The TaxPayers’ Alliance isn’t soft on the Tories

We have praised and criticised all the major parties, and we will keep doing so.

The below piece is a response to Christopher Montgomery's post "The tame TaxPayers' Alliance".

Christopher Montgomery's article was very frustrating for two reasons. It was yet another example of "why don't the TaxPayers' Alliance talk about . . ." As if there is some great lesson to be drawn from our silence on the writer's particular passion.

People on Twitter have complained we were ignoring the hike in VAT hitting poor families. They clearly weren't paying much attention, as that is an issue we've campaigned on extensively with videos, reports and even paid ads. John Prescott complained we were ignoring the children of civil servants going to expensive private schools at taxpayers' expense, but it was one we had commented on years earlier. We were even castigated for not making the financial case for Spurs getting the Olympics Stadium once the Games are done.

There is a sinister reason for that last one, actually. Our research director is a Spurs fan and wasn't thrilled at the idea of us campaigning for the club to leave north London. Joking aside, we are a small team and we can't look at every issue. I don't say that to whine; anyone who is able to work full-time at persuading people and promoting political causes they care about should count themselves lucky. But with all the work we do, I'm sure there is something for everyone to disagree with. Criticising us for what we don't do sets an impossible standard.

Yet the specific case Christopher focuses on isn't where I would focus our work even if we did have four more researchers. The idea of the neutral, disinterested civil servant doesn't seem credible enough to be worth trying to enforce by chasing down those who don't fit the bill.

Some appointments have clearly crossed the line into taxpayer-funded politics, like Cameron's photographer. They do need to be called on it when that happens. In other cases, the answer isn't to hunt down civil servants with opinions, but to move towards a system more like that in the United States, where those views are acknowledged but appointments to senior positions receive proper legislative scrutiny.

It is hard to imagine the FoIs that Christopher hopes we've submitted. "Please provide a list of all appointments of staff who have, in the past, expressed political views." We just have to respond to individual cases when they are brought to our attention, when they cross the line.

The other really annoying thing about the article was the old complaint that we are somehow treating the Conservatives with kid gloves. That we are "tame". That is hard to square with our attacking them on VAT; the third runway at Heathrow; high-speed rail; complicated tax fiddles designed to encourage employment; Local Enterprise Partnerships; matching Labour spending plans; increasing contributions to the EU; hiking international development spending; and in innumerable cases at the local government level. Yesterday, I laid into Phillip Hammond for the egregious way he has conducted the debate over HS2.

At times, it is absolutely mystifying why we are left to attack the government over things like their plans to spend £17bn on a new railway line which, as well as having a whole range of other problems, is justified on the grounds that average passenger income will be £70,000. Why isn't everyone reading this website outraged at a proposal for a hideously expensive train set for the rich, at a time when there is huge pressure on the finances of ordinary families?

We have praised and criticised all the major parties, and we will keep doing so. We haven't been domesticated yet.

Matthew Sinclair is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Matthew is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance

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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.