The problem with the TaxPayers’ Alliance

Or let me be more specific: my problem with the TPA. (Also applies to the Tea Parties of this world, and other proponents of what we might term small-state, individual-freedom libertarianism.)

It’s this.

At the very highest level of political/economic reasoning, it’s not that barking, really.

They believe the state should be small. That it should only do what a collectively-organised, representative and publicly-funded state should absolutely have to do. That it should be held to account, and kept out of the way as far as possible of a healthy, free-functioning market. Even when that market may do somewhat unwholesome things. The freedom to choose our degree of wholesomeness is critical.

It’s a reasonable argument. I happen to think it’s flawed in any form of implementation, but so are lots of other ideologies. Doesn’t mean you can’t argue downwards from the concept, provided you keep an honest anchor in your base principles.

No, my problem with the TPA is the way they go about this arguing.

It’s difficult to engage public sentiment about nebulous concepts like the -cracies. And it’s really hard to have a meaningful debate about the problems found in large, complex systems.

So instead they focus on scare stories – on shameful, but usually rare, negative outcomes. On “non-jobs”, bad technology, poor management. Invariably in the public sector.

They will rush to find and publicise “the thing that sounds so awful that you could hardly believe it to be true”. Often because it isn’t true. Or is stretched and exaggerated beyond all recognition. As a technique, it is lazy beyond belief; calculating, demeaning and wholly dishonest.

The TPA’s true talent lies in finding themes that will grab a mass public imagination, and then plague it.

The complicated reality of organisations? What you really have to do to administer any enterprise involving hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people-based transactions (whatever sector you’re in!) – management challenges as old as organisations themselves?

No, way too challenging for them.

Arguments about the misuse of public money are made using attempted parallels with the world of the household, with the micro-business, with the near-to-home. An iPad? It’s an entertainment system. It should never be bought with public money! Happiness surveys? Pah – no need for them round kitchen tables in the real world – just talk to each other. Or better still, just lump it. (Seriously, I could use a thousand more words finding egregious examples of this style. But you have Google.)

There are some rare examples of good work – particularly around issues of privacy and the implications of new technologies for the relationship between citizen and state. That’s what I find so baffling – these attempts to engage on strong points of principle are utterly undermined by this succession of cheap jibes tailored for the smaller-format newspapers.

(What they don’t focus on very much, ironically, is tax paying. But that’s a side point for this post.)

And if you still find temptation in your path – if you hear that little voice of the Daily Mail leader-writer in your ear (he visits us all, in dark times) whispering “just cut X or Y, or crack down hard on Z, you KNOW it makes sense,” bear this in mind:

Most shades of political thought have been tried. Human ingenuity and systemic inertia generally mean that things mooch on pretty much as they always have been, despite the rocks that various “leaders” might try to lob in from time to time. So if you’re wavering between left and right, and seeing points of recognition in both camps (and you should – to do otherwise would be a worrying sign of lazy thinking), how about putting your shoulder behind the one that doesn’t, every time and very rapidly, lead to policies which are about being vile to people?

Is that simple enough?


Great word, isn’t it? And so many of them around, too. I mean, we all know one or two ourselves, don’t we? Don’t we?

So, where to start with all this stuff…Mr Byrne and Mr Miliband seem but the latest to come out swinging at all these parasites.

Problem is, like almost everyone else, the rhetoric and the thinking are all pointing the wrong way.

To see it another way, think of a few different…lines.

Imagine a line of people with the most ardent hardliner on “scrounger culture” at one end of it. He (just a wild guess, but it’s probably a he) will maintain that if you can’t support yourself, and have no family or handy charity who’ll help you out, then you shouldn’t exist. Harsh, but life is harsh…etc. etc. Under no circumstance should the state try to do so, given it will be funded by compulsory subscription from everyone else. It’s not their problem, is it?

At the other end of the same line is the biggest bleeding heart do-gooder you could possible think of. Great at writing cheques on other people’s bank accounts, especially if their money is channelled by a faceless intermediary in the shape of a paternalistic state. Who cares about a few “false positives” in terms of the needy being supported? Better that ten doubtful cases are helped than that one genuine person starves.

