Osborne's Spending Review is a test for Labour too - how will it respond?

Balls and Miliband will come under ever greater pressure to say whether Labour will match the coalition's post-election spending plans.

So fractious have the negotiations over the 2015-16 Spending Review been that, at various points, some ministers have urged George Osborne not to hold one at all. But Osborne, who has scheduled the review for 26 June, was never likely to take their advice. For the Chancellor, the event is critical to the Conservatives' strategy for the 2015 general election. By setting spending limits for the first year after the election in advance, he will establish "the baseline" and challenge Labour to match it. Should it fail to do so, punishment will be swift. In a rerun of the Conservatives' 1992 campaign, Osborne will accuse Labour of planning to hit Middle England with a "tax bombshell" to fund higher spending. 

Whether or not pledge to match the coalition's spending plans, as Labour did with the Tories' in 1997, is the biggest political decision Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will take before the general election. If they accept Osborne’s baseline, the left and the trade unions will accuse them of embracing "Tory cuts" (something that, in the words of one Labour MP, “would make the row over the public-sector pay freeze look like a tea party"). If they reject it, the Chancellor will accuse them of planning billions in additional borrowing or tax rises. 

Having abandoned hope of meeting their original deficit-reduction targets, the Tories believe another election fought over austerity could yet favour them. In 2015, their pitch will be, “Yes, it’s taking longer than we thought. But who do you trust to finish the job – the government, or the ones who got us into this mess?”

A pledge by Balls to match Osborne’s spending plans would be an efficient means of closing down this line of attack. For this reason, it is an option that the shadow chancellor’s team notably refuses to rule out. As chief economic adviser to Gordon Brown, Balls helped mastermind the original 1997 pledge and has already declared that his "starting point" is that Labour will "have to keep all these cuts", a step towards accepting Osborne’s baseline. When Harriet Harman told the Spectator last September that Labour would not match the Tories’ spending plans and abandon its “fundamental economic critique” of the coalition, she was forced to issue a retraction

A promise to stick to the Tories’ baseline would not entail supporting all of the cuts proposed by Osborne; rather, Labour will need to replace any cuts that it rejects with tax rises or cuts of equivalent value. While acknowledging that it cannot avoid austerity, Labour would vow to distribute the pain more fairly, ensuring that the richest bear a greater burden. The party will likely pledge to reintroduce the 50p top rate of income tax and adopt some version of a "mansion tax" (a proposal but not yet a manifesto commitment). 

Against this, however, is the fact that signing up to the Conservatives' plans, a trick straight out of the New Labour playbook, would run entirely counter to the post-Blairite spirit of Miliband's leadership. Embracing Tory levels of austerity would also deny the economy the stimulus it so desperately needs. For these reasons, senior MPs, most notably Peter Hain, and groups such as the Fabian Society have already urged Labour to reject this course of action. 

Whichever path Balls and Miliband choose, don't expect an answer this year - or next. As today's Guardian reports, the party is likely to wait until just a few months before the general election before announcing its decision (as Blair and Brown did in 1997). This is smart policy as well as smart politics. With the economy and the public finances so volatile (borrowing has been revised up by £245bn since 2010 and growth has been around 6 per cent lower than forecast), Labour can reasonably argue that it is in no position to make a decision more than two years out from the election. Balls and Miliband have learned from the mistakes of the Tories, who pledged to match Labour's spending plans in 2007 only to abandon this pledge after the crash in 2008.

The Conservatives would like nothing more than for attention to be diverted away from their economic failure and onto Labour's plans. It is an opportunity that Balls and Miliband will rightly deny them. But as political pressure (from right and left) grows on Labour to declare its intentions, the next few months will provide the greatest test of party discipline yet. 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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 a non-compulsory aspiration of campaigners) 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.