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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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