Friday, 2 July 2010

The Right-eousness of the 'Watchers'

This morning (2nd July 2010) I awoke to reports on the BBC news reporting on the high levels of remuneration for trade union bosses. Now in these times of public service cutbacks, attacks on public sector pensions, and the possibility of hundreds of thousands of former public sector workers filling a potential New, New Labour anti-Tory election billboard at the next General Election, my first thought was "yes indeed, you are paid far too much. Why don't you set an example and take the average wage?" Almost as a whispered aside, the report mentioned that an organisation labelled the Taxpayers Alliance was responsible for compiling the list and exposing the salaries of these professional bureaucrats. I thought a little digging into the background of this fiscally pious campaign group might be rewarding.

Who are the Taxpayers Alliance?

What was interesting about their website was its claim that the Alliance would "hold any government to account and represent taxpayers interests..." laudable sentiments indeed. Statements such as "...over the last decade, British taxpayers have been saddled with hikes in taxes on everything from driving to work to buying a new home..." would clearly have an appeal to many ordinary low-paid workers and those (un)fortunate enough to be home-owners. Yet the apparent concern with representing the interests of ordinary people stood at odds with the suggestion that "Public sector staff are now paid more (good), get better pensions (good) and work fewer hours (good) than people in the private sector. Public spending is simply far too high (hmmm) and there need to be cuts (bad)." For the TPA, the 'fiscal crisis' and 'huge structural deficit' is a result of huge levels of public spending, and high levels of public sector pay, not a result of pouring hundreds of billions of taxpayers pounds into the coffers of the banks. Now the alarm bells were peeling like VE Day had just been officially reannounced. A little bit of investigation was called for.

An independent grassroots campaign?

I've been involved with a few independent grassroots campaigns in the past, many of them numbering tens of thousands of members. I was keen to determine how independent this 'campaign' group was. According to their website, the Taxpayers Alliance:

"Under the leadership of Matthew Elliott, ...has grown from operating as a small group of volunteers meeting in various coffee shops around London, to being “arguably the most influential pressure group in the country” according to The Guardian. With 35,000 supporters and fifteen members of staff working from offices in London and Birmingham, it attracts an average of 700 high quality media hits every month and is a significant force in local government, Westminster and Brussels."

Given the levels of influence this organisation claimed it had, I wondered whom exactly the leading lights of the TPA might be. A quick search on Google and I perchanced upon an article by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian who writes:

"The three founders [are], Andrew Allum, a former Conservative councillor, Florence Heath, a geologist and former Young Conservative, and Matthew Elliott, co-founder and former Tory researcher..." (The Guardian, 17 March 2008)

It was quite apparent that co-founder Matthew Elliot wasn't as 'independent' as he claimed:

"In no way are we a Tory Party front group. We attack both parties. We don't actually think any political party in the UK is now representing those people who actually want to see lower taxes and less government spending."

If it looks like a Tory, talks like a Tory, it is a Tory

Elliot is currently a member of the advisory board of the Young Britons Foundation a right-wing organisation described by the former leader of Conservative Future Donal Blaney as "a Conservative madrasa". What is also clear is that the membership and supporters of the YBF read 
like a cast of characters from previous and current Tory administrations. More sinisterly, the YBF also declared its intent to lay bare "left-wing bias" in British universities. Blaney trumpets the overseas trips to the Blue Ridge Arsenal, Virginia in 2008 where YBF and young Conservatives were given firearms training. This begs the question why British security services haven't interviewed Mr Blaney and his gun-toting fledgling Tories. Young British Muslims have been detained at her majesty's pleasure for less. The YBF also has substantial links with US neo-conservative groups and other right-wing organisations.

The Manifesto of the Taxpayers Alliance also closely resembles much of the policy promoted by the Tories, that I wondered if members of the TPA had been intimately involved in shaping Conservative Party policy?

The subjugation of investigative reporting by the right

There is no denying that this group have become influential in opinion forming within the press and media. If you like me have wondered why these media organisations seem to be singing from the same hymn-sheet, the TPA have quite deftly taken advantage of the large-scale 'rationalisations' imposed by major newspaper publishers over the last few years in order to try and reverse the decline in their overall profitability. With less journalists employed in the industry, those remaining are forced to increase their productivity. Consequently there is little time for in-depth investigative journalism. The TPA thus prides itself on its ability to provide over-worked and deadline watching journalists with ready-made bite-size press releases with attendant eye-catching headlines. Elliot comments that:

"The impression I get is that what the media like now is to have spokesmen representing groups in society and we have filled a niche in terms of speaking on behalf of tax payers in a credible and professional way."(B Wheeler, BBC News online)

Few of the organisations I've been involved in can claim to represent around 50% of the British population (30 million taxpayers). Even fewer can boast such significant levels of direct influence over the media and political parties, especially those currently in power. That such prominent press and news organisations allow themselves to be used in such a manner by the Conservative Party's proxies is quite shameful.

What's their beef with the trade union leaders?

The question of exactly why the trade unions have come under the scrutiny of the Taxpayers Alliance centres on monies paid to trade unions from the Union Modernisation Fund, funded from government grants from the coffers of the taxman. However, what the TPA have not made public is an arm of their organisation called the Politics and Economics Research Trust. According to a report in Slashnews, the trust came in for criticism recently as it was claimed it could benefit from tax subsidies of up to 40% from the donations of individuals:

"A leading tax accountant said it was extraordinary that the alliance appeared to be benefitting from charitable tax relief."Donors are typically saving tax on their contributions and so the government is chipping in between 20% and 40% to help the Taxpayers' Alliance with its work," said Mike Warburton, a tax specialist at Grant Thornton. "Your readers may be surprised that an organisation which argues for lower taxes and lower public spending is asking the government to do that for its research arm", said Mike Warburton, a tax specialist at Grant Thornton.(, Dec 21 2009)

There is certainly an element of hypocrisy at play here. What a pity the papers and media chose to ignore this. However, given the increasing numbers of important strikes in the UK such as the recent London Tube workers strike and those of British Airways cabin crews, one cannot help but think that the old game of 'divide and rule' is at work. This should be seen for what it is, part of the wider softening-up process by the Con-Dem coalition government in order to prepare us for a raft of savage and deep cuts across the public sector? One also wonders why the Taxpayers Alliance make no mention of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ending our (taxpayer-funded) reliance on nuclear energy or the scrapping of the proposed new generation Trident missile program, all extremely draining to the public purse.

Try the alternative

What is clear is that the Taxpayers Alliance is little more than an alliance of conservatives (with and without the big C), right-wing think-tanks and a motley crew of incredibly wealthy industrialists such as the secretive Midlands Industrial Council, a powerful an extremely wealthy organisation which donates huge sums of money to the Conservative Party. With backing such as this, it is clear that the TPA exists true to their ambitions in lowering the burden of taxation for the wealthy, and in order to do this they are happy to provide the media with the axes they need to help dismantle the public sector, promote privatisation and make Britain a better place for capitalism to do business in. All this of course at our expense.

A real Taxpayers Alliance

However, holding governments to account for where they spend our taxes is important. Clearly an organisation comprised of supporters of this current government is never going to hold them to account. Yet there are real campaigning groups who are serious about reducing the huge salaries and bonuses paid in the private sector to CEOs and others. Therefore I would encourage anyone who's interested to visit these alternative websites if they wish to involve themselves in a real taxpayers alliance called The Other Taxpayers Alliance. Alternatively try the Tax Justice Network.

A rum cove

One final example of the blatant hypocrisy of the leading lights of the TPA, Alexander Heath, a director of the organisation, has found a novel way of lowering his tax bill to zero. He resides in France.

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