Labour's challenge to Osborne's attack on the poor could be a turning point

If Labour perseveres, it might change the terms of debate on a fundamental issue.

This week could mark a turning point for Labour and everyone who wants to live in a better society. On a crucial political framing issue, the leader of the Labour Party refused to follow the right to the right. The issue was benefit cuts and if an admittedly long but tactically and clever game is played we might change the terms of debate on a fundamental issue.

Let's start where we always should: with what we believe. I believe this. That no one was born wanting to live their lives on a couch avoiding not just work but the opportunity to make the most of their life – to be a fully rounded citizen and able to make the most of all their talents.  We are born equal – that is with an equal right to make the most of the wonderfully different talents and attributes we have. Some of course got lucky in terms of looks, brains, body or family wealth. But that notion of fundamental equality requires society to intervene to equal out as many life chances as possible.

So when I look into the eyes of another – whether it’s a rich banker or a person in receipt of benefits payments – I don’t really see a ‘greedy pig’ or a ‘skiver’ but a fellow human being.  From that basis a different debate is possible – one that aspires to a much more ambitious sense of the good life and a good society.

We can confine the debate to in-work benefits. We can compare the rich to the poor. We can talk about the lack of jobs. We can compare tax avoidance to benefit fraud. We can point to who the real scroungers are, as Compass, the organisation I chair, did this week. We can ask why highly profitable companies aren’t paying a living wage to the people their profits rely on. All of these things can help. But it won't change the underlying terms of debate. The only thing that will is a different and more humane view of each other and the massive inequalities in income, wealth and power which shape our life chances.

The opinion polls are, of course, in a different place. In harsh economic times people can become harsher in their attitudes.  This is equally the case when they are egged on by George Osborne trying to set the in-work poor against the out-of-work poor as he did in his Autumn Statement.

Some in Labour’s ranks worry about the electoral consequences of the more nuanced approach taken by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Some fear that it's better to lose the argument but win the election so that at least some assistance can be given to the poor – no matter how little and at a high price  of continually  conceding critical ground. It is an understandable strategy at a rather minimalist level but it eventually and inevitably ends up destroying itself. Over time, there is no point in the Labour Party merely doing the work of the Tories but just at a slightly slower pace. The party will then just hollow out as it forgets what its mission is. And lest we forget, what Labour leaders say and do matters. The British Social Attitudes Survey shows clearly what happens when they stop saying inequality matters – the public no longer think inequality matters and support for social security plummets.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to take great care with this debate. This is not a new war that can be won in one response to one pre-budget statement. The old war was lost over decades as the rich were heralded for their riches and the poor were blamed for their poverty. We are going to have to finesse our arguments and persevere on this for some time using all sorts of new language, frames and policies. And we are going to have to strike up unlikely alliances – not least with those on the right who still believe in a "one nation" and compassionate conservatism. It may be paternalistic but it at least understands the responsibility of the rich to the poor.

Neither can we leave the debate to those at the top.  Like every other big culture change – like attitudes to race and sexuality – this is a war we have to engage in everyday in our own lives.  What we say and do matters.  We can confront prejudice and fear in the workplace, pub and street. We have to be the change we wish to see in the world.

No one really wants to spend his or her life doing little that is productive. We are only fully human when we are creative. That doesn’t have to be paid work; it can be running a family or running the local community. The economy cannot function without either of those tasks being performed. Some have such serious mental and health problems that society has to support them and we should be proud that we can. Other needs intensive help to rebuild their confidence and ability to live a more fulfilling life. We should give them that help.

This week a line was drawn in the sand. It’s not yet in the right place – but it’s a good start. From here we can and must fight back. The other side win only when we stop fighting – if we don’t stop fighting we cannot lose. 

On a crucial political issue, Ed Miliband refused to follow the right to the right. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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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.