The perils of political door-knocking

Talk is cheap and plenty of us chat about politics a heck of a lot.

We’re living in an age of renewed political activism. The Occupy movement and the various marches and strikes we’ve seen in the last year demonstrate that. There is also a new generation of "activists" who join Facebook groups and inexplicably email their opinions to news channels.

I was always a particular type of activist. Marches, placards and ill-informed status updates never appealed to me. I always preferred being ill-informed in the flesh.

For years I trudged the streets door-knocking as a Labour Party volunteer and then as a member of staff. Speaking directly to the public on their doorstep is revealing, heart-warming, depressing and dangerous, usually all in one afternoon.

You’re grateful for the kind ones, for the like-minded and for those who keep it brief. You worry about the ones clearly leading troubled or challenging lives and you’re disturbed by the aggressive and abusive ones.  My favourites were always the ones who were a bit weird. I can still remember a few of the people I spoke to over the years. Here are some of the highlights:

The Naked Skinhead of Blaenau Gwent

He answered the door wearing nothing but a handlebar moustache. “Oooh hello mate, I’m from the Labour Party,” I said trying to not laugh or gawp at his willy. There’s no way you can’t look. It’s just there, hanging around, commanding your attention.

“Right. . Is this about the by-election?” he replied.

“Yes it is, I just wondered if you’ll be voting on Th…”

“Look at me mate. Do I look like a man interacting with the state?”

“Fair point. Taraa”.

The Dog Man of Corby

It was a wet afternoon in Northamptonshire. A young chap with angry eyes answered the door, restraining some denomination of status dog by the neck.  Realising the tense situation I opened with: “Good afternoon sir, I’m just calling on behalf of your local Member of Parliament”.

“Which party?” he asked in a way that made it sound like there was no right answer.

“Labour,” I ventured with a sickening inflection.

“You better get the f**k off my doorstep before I set this b*****d on you”.

“Oh yeah? If you want to go toe-to-toe, I’ll do you and matey right here pal”.

(I wish I’d have said this. Instead I went “Ooooh!” and legged it). I still wonder if I’d have said that I was from the Lib Dems that his demeanour would have changed and he’d have offered me a KitKat.

The BNP Man of Stoke

Never argue with someone on their doorstep, even if what they’re saying is disgusting. My mate who was door-knocking with me preferred a more direct approach when dealing with racists and almost laid one out on his own front drive. The guy was a nasty piece of work and I was next door chatting to a lovely old lady when I could hear the volume next door steadily rising. You don’t need to be a master political strategist to know that shouts of “oh yeah? Oh yeah?! OH YEAH?!” aren’t evidence of winning hearts and minds. I had a quick peek over and could see that my pal had squared up to this fella. BNP types aren’t renowned for backing down or for their use of diplomacy so I had to step in my standing at the gate and going “we need to leave”.

Dog Owners (various)

Postmen despise dogs and so do political door-knockers. My mate Paddy used a wooden floor tile as a "dibber" to shove "sorry you were out" leaflets through letterboxes so his fingers weren’t endangered by dogs on the other side. I used to eliminate the risk completely by guessing which houses had dogs and avoiding them. Tell-tale signs were paw prints on the front door, turds in the garden and a kennel. When those houses didn’t have dogs I was confused. If you’ve got a dog you’ve opted out of democracy as far as I’m concerned. Some people would die for their cause; I wouldn’t risk my fingers for mine.

I haven’t been door-knocking with Labour for a couple of years now, but writing this out has made me realise how much I miss it. Talk is cheap and plenty of us chat about politics a heck of a lot. The people who really change the world are those that go out and do something about it. My local party secretary is about to get an email offering my services. I can’t be bothered to go round to her house.

Matt Forde performs Eyes to the Right, Nose to the Left, at the Udderbelly – Wee Coo, 1st – 26th August, 4.05pm. For tickets see:

A famous front door. Photograph: Getty Images


Matt Forde is a stand-up comedian and talkSPORT presenter. He also writes for 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Stand Up For The Week and Russell Howard’s Good News. He recently performed his critically-acclaimed show ‘Eyes to the right, nose to the left’ at the Edinburgh Festival. He used to work for the Labour Party.

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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.