These are caricatures, of course. But we’re all on that line somewhere. Even if we’re not exactly sure where. Or change position over time, or according to the individual case we’re looking at. We’re all on it. The line of the judgers.

Imagine a second line, the line of the judged. This one has the genuine case at one end, and the complete liar at the other. We know the two extremes when we see them, of course. Because they’re extremes. And many of us think, from a distance, that we have a pretty good idea of where on the line we can draw that “magic” point: to one side, you’re deserving, to the other, you’re a scrounger.

A few problems creep in immediately: where you draw it can be based as much upon where you stand on the line of the judgers as where they stand on the line of the judged. And can you be a judger and judged at the same time? (Erm, yes.) Are you really judging circumstance, or character? Plight, or background? (I still wince when I remember that phrase from the old advertisements: “distressed gentlefolk”…)

But the real problem is that these lines aren’t lines in any geometric sense. The nice purity of division and classification falls apart like a cheap suit under any sort of scrutiny.

Think of the coastline. Yes, another line. Isn’t it? It’s obvious where it lies. One side land, the other sea. Now look more closely. Still sure about that? Still confident that you can draw, with perfect accuracy, a boundary between the two? One that doesn’t shift faster than you can study it? One in which every crevice, nook, cell and grain can be defined as being on one side or the other?

Of course you can’t. The coastline is a great theory, but a poor reality. It only exists at a distance, rather like our dividing line of the deserving from the undeserving.

No, like the coastline, both the judgers and the judged are fractals: the closer you look, the more complexity you see. And it seems to me that the national debate here totally overlooks what’s really at issue: these questions of judgement. It’s just infantile to keep on throwing around vague concepts like “a horde of scroungers”–because we find, time and time again, that when you look at the individual cases there are no easy judgements–if indeed you can be confident of a sound judgement at all.

Nobody at all, really, wants to reward the feckless. Or cause the needy to suffer, given that overall, we have resources to help them.

What we all want, surely, is accurate judgement.

And at this point, a problem creeps in. Our line of judgers is not symmetrical in its appetite for the dispensation of “fair” judgement. At its right-hand extreme, this looks like a further grotesque waste of resources, as only the state (or its agents) is really in a position to assess. And any effort by the state is itself a needless drain on everyone as a whole (they’d say). Whilst the inhabitants of the left-hand end would be happier to put more resource into fair assessment, and if savings had to be made, trimming the thresholds of entitlement. Not symmetrical.

So we see funny little tunes being played: we delegate assessment to the ATOSes of this world–close enough to the state to do the dirty work, but far enough away to take the drop if it all goes horribly wrong. We see campaigns for “class action” to entitle a whole group without the need for individual scrutiny. We get caught between facile statements like “ministers believe as many as one in four people claiming sickness benefit will be judged to be fit to work” and safety nets like the human rights legislation that we’ve fought to secure. Debates, clashes, contradictions.

Reality. A reality which will not be helped by any politician claiming to be able to stand at a distance from a line of people and to know where their worthiness lies.

So. Of course we love certainty. We like stories with endings. Some would rather have a few hundred deaths from malnutrition than all this pansying about trying to get it “right”.

I’m not one of them. I want to see a commitment from my leaders, not to more macho statements of generalisation, but to funded, forensic, detailed judgement. To the effective and sensible use of technology (in the right places) in supporting that judgement. To a separation of the person from the situation. To a more considered balance between individual rights and responsibilities. To an acknowledgement of the power of culture to make an impact here.

We don’t need any more of this “scrounger” crap. It’s divisive, demonising, and it gets us absolutely nowhere. And even worse than that, it distracts attention from any real effort on reviewing how we make these vital judgements.

Coming out

Nobody tells me how to think.

That’s important. A core value.

Influence me, by all means. Educate me as much as you can. Push me to see something from a different angle. Lend me your shoes and let me walk a few miles in them.

But don’t try and control me.

