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If Andy Burnham doesn't fix his relationship with the Sun, he's dead meat

I've interviewed Andy Burnham. He's a great guy, but if he doesn't fix his relationship with the Sun, he's doomed, says broadcaster Tom Latchem.

Andy Burnham shook my hand ahead of our interview with a grip firmer than most other politicians I’ve met.  He has an easy charm and had no difficulty finding common ground as we discussed two of my favourite topics – mid-90s indie music and the prospect of my football team, AFC Bournemouth, managing to stay in the Premier League.

He also seemed more open and relaxed in his own skin than a lot of MPs, but perhaps more notably carried with him none of the pomposity of many senior politicians. The prospective Labour leader strikes me as a decent, principled man – which is perhaps unsurprising, given his assiduous work with Hillsborough families to bring about the inquiry that they so deserved.

Burnham is a proud Liverpudlian who was directly affected by that awful day in Sheffield in 1989. An Everton fan, he was at the other FA Cup semi-final but returned to Liverpool to speak to his traumatised friends who witnessed first-hand the horror that took place in Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. He speaks with genuine emotion about his memories of the time.

He has since worked tirelessly alongside the bereaved families on the Justice for the 96 campaign, understandably forging a close bond. And so it would hardly be surprising if he felt a lingering resentment towards the paper that falsely accused Liverpool fans of carrying out terrible acts as the disaster unfolded.

As part of an hour long interview with Burnham on FUBAR Radio, to be aired on Tuesday from 10am, I asked him whether the failure at the last election of his friend and potential predecessor Ed Milliband was due in part to his unhealthy relationship with the Mail and the Sun – who monstered him on an almost daily basis in run-up to Polling Day. Burnham didn’t seem, explicitly at least, to acknowledge it.

As a former tabloid journalist myself, and one who remains heavily involved in that world, I told him in no uncertain terms that staying on the right side of the Sun is crucial if you are to have any chance of political success. He may not say it out loud, but Burnham knows it too. 

Which is why it must be all the more concerning for him that, not only is the Sun not on his side, it is actively attacking him after he turned down an interview request. Last week it took pot-shot after pot-shot, even holding up Burnham’s travel expenses as an example of how he was a ‘tightwad’.

Of all the questions I asked in wide-ranging interview that covered the leadership race and his plans should he win, the Iraq War (“my biggest regret in politics”) and his devotion to Everton (“I will never miss a match – even if I am Prime Minister”), The Sun highlighted his failure to identify which soap legend had their funeral this week, as a knock to his ‘man of the people’ record.

I don’t think him not watching Corrie reveals an awful lot – Burnham may of course be an EastEnders man. But what the Sun’s reaction to him not knowing about Deidre does show, as he aims to win the Labour leadership race, and then become Prime Minster, is that his principles and relationship with the press could be his downfall. Let’s not forget that Tony Blair – who for years played the Sun brilliantly– campaigned to Free the Weatherfield One, when Deirdre was behind bars back in 1998.
Many of the bereaved Hillsborough families, and probably the friends Burnham is proud to say he still regularly drinks with back home on Merseyside, would happily see ‘The Scum’ consigned to history like its sister paper the News of the World, and its owner Rupert Murdoch damned to hell for eternity.    

And that leaves Burnham in a rather sticky situation. Because he cannot escape the brutal truth that, if he wants to win back the many thousands of its former voters who abandoned Labour in favour of Ukip in May, he will inevitably need some support from the Sun.
On air Burnham puts a brave face on his recent treatment at the hands of the redtop, making conciliatory noises about the importance of “talking to everyone” while at the same time not doing anything to upset the families of the JFT96 campaign while the inquiry is on-going.

But in private, as we talked before about the tough week he had faced, it is clear he has been stung by the coverage and seems conflicted. Until Labour finally elects its next leader in September, the Sun’s knocking coverage is probably not too big a problem for Burnham. But if he does win the leadership race, it is a conflict he will somehow need to overcome.

 It’s questionable whether it's “The Sun Wot Won It”, as the paper has a history of backing the winning horse. And it is of course possible to succeed in the face of opposition in the press.

But unless Burnham can navigate an acceptable compromise with the Hillsborough families he is deeply loyal to and the Sun, his messages about championing the NHS and delivering a fairer austerity plan may never get a fair hearing in Britain’s biggest newspaper.


Tom Latchem is a journalist and broadcaster who presents the Tuesday morning show on FUBAR Radio. Listen to the interview on the station on Tuesday from 10am.

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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.