Shortly after the MPs’ expenses storm broke last spring, the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson leaked a memo that gave a revealing insight into how Conservatives hoped to ‘ride the wave of anti-politics’. The memo, written for the powerful Portland PR agency by its campaign unit director, James Frayne, referred to Frayne’s earlier work with the successful North East Says No campaign against a regional assembly in 2004.
‘The campaign was completely defined by anti-politician sentiment, using the slogan “politicians talk, we pay”,’ wrote Frayne. ‘Not unreasonably, some Tories argued that lessons from the north east were not transferable to party politics.
‘But this ignores two things. Firstly, the precedent set by Reagan and the Republican Party over the 1980s and 1990s – where low-tax, small-state messages were explicitly linked to anti-politician messages … Secondly, it ignores the fact that … mistrust of politicians is one of the defining issues of the times – parties can either embrace it or be swallowed up by it.’
Tellingly, Frayne followed his role at North East Says No with a stint as campaign director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance – the group that perhaps understands his message better than any other. The TPA, which boasts an average of 13 media appearances a day and claims to be a ‘grassroots alliance’ of ‘ordinary taxpayers’, is in fact a group of right-wing ideologues whose mission is to ‘oppose all tax rises’ and cut public spending. Its academic advisory council includes Adam Smith Institute founders Eamonn Butler and Madsen Pirie, Thatcherite academics Patrick Minford and Kenneth Minogue, and right-wing economist Ruth Lea.
The most enthusiastic coverage comes from Tory tabloids such as the Daily Mail, with which the TPA has launched a ‘fighting fund’ to prosecute MPs who abused expenses. But it also gets considerable local media attention, as well as airtime from the BBC and other broadcasters. Even the right-wing Spectator complained last year: ‘It is so one-sided that one almost yearns for some opposition on the subject … The achievement of the Taxpayers’ Alliance is to make one word synonymous with tax: waste.’
Some critics accuse the TPA of being a Tory front, though it is more accurately described as part of the party’s ‘UKIP tendency’. Many of its advisors previously backed the anti-euro campaign, Business for Sterling, and in November the TPA sent out 5,000 free copies of its latest book, Ten Years On: Britain without the European Union. In seeking a Tory victory, the TPA also strives to push the party rightwards. In September it drew up, with the Institute of Directors, plans for an annual £50 billion of public spending cuts. As Patrick Wintour noted in the Guardian, the proposals were ‘welcomed by shadow ministers eager to have outriders creating a climate of respectability around big cuts’.
While the TPA’s lobbying for cuts – which includes abolishing Sure Start children’s centres – must be fought, its harnessing of ‘anti-politics’ requires a more considered response from the left. Some of its targets – including MPs’ expenses and the role of quangos – are legitimate and must not be allowed to become ‘right-wing’ issues. (Though they should be kept in perspective. As Vince Cable said: ‘The bankers can’t believe their luck. A couple of days after the first [expenses] revelations in the Daily Telegraph, the headline in the City’s free newspaper City AM was a shout of orgasmic release: “Now THEY can’t lecture US.”‘)
The position of the investigative journalist Heather Brooke, whose pioneering use of the Freedom of Information Act did so much to expose the expenses scandal, highlights the political ambiguity around this issue. Brooke’s book, Your Right to Know, is published by left-wing Pluto Press and promoted by Red Pepper – and yet campaigns jointly with the TPA. (Not all of her readers are happy about this – see http://bit.ly/oTwo9)
The Taxpayers’ Alliance’s concern with transparency deserts it when it comes to its own finances. The TPA’s last full accounts, for 2006, record an income of £130,000 – hardly enough to sustain its current 10 full-time staff and offices in London and Birmingham. Since then, it has published ‘abbreviated’ accounts, which means income and expenditure are withheld. Donors are kept secret.
One source of TPA funding has been the shadowy Midlands Industrial Council. The MIC was founded in 1946 as a pressure group to fight the Attlee government’s nationalisation plans and to champion free enterprise. It has donated around £3 million to the Conservative Party since 2001, much of it targeted at marginal parliamentary seats in the midlands. As an ‘unincorporated association’ it is allowed to keep its membership secret – allowing donors to get around the legal requirement on political parties to reveal their backers’ identities.
So why won’t the TPA open its books? As it recently told MPs who tried to prevent their expenses being published: ‘If you have nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear.’
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice.
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform