In 2009, the TaxPayers’ Alliance revealed that the government (both national and local) was handing out over £37 million to political consultancies, campaigns and think tanks. At the time we said such handouts seriously compromised democratic debate in Britain, skewing decision-making in the interests of a narrow political elite. More than a decade later, little has changed.
Last week, the TaxPayers’ Alliance published a new paper showing that taxpayers are subsidising political research and campaigning organisations to the tune of nearly £40 million. This may just be the tip of the iceberg, as this paper only provides a snapshot of government handouts to these sorts of organisations. There are likely to be very many more.
The groups in receipt of taxpayer funds vary from those who make a reasonable effort to obscure their bias, to those who make no such attempts.
Women’s rights group Rosa, for example, happily bought into some of the scaremongering that took place during the recent general election campaign. In their December Digest they claimed that “the Conservative government is actively selling off our NHS to the US.”
The Corbynista New Economics Foundation backed a range of key policies in the 2019 Labour party manifesto. It also accused the government of “fuelling climate disaster.”
The Runnymede Trust, whose founder-director was Labour party leadership hopeful Lisa Nandy’s father, went so far as to organise a protest against the Home Office’s deportation of several dozen foreign criminals.
There is nothing wrong with independent organisations doing this. Campaigning, as the TaxPayers’ Alliance well knows, is central to a healthy democracy. But between them, those three organisations received over £1 million in 2018-19 in taxpayer funding (the precise amount the Runnymede Trust has received is unclear but likely to be significant). Unlike Greenpeace, a group that steadfastly refuses government cash on principal, these organisations are happy to take taxpayer handouts.
The same goes for grandiosely titled and supposedly more respectable think tanks and campaign groups including the Institute for Government, the Institute for Public Policy Research and Citizens Advice. While none of these are organising anti-government protests or spreading unfounded claims about the government (as far as I am aware), they are nonetheless benefiting from public money whilst influencing government policy.
Taxpayer funding of these and other political, research and campaigning organisations is bad for a number of reasons. Firstly, it skews public debate in favour of an entrenched establishment elite. This means that politicians and bureaucrats are able to rig arguments in their favour by funnelling money to political organisations which agree with them.
Suddenly, so-called “independent” groups are doing little more than arguing on behalf of various individuals in power. Meanwhile, the problems that concern ordinary working people are side-lined, which may in turn increase voter apathy. If those outside Westminster continuously see the issues that matter to them neglected in favour of obsession with fashionable metropolitan policies, they will inevitably start to lose faith.
This might explain why the political bubble has become so detached from public opinion in recent years. A good example is the refusal of politicians and indeed political commentators to countenance scrapping inheritance tax, despite it being by far Britain’s least popular tax and most people wanting it scrapped.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying also has the negative effect of slowing changes to poor policies. If a notionally independent organisation becomes invested in a certain government policy, it will resist any changes to that policy regardless of the evidence against it.
Take the 0.7 per cent of gross national income the UK is committed to spending on foreign aid. The figure is arbitrary, and the rigidity of the target can stop Britain using its aid budget to respond to disasters, such as the hurricanes that ripped through the Caribbean in 2017.
Yet, any suggestion that the target could be reformed or changed in any way is inevitably accompanied by petitions from development charities which, thanks to the target, enjoy massive amounts of taxpayer funding. This has happened repeatedly, whenever the status of the target, or the existence of the department for international development, are questioned. Public money shields policies from public pressure for reform.
Finally, the most obvious point: taxpayers’ money should not be used to fund opinions with which they may fundamentally disagree. People pay taxes in the expectation that they are paying for key services like health, education and defence, not to provide backdoor subsidies to political ideologues.
All sorts of civil society groups in Britain, including the TaxPayers’ Alliance, manage without any public funding. Instead of relying on the public purse, these groups and many like them are kept afloat by generous donations willingly given. It is time for the government to bring an end to taxpayer-funded campaigning once and for all, and create a level playing field for public debate.