The news that Matthew Elliott, the chief exec of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is to head the “No” campaign in the AV referendum has been greeted with glee by Tory bloggers who have heaped praise and superlatives on his campaigning skills. For those on the left, who are considering joining the anti-reform faction, it’s perhaps worth pausing to consider whose interests they would be aligning themselves with.
Elliott claims that his wish to see “accountability” and “transparency” in politics is what motivates both his work with the TPA and his opposition to the Alternative Vote. But his prominent campaign group falls short of purity on both principles.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance styles itself as an “independent grassroots campaign” which speaks on behalf of “ordinary taxpayers”. But it is hard not to feel that it functions as a front for a core set of Tory policies and that its rhetoric about “waste” and the need for “efficiency” and “transparency” in the public sector masks its ideological crusade to slash the size of the state. Certainly, there is waste, for example in the use of consultants. There is a need for efficiency, for example in chasing tax evasion that loses billions. We do need more transparency, for example MPs should always declare who their other employers are when they address parliament. New Labour was indeed culpable in all these respects.
But far from representing the interests of the majority of taxpayers, as their rhetoric claims, in attacking these issues (for example by campaigning to ensure the wealthy and corporations pay their obligations) the Taxpayers Alliance is far more of an alliance of the rich individuals and corporate backers who fund it - people like Sir Anthony Bamford, the JCB tycoon, whose family and company have donated more than £1m to the Conservatives and Stuart Wheeler, who gave £5 million to the Conservatives before switching allegiance to UKIP.
The TPA strongly deny being a front, of course, since the pretence that they are impartial commentators is crucial in affording them their success in influencing public debate through the media. When you examine the links between the two, however, their denials would seem difficult to sustain. All three founders of the TPA have links to the Tories - Elliott was a researcher for the party when he set the group up in 2004, Andrew Allum is a former Conservative counsellor and Florence Heath was once in the Young Conservatives. The board includes Mike Denham, a Treasury economist under Thatcher, but not one person who might be described as a “typical” taxpayer. Senior Tories, such as Liam Fox and Eric Pickles, regularly speak at the group’s events and the TPA boasts of its influence over the Conservative Party’s policy (on display, for example, in Osborne’s public sector pay freeze). When challenged that that they were “secret” Tories on Five Live, TPA’s Campaigns Manager, Susie Squire said it was “absolutely outrageous”. Squire is now a special adviser to Iain Duncan Smith.
Whilst the TPA are relentless in their demands for “transparency” in the public sector, they are less than totally up front about their own funding (some of it is known to come from non-UK taxpayers) and are currently under investigation by the Charity Commission after the Guardian revealed that they may have claimed tax relief on donations for political research.
Why does this matter to the politics of the referendum campaign?
It matters because with the campaign yet to begin, the “No” side already looks like a campaign on behalf of the powerful interests who benefit from the status quo.
Elliott looks forward to a coalition of “Unionists, Conservatives and senior Labour Parliamentarians” coming together to defend first past the post and, naturally, it’s possible for alliances to reach across the normal divides, especially on constitutional issues. But one would hope that this appointment, and what it signals about the No campaign, would at least give people on the left, as well as the intelligent and fair-minded right, pause for thought.
With their valuable connections, Elliott and his team will no doubt have little trouble raising the £5 million allowed to them under Electoral Commission rules. There will, I’m sure, be plenty of City financiers, hedge fund managers, and wealthy businessmen keen to keep things just the way they are. Because, when Elliott says that first past the post “has served us so well for decades”, we can be fairly sure that the “us” is not “us”, the voters, millions of whom have our votes wasted each year, but the political and economic elites who do perfectly well under the current system thank you very much and have no wish to see the boat rocked. This isn’t to say AV would be transformative - it is only a small improvement to what we have already. But it would still help enhance the quality of democracy, weaken the grip of entrenched political interests, and potentially create momentum towards more radical reform - and that is why elites who profit from the current setup want to prevent it at all costs.
Despite so obviously being the voice of the status quo, as predicted, the No campaign looks set to present itself as the insurgent anti-establishment option. Mark Wallace, a former colleague at the TPA, predicts that Elliott will be “painting the proposed changes as a self-indulgent and self-interested frippery by politicians that will come at the expense of the people” whilst Mark Littlewood, on Liberal Vision, agrees that the No campaign will frame itself “as the anti-establishment, anti-politician option.”
This strategy worked successfully in the north east thanks to a campaign masterminded by another former TPA-er rumoured to be joining the No campaign, James Frayne. Frayne described the north east campaign as “run by and fronted by small-c conservatives in the Government’s own backyard” with “a brutal anti-politician message to deliver those rarest of victories - an upset landslide.” It will be much harder for the No-es to monopolise that territory this time round when it is not a question of creating a new tier of politicians but making the ones we do have more accountable.
Some have mentioned the 55,000 supporters the TPA has amassed since 2003 as evidence of the group’s influence and Elliott’s skills in grassroots organising. But whilst the organisation is successful in getting its soundbites into a media keen to hear their simplistic, state-bashing message (they were quoted 517 times in the Daily Mail last year, 317 times in the Sun and regularly feature on Newsnight and other BBC programmes), they would appear to have no authentically grassroots network of supporters. Despite their pretence of speaking on behalf of “ordinary taxpayers”, they appear to be little more than a centralised group of researchers and comms people who propagate the tax-cutting agenda of their wealthy backers.
As Richard Murphy, of the rival Tax Justice Network, put it "A new financial elite are seeking to capture the resources of society to promote their new form of wealth accumulation through financial services... The TPA is massively helpful to this. The tax system it promotes, claiming it has popular support, is regressive and will widen the poverty gap because it promotes tax reduction, flat tax, tax simplification, which always allows more scope for tax avoidance for the wealthy, and all in the name of ordinary people."
Despite this, which side the Labour party will take in the referendum is still unclear. The party opposes the referendum bill because it includes controversial boundary changes. This position is understandable, but it is being exploited by tribalists within the party, such as John Prescott, who want to go back on Labour’s manifesto commitment to AV in the opportunistic hope of giving a bloody nose to the Coalition. Typically, those who posture as the working man’s friend in ermine end up backing the worst kinds of big money. At times, leadership contenders Ed Balls and Andy Burnham sound prepared to join the sell-out, while David Miliband has said he will “cross that bridge” (or, we hope, not) when the time comes. The GMB union, meanwhile, has taken the extraordinary decision to spend thousands of pounds of their members’ money during a time of swingeing cuts, fighting to keep first past the post – motivated by a desire to keep the class-struggle as pure as possible. The Greens too are currently debating whether or not to back AV.
The team being put together to fight the Yes campaign may not be able to match the resources of its opponents but it is at least engaged in real grassroots organising, and draws on authentic popular support, rather than astro-turfing (Take Back Parliament, which launched in May, now has over 55,000 supporters and 20 local groups up and running around the country). In the coming days it will announce some high profile appointments - from what I understand there will be Labour and Lib Dem figures involved.
The decisions that are reached by parties and political leaders in the coming weeks may determine the fate of reform. If the arguments in favour of AV don’t convince those considering ditching the contribution First Past The Post makes to our broken system, then perhaps a moment of reflection on who they’d be climbing into bed with should they join the No camp, might make them decide they’d be sleeping with the enemy. Not just until May but for decades.
Read our Referendum Plus section for debate and analysis of the AV referendum.