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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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