Players: Taxpayers’ Alliance
If one group had to be selected as the standard bearer for the approach taken by the New Conservatives, it would have to be the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance. The TPA has set the template for all the others to follow, and in doing so has made the New Conservatism more populist and media-friendly, but it has also cheapened the debate and introduced a significant note of flagrant dishonesty.
The TPA was founded by one Matthew Elliott, along with his wife Florence Heath, and Andrew Allum, more than a decade ago. Elliott has claimed that the Conservative Party had somehow ceased to campaign vigorously for tax cuts, and so the TPA had a niche into which it could project its ideas.
This is not wholly true: what interests the TPA is rather more straightforward than mere tax cutting, and although it claims to pursue better taxpayer value for money, its real purpose is to attack and thereby weaken Government - any Government - as a means of reducing the size of the state.
This is in accordance with the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman: the state has to be painted as reducing freedom of choice, whether it be providing local transport, emptying the bins, organising healthcare and education, or merely providing a regulatory function, as in planning and development.
Public sector projects are anathema to the TPA: while road building is grudgingly accepted, as the market is in most cases reluctant to provide what their ideological stance suggests it should, the likes of Crossrail and HS2 are not. That the market could not, and would not, undertake such works is not allowed to enter.
Regulation must be queried: all decisions have to be picked over and fault found. Where there is state provision of any service, the TPA is there to look for ways in which it can claim this is wasteful. As I’ll show later, the TPA attack on regulation extends to the dishonest suggestion that road safety measures increase the incidence of deaths and injuries.
The TPA has devotees and donors who share its outlook: otherwise, it would be challenging to meet the office accommodation and salary bill, which has been estimated at around £1 million annually. Those who donate are not revealed: some have volunteered that information. All are, shall we say, comfortably off, and arguably looking to remain that way. For them, the issues are also taxation and alleged waste.
In all of these issues, the TPA operates as a “campaigning” organisation, claiming that it enjoys “grassroots” support. This, too, is not wholly true: it enjoys the positive advocacy of less than a tenth of one per cent of the UK’s taxpayers. When the TPA attempted to counter the TUC’s March For The Alternative with its own Rally Against Debt in May 2011, the true level of its support was laid bare for all to see.
The TUC march garnered around half a million supporters, while the TPA’s event was attended by no more than 350, including speakers, journalists, and photographers. It was simultaneously a damp squib and farcical own goal. In reality, the TPA’s supporters are not its primary focus. That is projected via the media, and in particular the print media.
Why the press has been targeted is straightforward: the idea that Government is wasteful, inefficient and even inept is one to which many editors and owners are highly susceptible. The UK’s best-selling papers - the Murdoch Sun, and Associated Newspapers’ Daily Mail - are inherently highly conservative.
The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, arguably the single most influential newspaper editor in the UK, was paid a colossal £2.4 million, including bonuses, last year. He and many of his staff do not use the NHS when they can avoid it; they go private. Dacre famously sent both his sons to Eton. His paper regularly passes seriously adverse comment on the state of the country’s education and healthcare systems. He is an ideal target for TPA propaganda.
Moreover, the Mail and many other newspapers have had, over the recent past, to generate the same amount of copy with less and less in the way of resources. Enter the TPA to give hard-pressed journalists ready-made stories, as Elliott was happy to admit.
“What we've tried to do since 2004 is understand how the media works, so we've tried to give news stories to journalists on a plate. Journalists have 101 things to do in their day and don't often have time to read long and dry reports from think-thanks. So we use the Freedom of Information Act and a team of researchers to get fresh figures from government and local councils, which we package up into brief, media-friendly research papers, complete with eye-catching headline figures to give reporters a ready-made top line”. This is then backed up with broadcast media appearances.
There is a TPA talking head available to give statements and push soundbites at any hour of the day. Someone is always there to go before the cameras and expound the agreed line. The TPA has understood better than most the needs and demands of not only the press, but especially the incessant 24-hour news media, whether the story is played out on traditional platforms, or via social media.
That the TPA is a highly conservative organisation is, despite the denials, clearly evident. Nor does Elliott, or any other TPA spokesman, manage to dispel the thought that this is a group that, even if it is not linked to the Tory Party, is sympathetic to it, and is trying to drag that party further to the right.
The TPA has even co-sponsored at least one event held under the Tory Party banner. This was the Windsor Conservative Renewal Conference held in 2012, which the local party has removed from its website. Archive copies still exist, however.
This combination of media coverage and direct political involvement - the TPA has also seen its former staff go through the revolving door into Government service - has given Elliott and his team influence, a seat at the Tories’ top table.
What I’ll show next is that the TPA is adept at deploying falsehood and misinformation in pursuit of that influence - and how its policy proposals would shrink Government significantly.