In the first of a new regular feature examining the motives behind notable organisations in politics, we take a look at the Tax Payer Alliance – a particularly useful example of mis-prescribed motive.
Who they say they are: The Taxpayer’s Alliance (TPA) claims to be a “grassroots campaign for lower taxes, government transparency, and an end to wasteful government spending”.
Who others say they are: The Guardian reported in November 2018 that far from “grassroots”, the UK-focused body received hundreds of thousands in donations from the USA, including $100,000 from a billionaire-founded religious trust in the Bahamas pushing a different agenda entirely.
Does this matter?
Political organisations being infiltrated, run, or captured by those serving foreign interests (personal or national) can threaten the successful functioning of a democracy. So clearly there are some concerns when it happens.
Those concerns even saw TPA spokespeople rejected for major current affairs shows like BBC Question Time, but secrecy is not proof of misdeed, or ulterior motive.
So who is right?
As always, one can discern motives – at least in part – by messaging.
Many stories pursued by the TPA reflect a sort of “small-time campaign” feel in decrying public spending. It publicly criticises (or amplifies the criticisms of others), a wide range of things like wages in the public sector, and odd sounding spending initiatives like a £5,000 information campaign in Newcastle, or a Christmas lights switch on in Chesterfield.
The TPA does not do a lot on detail on the subjects it picks. For example, in criticising expenditure on public health efforts, it does not deep dive into the subject. So it offers little real insight into whether the outcomes of that public money represent taxpayer value – perhaps by reducing long term cost to the NHS.
That does not equate, however, to a cause to disbelieve its motives. It is a campaign that wants something, not an expert body providing real insight. Most campaigns care passionately about a thing but lack the ability to do comprehensive analysis.
Two big recent news stories offer greater cause to question motivation.
Seaborne Freight is a classic case of questionable public sector practice. £14million was allocated by government with almost no transparency or competitive testing. This was done as part of Brexit preparations and is intended to generate outcomes quickly (before April).
The money was allocated to a company promising to run ferries from Ramsgate to Ostend. The company has no ferries, has not been able to get Ostend to sign a contract, and is dependent on major engineering works to revive Ramsgate Port rather unrealistically for April 2019.
This is a story tailor-made for a “grassroots campaign for lower taxes, government transparency, and an end to wasteful government spending”.
Yet the TPA said nothing. Then came another story.
Rail fare rises happen at the start of every year. This story is not about tax. Sure, commuters pay tax, but so does everyone. Most people don’t consider (for example) the price of away tickets for Premier League football matches to be a tax issue, nor the price of mobile phones.
This was also not a story about lack of government transparency. The limit on fare rises is set very openly and transparently well ahead of time. We might not like higher ticket prices, but we know how they are decided and when.
Finally, one could plausibly argue that this story reflects waste in government perhaps, if the franchise system for the railways is seen as inefficient and opaque. But that might be a stretch.
Unlike the Seaborne story, However, the TPA did comment very publicly on this subject. But it just repeated the government line and blamed not taxes, not government waste, and not a lack of transparency – but trade unions.
Regardless of where the money comes from, it does seem that criticism of its motives are fair. The stories it does and does not comment on clearly reflect motives more aligned to serving a Conservative government than to improve and reduce public spending.