If Ed Miliband wants more women in public life, he can start with his own team

The Labour leader presides over an admirably mixed frontbench - but things aren't so rosy in the policy-making back rooms.

Ladies love Labour. Or at least, that's what the polls would suggest. Earlier in the year, the Guardian reported that "women have been pro-Labour in 13 consecutive ICM polls". In February's count, 36 per cent of men supported Labour and 29 per cent went for the Tories. Among women, the difference was 51 per cent to 25 per cent. 

But does Labour love them back? Yesterday, Ed Miliband told an audience of advertisers that he supported the campaign, launched by New Statesman contributor Caroline Criado-Perez, to ensure a woman other than the Queen should always appear on Britain's bank notes. (To forestall everyone about to point out what a "trivial issue" that is, can I say: if it means a lot to feminist campaigners, and you think it's a trivial issue, then you won't mind giving them their own way, will you?). Miliband said:

"When Winston Churchill replaces Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note, everyone who will appear on notes issued by the Bank of England will be a man. What kind of signal does that send? I read this week that Jane Austen is 'quietly waiting in the wings' to appear on a banknote one day.

But 100 years on from the great struggle to give women the right to vote, women shouldn't be waiting quietly in the wings for anything. This is an important symbol of the kind of country we are. Why don't we have one of our great women scientists like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and a suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst on our banknotes?"

There are a couple of things worth noting about this speech. The first is that the bank note campaign is a grassroots one, although it's been championed by Labour MP Stella Creasy, currently shadow minister for crime prevention. It's great that Labour are listening to, and responding to, campaigns on the ground like this.

The second is that in terms of practising what he preaches, on one front Ed Miliband is doing pretty well: 12 of the 31 people who attend Shadow Cabinet meetings are women (it's 10 out of 26 full members, which is where Ed Miliband got his 40% figure from). That compares favourably with the Conservative's numbers - 4 out of 22 cabinet members are women, and 5 out of 31 who attend Cabinet. There used to be a grim joke that there were as many men who went to a single Oxford college - Magdalen - as women of any educational background attending Cabinet. I'm pleased to report that since the departure of Chris Huhne, that is no longer true. There are now just four. 

But while Ed Miliband is justifiably proud that his shadow cabinet is 40 per cent women - particularly when just 20 per cent of MPs are - it's not front-of-house where he has his "woman problem". With a reshuffle looming, he's in the luxurious position of having several female MPs whose talents are being underused; these include Creasy, Rachel Reeves and Liz Kendall. Even more handily, there are several men who have clearly been promoted beyond their abilities, and whose departure will not be mourned.

No, Miliband's gender problem is in the policy engine room. His closest advisers - Stewart Wood, Tom Baldwin, Greg Beales - are men. His policy review is being conducted by a man. The overwhelming majority of his "gurus", the academics whose work he has studied, have been men: Michael Sandel, Tim Soutphommasane, Maurice Glasman, Joseph Hacker, Jonathan Rutherford. The party machine, which grew out of the trade union movement, can feel rather macho. When the New Statesman ran a guide to "Team Ed", someone commented to me: "There are only two women in there, and they both have 'secretary' in their job title."

When we hear about women advising Ed Miliband, it's often in the context of them leaving: his adviser Ayesha Hazarika went back to advising Harriet Harman after a spell with him, and Sonia Sodha headed off to be in charge of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit. After working with Miliband on his leadership campaign Katie Myler went into PR and Polly Billington is standing as a parliamentary candidate. That's left his inner circle looking pretty blokey. As one Labour female MP put it: Miliband can seem more comfortable with the idea of feminism than with actual women

Why does this matter? First, for the "optics". Ed Miliband has to work hard to overcome the public perception of him as a nerd, and looking more comfortable around intelligent, opinionated women would help with that. Whenever he's around Harriet Harman, it's hard to forget that he used to be her Special Adviser; she still seems to look at him with a slight whiff of parental disapproval. 

Second, because - as the trades unions frequently remind us - Osborne's austerity policies fall harder on women, from tax credits and pension changes to the welter of benefit cuts. If Michael Gove and Liz Truss's changes to childcare ratios had gone ahead, they would have lit up Mumsnet like a Guy Fawkes bonfire. Through all this, Ed Miliband needs to speak confidently to women, and seem to champion their interests, if he wants to win the next election. Don't just take it from me; listen to one E. Miliband on the subject yesterday:

We can only be One Nation if we have true equality for men and women. This is one of the biggest causes of our century. To complete the work of the last century. To turn a formal commitment to equality in to real equality. 

Ed Miliband with his former advisers Katie Myler and Polly Billington. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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.