It's time to give up Twitterstorms

In this guest post, James Ball argues that perpetual outrage is obscuring the truly important issues

Yesterday, I wrote about the challenges facing feminism in the year ahead -- and noted, in passing, that I didn't see anything wrong with complaining about smaller issues as well as the huge problems. I may have used the words: I CAN CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT ONCE, YOU KNOW.

It's fair to say that James Ball, a fellow journalist of liberal leanings, takes the opposing view -- and he offered to rebut my argument. I took him up on this, although not on his suggested headline: "Never Mind the Bollocks: Or Why Helen is Wrong About Everything". Do you agree with him, or with me? Have your say in the comments below, or on Twitter, where we are @jamesrbuk and @helenlewis. Over to James:

Life is turning into a regular sequence of outrages. There's no shortage of sources: those with right-wing inclinations will find an abundance in the pages of the Daily Mail, while the left-wing twittersphere offers a daily smorgasbord of things to get cross about.

Perhaps these daily two-minute hates provide healthy catharsis - but my suspicion is it's going too far. The rages are quickly reported, leading to inches of column space across the papers, and in Jeremy Clarkson's case, tens of thousands of complaints to Ofcom.

This week's travesty of choice was the BBC's admittedly dubious decision to include a Panda among its "Faces of the year - women" page on its website. The predictable Twitterstorm started at faint amusement, progressed to irritation, and culminated in full fury, with follow-up blogposts on the significance of the scandal we must now apparently refer to as "Pandagate".

Not to sound intolerant, but this is an absolute pile of tosh. Yesterday, Helen Lewis-Hasteley wrote a lengthy blogpost on the challenges facing feminism in 2012, which broadly-speaking hit the nail on the head: the challenges facing women (in the Western world at least) are smaller than once they were - we have anti-discrimination laws, women in certain age groups now out-earn their male counterparts, and women won the vote long ago.

When today's battles are smaller, how do you prove they are still relevant? The answer isn't to fixate on noticeable-but-irrelevent issues like Pandagate.

Note this isn't the same as saying we can only care about one issue at once. The 'logic' of this strawman argument follows roughly as such: that between instability in North Korea, a collapsing eurozone, climate change, and the rise of new superpowers, we have no time to worry about smaller problems.

Yes, it's true we're facing the prospect of a UK populated solely by irradiated survivors foraging for scrap to pay down the Eurozone's bankruptcy, learning Mandarin in the few spare moments each day in order to communicate with the world's new corporate owners. But the presence of dire issues - which deserve more attention than they get - is no reason not to pay attention to other important issues.

Feminism still has no shortage of serious problems to tackle: women are chronically under-represented in boardrooms, the media, and elsewhere in public life. The overall pay gap is closing at a glacial pace. Rape conviction rates remain low, and deficit reduction measures seem to be hitting women considerably harder than men.

All serious issues worthy of immediate attention, especially given several are capable of being tackled with relative ease - after last month's treaty negotiation there seems alarmingly little anyone in the UK can do about the Eurozone crisis, so why not spend some time looking at women in boardrooms?

Feminism, then, still faces significant challenges, but also faces the battle of convincing an often sceptical public this is the case. Paying attention to trivial issues is a gift to those who would like to dismiss women's issues. When the country's feminist voices are fixated on pandas, or Clarkson, or a Daily Mail article designed to wind people up (good morning Richard Littlejohn), feminism looks like a trivial subject.

The most common argument is that these piddling issues are a symptom of wider societal problems. This is undoubtedly true. But very few malaises are remedied by tackling the symptoms: trying to fix society's attitude towards women by complaining about pandas is roughly akin to trying to fix a Japanese knotweed infestation by picking at leaves, one-by-one.

It's a trap a huge number of the diverse groups loosely referred to as 'the left' fall in to. Gay rights groups who rise to Daily Mail bait on each occasion are likely not furthering their cause, nor are community or religious groups who do the same.

But perhaps the biggest dereliction of duty in favour of trivia in recent weeks comes from the trade unions. As public sector unions battled pension reforms - without a doubt the biggest issue facing their membership in decades, Jeremy Clarkson made a stupid and tasteless joke on the One Show.

Unison took the bait, and released a statement saying the union was exploring legal action. Coverage of one TV presenter's career prospects rapidly overshadowed (by a huge factor) cuts to pension provision for millions of UK workers.

This year had no shortage of bait to rise to, causes to champion, and Twitterstorms to join. The recipe for success in 2012 will be about picking which ones to join: not picking a single issue to care about, but deciding what's important and what isn't, and letting the latter fly by.

Or, as I plan to do, getting into the garden and digging a handy nuclear bunker, looking for tinned-food recipes, and brushing up on my Mandarin. Just in case.

James Ball is a journalist at the Guardian

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.