There are many good criticisms of the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA) but they are often not related to the fundamental raison d’etre of the organisation. It is possible, for example, to imagine a low tax campaign that isn’t opaque about its funding, doesn’t pretend to be a spontaneous grassroots uprising, avoids producing shallow, clickbait research and generally steers clear of sacking and smearing whistleblower employees. Such a TPA would be a much better organisation than the actually existing TPA but it would still be wrong.
It would be wrong because simply banging on about lowering taxes and public spending is precisely the worst way to go about protecting the taxpayer.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that the TPA imagines itself in a long lost England where the public sector had lots of money. This is not the world as it is today. Public services have endured almost a decade of unprecedented cuts. To believe that councils, for example, are still spending wildly after experiencing a 50% reduction in central government funding is a notion utterly divorced from reality.
In fact, the real threat to the taxpayer today is not public sector profligacy but rising demand. Every part of the public sector is struggling to meet this challenge. It is particularly notable in health and social care where the rising age profile of the population and growing ‘lifestyle’ conditions such as obesity are projected to mean that the NHS budget will swallow up around 40% of all public spending within the next five years compared to around 30% in 2010. It’s a crisis now explicitly recognised by the Government.
Unfortunately, the TPA’s simple-minded programme will only make the situation worse. More cuts in spending will lead to already struggling parts of the public sector further withdrawing support from those in need of care. The result will be those individuals being endlessly referred to other parts of the system while they develop increasingly complex, multiple and expensive problems. We are already seeing massive rises in referrals to children’s services and non-GP referrals to hospital are now growing on average by 4.8% every year. The abiding lesson of the last decade is that cuts do not reduce demand, they simply shift it elsewhere or merely delay the need for a response.
Unless political parties and the British public are willing to accept widespread rationing or charging in our public services to reduce demand (hint: they are not), then there is only one sustainable way left to resolve the problem: to completely transform the way services are delivered.
In The Community Paradigm we outlined what such a transformation would look like. It requires individuals and their communities taking on more responsibility for their own health and well-being by being handed power and resource usually held by public services themselves. But for this to work a more collaborative mindset needs to be adopted both in public services and within communities.
The TPA’s approach is a very real blockage to such a shift in two ways. Firstly, by starving services of money, those services inevitably end up using resource to meet rising immediate demand rather than investing in a future shift to new ways of working with communities. Secondly, by aggressively promoting a very transactional view of public services which positions the citizen as customer and the service as producer, they prevent the development of that more collaborative mindset that will reduce demand and protect the taxpayer in the long run.
The bizarre outcome is that a supposed alliance of taxpayers is actually increasing the likelihood that taxes will rise significantly.
What is required now is not a taxpayers’ alliance but something like a citizens’ alliance that promotes active communities willing to take the initiative to address the challenges they face in collaboration with public services. Indeed, organisations inspired by this spirit have already emerged in recent years in the form of groups such as Power to Change, the Local Trust and Stir to Action. Ultimately, it is bodies like these that are the genuine defenders of the taxpayer.
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