The director and socialist Ken Loach launched a campaign for a new left-wing part, Left Unity, last year. Photo: Flickr/Bryce Edwards
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A successful radical left party should be anti-Ukip and not just picking up on Labour's failings

Without a strong left presence, there is no one to counter the rightward march of British politics.

This article was written in response to a column by Helen Lewis asking "Why isn’t there a 'Ukip of the left'?" Read the Green party's response to the column here.

It is a common cliché that the task of the modern left is like that of Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill time after time only to watch it roll back down again. Repetitive, thankless and ultimately fruitless. I prefer to think of another similarly tortured ancient Greek character in relation to the left: Atlas. Struggling for a better world is not an easy task, but I’m glad there’s someone there to do it.

Without a strong left presence, there is no one to counter the rightward march of British politics, the consensus among mainstream parties of the need for austerity, the scapegoating of immigrants and benefits claimants in place of the bankers who really wrecked the global economy, the rush to privatisation of our vital public services despite the vast majority of people wanting a return to public ownership.

Helen Lewis is absolutely right in her article, ‘Many voters are to the left of Labour on the big issues. So why isn’t there a “Ukip of the left”’, to say that there is space in British politics beyond the edge of Labour. That party was founded at the end of November last year and is rapidly growing to occupy the space Labour long ago vacated: Left Unity.

Left Unity began with a question very similar to the one Lewis raises, asked by Ken Loach on Question Time in February last year: Why isn’t there a Ukip of the left?

“A lot of people in this country share a lot of thoughts,” Loach said. “They hate the breakup of the National Health Service. They hate the privatisations and the outsourcings and the labour agencies and the low wages. They hate the mass unemployment. And there isn’t a broad party that they can vote for…  Ukip has done it for the right. I disagree with almost everything that Ukip stands for, but we need a broad movement of the left.”

Loach, of course, is not arguing for some party with economically left-wing views bound up with euroscepticism and a tough line on immigration. That might be the easy option, the populist option, but that would be to sacrifice principles for a shot at power. We already have one Labour party.

Instead, where Left Unity can play an important role is by helping to provide a counterbalance to Ukip. Where Ukip’s threat to Tory votes has served to pull the government and in turn the entire centre of politics to the right, by challenging Labour where it fails to stand upon the principles on which it was founded, Left Unity can help pull the centre of politics back to the left. It was exactly this kind of public pressure from Left Unity and many other organisations that forced Ed Miliband to pledge to repeal the toxic bedroom tax after months of refusals.

But being a "Ukip of the left" - that is, a successful radical left party - means more than just picking Labour up on its failings. It also means being the anti-Ukip. Where Ukip scapegoats immigrants, Left Unity welcomes them. Where they sow division, Left Unity wants to rebuild solidarity. Where they line up behind a charismatic leader who has the ability to be funny on Have I Got News for You, Left Unity was built on grassroots democracy.

That so many people have turned to vote for the ultra-Thatcherites of Ukip in disillusionment with mainstream politics must serve as a wakeup call to the traditionally fractured left. Politics as usual, with its offering of identikit politicians and stale cloned policies, cannot beat Ukip. The left needs to offer a radical alternative and a united one.

It's undoubtedly true that the politicians have lost touch. We have a government of millionaires who can never speak for the millions. Ukip has been successful in exploiting this disillusionment, but it is the left that holds the answers. All the main political parties support austerity, all have been complicit in the gradual selling off of the NHS, all have increased student tuition fees in office.

Left Unity stands in opposition to these policies. And it stands for policies the other parties - including Ukip - won't touch, such as bringing the railways and energy companies back into public ownership to throw out the profiteers, in turn bringing down prices and offering a better service.

None of this should be hard to achieve, yet it’s a daily struggle against a right-of-centre political mainstream being dragged ever further right by Ukip. But it is pessimistic to only see a boulder rolling down a hill. The left can and has achieved many victories – imagine where we’d be without any kind of opposition. It must continue, like Atlas, to hold firm. Because the alternative would be so much worse for so many people.

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist 

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

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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.