Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

PR for the rich

The 'Taxpayers' Alliance' has become a ubiquitous commentator on tax and government spending. Clifford Singer finds out who they really are

December 3, 2009
5 min read

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.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power