Ignore the media scare-stories about strikes

Those who strike are not firebrands or ideologues, they are ordinary men and women who are fighting

As public sector workers prepare for strike action, the media narratives have already been prepared. Today's Daily Mail has a tale headlined "STRIKE LEADER'S HUGE PAY RISE" and it won't be the last. The pay and pensions of union leaders will come under scrutiny like never before as the usual suspects prepare to demonise organised workforces, and their right to protest against changes to their pay and conditions. Look at the union bosses and see their greed!

The phrase "gold-plated pensions" will be wheeled out time and time again, without ever daring to represent quite how un-precious public sector settlements really are for the vast majority of people. Strikers will be portrayed as betrayers of the children whose education they deny, in the case of teachers; as greedy, money-loving fatcats not living in the real world, pumped full of entitlement and "our money" thanks to years of racketeering from their New Labour chums, in the case of everyone else. It won't be true - of course it's not true - but that won't make any difference.

The stories are already as good as written. All the 1970s imagery, of binbags in the street and bodies left unburied, will be dragged up, whether it's relevant or not. There's no avoiding that, I am afraid. There was a time when newspapers had industrial correspondents who dealt with these matters in a reasonably even-handed way, but that is increasingly not the case. Now, the narratives do not come from the unions, or their members, but the politicians who fight them, and the corporate media in whose interests it is to demonise organised labour and workers' demands.

The anti-striker and anti-union stories will tap into a powerful, emotional sense that somehow this isn't fair. We are suffering in the private sector, so they must suffer too. Spread around the suffering. Make everyone hurt, so it's fair. We've got terrible pay and conditions, and we don't bother to do anything about it; so why should these people, who have bothered to do something about it, get better treatment? Our apathy deserves to be rewarded; we've been "good" employees and haven't made a fuss, yet we've been passed over. It's not fair.

Faced with an inevitable slew of stories about trade union leaders' salaries, opinion pieces about the selfishness of striking and articles about the righteousness of bashing the public sector, what kind of strategy could see the unions and their members win over public opinion? Is striking a trap that will play into the hands of the coalition government and give them the hate-figures they need to deflect attention from who is really causing economic problems? Are unions and their members making themselves the coalition's scapegoat?

It's a difficult decision, to take action when you know that you are going to be misrepresented; to battle against something which is described, again and again, as being the only possible option. But it all depends on how the motivation of strikers, and public-sector workers, is seen. Time and again, all they can do is to explain what has happened over the past few years - not just under this government - and why they are fighting: not to cause disruption, not out of political mischief-making, but because it is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.

All I know, from a personal point of view, is that I've spoken to a lot of public-sector workers and activists recently as part of other stories I've been writing. Time and again, I have got the impression that these are not firebrands or ideologues pushing a political agenda that comes from the top or from their leaders; these are ordinary men and women who are fighting for their futures, fighting for their families, because they believe that there is no other way, because they feel that things have gone so far that they simply cannot do nothing, or accept the axe, or roll over and die. These are not the facemasked anarchists chucking bricks in protests; these are hardworking parents seeing a bleak future for their children, and wanting to do something now to make a change for the better, to stop something that will change the country forever.

They will not be depicted that way, and they know it. But they will fight anyway, and fight to get their message across.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.