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?


Doing a bit of writing. Couldn’t remember whether tax payer was one word or two. Didn’t want to bother @danosirra. Googling gave mixed results. And it wasn’t in the ever-reliable Guardian Style guide.

So I dropped them a note:

From: p@ulclarke.com
To: style.guide@guardian.co.uk
Subject: Tax payer or taxpayer


would be a good one to add. I see wide variation, notably between BBC and Guardian

and there’s the TaxPayers’ [sic] Alliance…

Paul Clarke

…to which came the frankly epic reply:

From: style.guide@guardian.co.uk
To: p@ulclarke.com
Subject: Re: Tax payer or taxpayer


Thank you for your email.

Good suggestion. I will add them to the guide.

Our style is taxpayer (one word). As for the TaxPayers’ Alliance, I see they claim to be “non-partisan”, which is about as convincing as their spelling.

Best wishes,

Gotta love that. You can even show your love by buying their book.

Gadget envy

I shouldn’t rise to the Taxpayers’ Alliance. I really shouldn’t.

Ok, perhaps just this once.

We see outrage this week that a Council–a publicly-funded service commissioner and provider, mark you–has taken the desperate and profligate step of installing iPads into its bin lorries. You know, using technology to improve the way it does business, and communicates with its residents? Remember, like that Conservative Tech Manifesto said we should see more of?

How can it be, fulminate the TPA, and the local Conservative MP, that a toy, A TOY, is being used like this?

A pencil and paper would be better, surely, for recording information? Well, yes, if you are happy with delays and transcription errors. But it is possible, just possible, that cruder forms of non-digital recording have been tried and found wanting. Really.

I mean you could, possibly, conceivably, trust the people who’ve thought through better ways to improve their service. Who’ve had to justify every penny of expenditure to armies of auditors, scrutineers, members, and the general public. Who are making this investment decision in the face of dire cuts to other services, having to prioritise carefully. Because THAT IS THEIR JOB.

None of that thought appears. None. Because the iPad is a toy. We’ve seen similar things before, in the mindset with which mobile phones and broadband are considered.

We should sharpen our critical faculties here. If we’re going to moan about and amplify a story based just on the word “iPad” we need to be able to ask the more meaningful questions. How much will it save? Let’s see how those figures are derived. Let’s look at the old way of doing it–commission a hideous, unsupportable, proprietary bit of kit from an old-school hardware-cum-services vendor (which if you could ever unpick the morass of add-on charges would probably cost you north of £10k a unit for the hardware alone)–and see how it might just be more sensible to use a robust, usable commodity with little or no training overhead and a mature developer base.

I must be careful not to prejudge the business case, of course. It has to stack up by itself, not because some fanboy or blogger thinks one thing or another.

But I’d rather read the actual bloody document, than drivel like the reporting around it.