Could this be the birth of a British Tea Party?

Taxpayers’ Alliance seizes on uncertainty in the coalition to press for a grass-roots right-wing mov

The scenes from Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honour" rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC were astonishing. An estimated 87,500 conservative activists gathered in the US capital for a "non-partisan" rally that Beck said was intended to "reclaim the civil rights movement", falling on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech", made from the same spot.

The Tea Party movement is a phenomenal example of grass-roots activism of a kind that just doesn't exist in the UK. But this could be about to change, as it is revealed that the UK low-tax pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) has been taking advice from FreedomWorks, a Washington-based organisation which says it "recruits, educates, trains and mobilises millions of volunteer activists to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom".

Members of both groups attended a conference in London yesterday to transmit the strategy required to build an "insurgent campaign" of UK low-tax lobbyists. Precisely how the Tea Party model might translate to the British political system has not been made clear, but the link forged between the two organisations has received some limited coverage in the national papers.

According to the Telegraph, the TPA has experienced a near-70 per cent rise in its membership over the past year. Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TPA, told the Guardian that the anger at the recent HMRC errors that led to more than a million UK taxpayers being sent demands for backdated tax payments presents a unique opportunity for his organisation. He declared:

You could say our time has come. Take the strikes on the London Underground this week and how much they annoyed and inconvenienced people. Couldn't we get 1,000 people to protest [against] that?

A protest by 1,000 does not make a movement. But the Tea Party has grown from such demonstrations to fielding its own anti-incumbent candidates in the US midterm primaries, at least proving that such a rapid rise is possible, even if the environment in which it happened bears little similarity to that of the UK.

The TPA, however, is not a comparable organisation. In existence since 2004, it lacks the novelty and sheer momentum that have characterised the rise of the Tea Party in the US. A "British Tea Party" was launched by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan in February, but little seems to have come of it.

For the TPA, being seen to be seeking advice from the media phenomenon that is the Tea Party is very possibly more valuable than the advice itself. However, a significant increase in grass-roots activism in the UK over the coming months is not at all out of the question. With the "big society" near the top of the government's agenda, the political discourse is very much leaning towards a return to localism and community-focused policy.

This is true of Labour, too -- the party's leadership campaign has been conducted in similar terms, the candidates repeatedly referring to their ability to "build a movement" and return control to the grass roots of the party. The clear front-runners, David and Ed Miliband, are no exception; both have referred to themselves as the preferred candidate of the party's grass roots.

With Britain facing an unfamiliar and unpredictable style of government, this could indeed be the high-water mark for groups such as the TPA. As well as left-leaning Liberal Democrats beginning to rebel, we have already begun to see more vocal dissent from the right of the Tory party, especially as issues such as the referendum on AV move up the agenda.

And as the TPA chief executive, Matthew Elliott, is also leading the "No to AV" campaign, his organisation is certainly going to be well placed to exploit growing unease on the right.

It seems more plausible than ever that if the TPA can add a swell of right-leaning popular support, the AV referendum and the local elections, both scheduled for May, could be the crucial turning point for this government.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.