Why do we still watch party conferences in the age of paid TV?

In these carefully stage-managed days, voices of dissent are removed from anywhere near a television

Party conferences aren't what they once were. I say this from the point of view of someone who's never been to one.

Well, that's not completely true. I was meant to attend a Labour youth conference in Brighton back in the 1990s, but, due to an unfortunate collision of circumstances, I never made it into the conference hall and spent most of my time vomiting in a hotel room. A lucky escape, you might quip. But there it is. That's where my political career began and ended.

Since that's as close as I've been in the flesh, I've only ever witnessed these rather odd events on television, and not really through choice. By all means start up the crackly 78 of Dvorak's Largo to accompany this, but I remember a time when they were all there was to watch. It was Pages from Ceefax versus nothing on ITV, versus some sweaty-pated straggle-haired bletherer mewling about how he was going to "move". "Move where?" you grumbled at the television. But there was no answer.

Now, we have channels. We have choice. No longer are the sickly children of Britain forced to sit at home and endure endless empty hours of
wondering why all those beige-looking elderly people are applauding such anodyne speeches as if it's England winning the World Cup combined with a free mug of Ovaltine -- which is all to the good for the lucky blighters of today in so many ways, of course, but I can't help thinking that a certain rite of passage has disappeared.

Yes. As a young lad, frequently stuck at home full of snot or some horrible disease that wouldn't shift, I'd have to shiver under a blanket and try to understand what was going on at these rather tired events held in musty seaside resorts. Why did they have traffic lights in front of them? Would a trapdoor open when it went red? Who was this Michael Heseltine? Why did he have such extravagant eyebrows? Why was everyone laughing, when he wasn't saying anything funny?

This was the bleakest, most awful stage show in the world, a pantomime with jokes by Samuel Beckett, a cavalcade of dullards saying nothing of
any interest, and being cheered to the rafters. But at least you could rely on Labour for laughs: Kinnock toppling into the sea like a great big tit in a trance, then trying and failing to make a big joke out of it, for example. "Militant" folk popping up and shouting while someone else was trying to speak. Meet The Challenge, Make The Change. The proud use of "comrades". Ah, yes. Dozy old Labour, sleepwalking into another landslide defeat. Well, perhaps the defeats are returning, if nothing else.

Try as I might yesterday morning, I couldn't avoid Ed Balls -- on the radio, on breakfast TV, clinging onto a banister on Daybreak as if a strong
gust of wind might carry him away like Mary Poppins at any moment. He was everywhere. "This is what I'm going to say later," was the essence
of it. "Then why not say it later and do us all a favour," many sleep-deprived folk probably wondered on a Monday morning.

Though we all know why. It's not about the conference anymore. No-one's watching that, apart from die-hard political types, most of whom, as we
know, have already made their minds up. It's all about the news, and trying to persuade ordinary folk like you and I in between tales of disaster and tragedy from around the world.

In these carefully stage-managed days, Walter Wolfgang notwithstanding, voices of dissent are carefully removed from anywhere near a television
camera, and all you get is a very long-form version of tonight's soundbite. Often, the big three parties, no matter how catastrophic things actually are, attempt to portray an unflappable veneer a little like Sid James in Carry On Up The Khyber, and we, the punters are like Peter Butterworth, pondering the importance of strawberry mousse when the palace is collapsing around our ears.

Ah well. I suppose we should enjoy the small pleasures of the Labour offering while we can. Soon it'll be the triumphant Tories, roaring with
delight at every mention of the mess they inherited, the tough choices that need to be made, the hard road ahead, the broken society that needs
to be fixed... no-one will be watching that, either. But no-one needs to be. They're in power.

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.