The two main parties need to talk about Englishness, in light of Ukip's threat and Scotland. Photo: Getty
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Tories and Labour are stuck in a crisis over Englishness

A Conservative party conference fringe event revealed both the Tories’ and Labour’s problem with defining Englishness.

“I could do so much more as a locally-elected mayor than a member of parliament, wobbling up and down on the West Coast Mainline.”

This was the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart’s lament at a fringe event held by the IPPR during Conservative party conference this afternoon.

He was speaking on the subject of the post-Scottish referendum Union, calling for England to have a broader conversation about its identity and people having a sense of place, and more power to localities.

Stewart, chair of the defence select committee, was damning of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland, saying “the depressing thing about No voters was that they were voting for the narrowest material reasons; their hearts were saying Yes, but their heads were saying No.”

He went on to criticise the PM’s immediate concern of “EVEL” – English Votes for English Laws. Though not disagreeing with having a closer look at this constitutional change, Stewart said the bigger issue was to “start a serious conversation” about broader English identity, for which we would need to “build a constitution again”. He admitted, “I know this is not a comfortable thing for a Conservative audience to hear.”

However, it wasn’t just a message for the Conservative party. Stewart was joined by the Labour peer, Blue Labour architect, and former adviser to Ed Miliband, Maurice Glasman, who made a very similar argument.

He said: “In the referendum debate, there was a complete confusion as to who we were… It was an empty, self-interested, rationalist debate."

Glasman attacked British politics as a whole for neglecting to look at the intricacies and reforms of English institutions, calling the Commons “full of people who have never worked. They’re constantly dealing with PR situations – not thinking about institutions.”

And his condemnation certainly didn’t soften when he spoke about the Labour party. He said there was “not enough conservatism” in the Conservative party but also that there’s “a lack of conservatism in the Labour party. Everything’s thought through in terms of the media interest and PR.”

Both politicians’ key lament was that our narrow-thinking political leadership, on both sides of the House, means that England has not been allowed a proper conversation about Englishness and being empowered on a local level. This debate has emerged because of the shift in power required by the Scottish referendum result, and also because Ukip are offering voters a vision of Englishness – something the main parties have not been addressing.

Glasman warned against “heritage patriotism”, or “theme park patriotism”, with people dressing up as St George and riding on horses and such like, saying that the “English nation and tradition needs to be recovered”. “You don’t just give people a couple of festivals,” he warned, about paying lip-service to patriotism, “England is a very complicated composite – it’s a civic category; it’s never been an ethnic category.”

For both politicians, the lack of local empowerment in England was one of the reasons there has been a loss of English identity. They had different solutions for this, with Glasman being particularly emphatic about the “nightmare” of trying to impose administrative “regions” upon the country: “Nobody says they live in a region… There’s no allegiance, no loyalty, it’s a nightmare… Why would people support regional devolution?”

Stewart was more enthusiastic than Glasman about taking the McKay Commission as a starting point for solving the West Lothian Question, but was still sceptical about David Cameron’s hasty promise of more powers to Scots. He admitted, “I do have an anxiety about opening up the Pandora’s Box of constitutional change”, cautioning that such reforms could snowball into scenarios such as the adoption of proportional representation and the break-up of the House of Lords.

What both men were united on, however, was that the politicians in their respective parties' leadership have failed so far in having an increasingly vital conversation about Englishness.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at 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 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.