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How to be a man

The altered relationship between men and women.

The feminist revolution has fundamentally altered the relationship between men and women. But has the rise of identity politics and the loss of the “family wage” left too many men trapped in perpetual adolescence?

In little more than one generation, the pillars that supported traditional masculine identities have collapsed. Millions of skilled working-class jobs that once gave men status and purpose have gone. The male solidarity that was the backbone of the labour movement has gone.

So has the family wage, and increasingly men can no longer follow their fathers and grandfathers in the role of family breadwinner. Old-fashioned, maybe, but any parent of the bride wants to know the prospects of their future son-in-law.

In 1968, 86 per cent of household gross employment income came from men and 14 per cent from women. In 2008-2009, 63 per cent came from men and 37 per cent from women. Work once provided men with the means to self-respect and self-reliance. For growing numbers, that, too, has gone.

The cultural revolution of the 1960s has given men unprecedented sexual opportunities, but the collapse in the "family wage" and changes in the structures of social reproduction have diminished their prospects for enduring relationships of social anchorage - marriage, fatherhood, head of household - which conventionally affirmed their patrimonial status. The effect for many, particularly at the top and bottom ends of society, has been a prolonged form of masculine adolescence without obligations of paternity or responsibility for others. While women have taken on the burdens of the neoliberal revolution, many men appear to have been disorientated by a profound sense of loss.

Traditional ways of being male, rooted in the Industrial Revolution and its domestic division of labour, are becoming obsolete.

At the last election Labour was 5 percentage points behind the Conservatives among women, but among men it trailed by 10 points. It is now difficult to imagine Labour, once steeped in the culture of masculine solidarity, championing middle-aged men. Yet it is middle-class and skilled working-class family men - the C1s and C2s - particularly those working in the private sector and living in the south-east, that Labour must win over if it is to gain an electoral majority in England.

Last year when the party's Blue Labour tendency argued for a politics of masculinity, accusations that the idea was anti-women abruptly ended public discussion. As one tough-minded male Labour member advised the party, "Men do not debate feminism with women."

In the past three decades the culture of class and gender in the UK has been changing profoundly. The women's movement has had a big influence on Labour politics, not only through the growth in the numbers of female MPs, but in the recognition of how gender affects the economy and society. Feminism has cast a powerful light on men's misogyny and sexual violence, on the unequal division of care and domestic responsibilities, and on inequalities in the household and at work. Yet the lack of dialogue between men and women in the party puts gender at risk of being equated with "women's issues".

Many of the matters raised by feminism concern men. However, usually men keep silent about themselves and the language of feminism does not lend itself to engaging their wider support. Labour needs a popular politics around gender that grows out of the experience of men and women living in relationships, in family life and more widely working together and sharing in society and the public sphere. It needs to find ways of speaking to men about their concerns as workers, husbands and particularly as fathers.

Labour-market trends seem certain to continue to erode the security of working-class families, pitching more skilled men into low-paid, low-status and precarious employment. Economic recovery, when it comes, will bring fewer skilled jobs, a higher proportion of part-time positions and a growing professional and managerial class. In 1977 the wage share of workers in the bottom half of wage distribution stood at £16 of every £100 of national income generated. Today it is just £12 of every £100 and the decline continues. Many young men are being left behind. They lack education and do not possess the right emotional affinities for the new kinds of service-sector work. They are finding it increasingly difficult to create an independent life for themselves.

Double burden

Labour once spoke for these kinds of men, but no longer. If it is to reconnect with them it has to strike the right balance between being radical and being conservative. Men's lives are paradoxical in that they combine a determination to uphold a sense of esteem and masculine authority in public with a willingness to change and adapt to their new, more egalitarian and emotional domestic realities.

The first priority of men who are fathers is their family. A survey by the Fatherhood Institute, Family Man: British Fathers' Journey to the Centre of the Kitchen, points out that British fathers' care of infants on an average working day rose from 15 minutes in 1975 to two hours in 1997. At weekends, fathers of under-fives spend about the same length of time with their children as mothers. Fathers' second priority is work in order to give their children the best start in life they can manage. Over the period of fathers' increased involvement men's working hours have grown longer. As skilled work disappears and the squeeze on wages intensifies, many men are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfil their obligations to their family and children.

But they have not been turning back to Lab­our. The rise of a xenophobic English nationalism is closely related to this collective class experience of dispossession. For some men, the loss of England's place in the world resonates with their disorientation and pessimism. Defending an English way of life from Islam, or Europe, or immigration, is about defending the dignity of their fractured identity. Over recent decades, this narrative of national decline has sparked off recurring moral panics about young men's antisocial behaviour, about the emotional impoverishment of masculinity and about the failure of fatherhood.

Despite the significant impact of the women's movement on Labour in its last years of government, the party fell back on an overly technocratic state and an abstract language of rights to move forward feminist objectives. As well as the positive changes, this had the unintended consequence of contributing to an image of feminism as "political correctness" - an unaccountable, divisive and elitist practice of top-down moralism. Labour needs to recover the best traditions of the women's movement, which point to a bottom-up politics that builds relationships, encourages self-determination, and protects individuals from harm.

A politics of masculinity is about family and work but it is also about place and nation, because men invest part of their identity and sense of belonging in these imagined communities, be that through sport or patriotism. So Labour needs to develop a progressive English patriotism. At home, more men are living in a more egalitarian, more democratic and more companionate family life. Labour needs to help grow this democratic settlement between men and women.

Two priorities would be a living wage and a public system of universal childcare organised around the principle of child development. A decent wage gives both parents more time at home. Children's centres help establish a common life and give young mothers and fathers connection to the wider local community. A new politics of masculinity should not be about the exclusion of feminism.

To speak about men is not to disregard women. Rather, it recognises the ways that men and women are unequal and different but it seeks to establish common ground through greater equality. It is a politics of what we might call social liberty, which was once called fraternity, the expression of life's diversity among equals.

Jonathan Rutherford is the editor of Soundings journal.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

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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.