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.'