And that, in a nutshell, is a big problem I’ve had with organised politics. I wrote a smuggish piece last year about why I was oh-so-special–why I remained above and outside any formal political machinery–because…well, because of what, really? (I didn’t even post it on this blog, such was my trepidation about the subject.)

Maybe it has some parallels with religion. Having an (intermittent) sense of faith is one thing. Becoming a card-carrying, incense-swinging, habit-wearing adherent is quite another. Boundaries spring up. Positions are taken. There’s only so far you can go before those boundaries are hit.

In short, I wasn’t sure there was a church broad enough to fit me in. And I didn’t know how to react if I didn’t like parts of the sermon.

I had some interesting feedback from braver, political friends about that post. Was I really being honest about my reasons? Was I actually evading responsibility? Actively shunning ways in which I might make some difference? Thinking that politics was something that other people got involved in…what sort of stance was that?

And then I took a hard look at some of my own writing and thinking. How I would robustly challenge any cherry-picking of a particular bit of policy that wasn’t seen in its wider context… And I’m the one that’s been banging on about things being interconnected, and needing to be tackled as wholes, not parts.

And I looked around me. I realised that the party system, whether at local or national level, does a job. Not perfectly, of course (and I still don’t fully understand its relevance at local authority level, but that’s another post).

Nevertheless, it’s a huge part of how we make these things called society, and government, work. Whatever imperfections it may have, it’s there, and I wasn’t engaging with it.

So: a choice.

To stay on the sidelines hoping to shape things a little through acerbic blogposts and a few pointed questions in think-tank debates? Well, ok. But is that enough? I’m not sure.

Or, my other option: to give it a go, and pull my wagon up to the campfire.

And I looked a little harder at the current state of our democracy, and the way we’ve allowed politics to depart from the things I hold very dear: rationality, honesty, liberality, inclusion.

And putting all that together, I made my choice.

Some fears, of course: that I’ll lose friends, that I’ll lose respect, that I’ll lose work (I’ve traded on political neutrality to some extent, in my work on public information projects, and in the access that I get as a photographer). My decision may not be without some disadvantages.

And that dodgy sermon thing? What do you do when your friends are dicks? One of the perpetual dilemmas I’ve found in a networked world is the issue of tribalism. When a friend screws up, perhaps even conflicting with another friend, how do you react? How do you maintain your own integrity when the actions of others inevitably challenge it?

I may not accept, or even understand, a party line on everything. That’s a reality. The easy crutch that party membership presents–of having someone else’s opinion available, on a matter I haven’t properly researched for myself–is problematic.

However, I propose to put my energies into the things I really do know a bit about. The relationship between technology and society. What liberty will come to mean in a networked world. Access to democracy. Fairness. And a few more. There’s enough there to chew on without me feeling I have to take on the whole lot all at once.

So, what was my choice of party?

Easy, really. What all my experience and thinking leads to, time and time again, is the importance of the societal consequences of everything we do and permit.

Society? I mean people, really. Real people. Not the privileged, the articulate, the ones that some choose to populate the little fictional worlds they create in their heads.

No, the full, gritty reality of what it’s really like. And there’s only one party that has a hope of doing that, as far as I can see.

So I joined the Labour Party.

It’s not perfect. There are some, but not many, areas on which I find the accepted line challenging. But I propose to bring my energies to respond to that challenge: to debating and understanding from inside the tent. To helping in the areas in which I can, and learning in the areas that I can’t yet.

(By complete coincidence, as I was finishing this post, a friend tweeted me this link. It raised a wry smile.)

So, I’m absolutely thrilled to be heading to my first party conference tomorrow. As a member, not just an observer.

Bring. It. On.

Those bonfires in full

1995 Bonfire of red tape

2006 Bonfire of government laws

2007 Bonfire of the bureaucrats

2007 Bonfire of regulations

2009 Bonfire of quangos

2010 Bonfire of cultural projects

2010 Bonfire of middle-class benefits

2010 Bonfire of policies

2010 Bonfire of Town Hall red tape

2010 Bonfire of the vanity websites

and a special mention for:
1947 Bonfire of controls

It would seem there’s a very definite increase in the number of bonfires raging this year…

Bonfire of the cliches