on on the arguments?

1 comment:

Matthew Sinclair said...

We've posted a response here:

Matt Sinclair