Show Hide image

In praise of stridency

Josie Long recalls the student protests, UK Uncut and her activism over two years of Tory government, and celebrates the joy of “coming out” as a feminist.

My name is Josie Long and I am a stand-up comedian. I had a kind of political awakening in 2010 (along with most people my age, I expect). I had to learn to cope with unexpected daily doses of anger and horror towards our new government, the Maniac Oligarch Thieves. I also started to protest, discovered activism and UK Uncut, in particular, and met a lot of like-minded people. What I didn’t expect was that it would also feel quite powerful and at times thrilling and fun.

The past year, by comparison, has been a lot harder. People I know are getting tired. Health service and welfare “reforms” are testing my resolve. The 2010 student protests inspired me and made me feel I was not alone in opposing this government. In 2012 I and other speakers were shouted down by a Socialist Workers Party counter-demo, which broadly agreed with us, during a protest by the National Union of Students. That couldn’t have been more depressing.

It’s been hard not to feel like being on the left in England – whatever that is any more – means that you are born, you live, you’ll fight and you’ll die on the losing team, and every day you’ll get kicked for it and called thick and mad in the Metro. Which is not what I want from the Metro. I just want lengthy restaurant reviews that focus heavily on the main course and photographs of unlikely friendships between animal species.

Despite 2012 being tiring and saddening, I feel defiant and confident in a way that I haven’t felt before. I am 30 years old, I’m a proper adult and I’m definitely correct in wanting a fairer, more equal society. So there. So I thought I’d sum up my year by writing about my four favourite political things of 2012.

Taking you higher

First, arts emergency. My friend Neil Griffiths and I have been setting up a charity for the past two years. (He is very much the brains.) We wanted to defend the idea of studying arts subjects as something viable for anyone from any background and to fight against the rampant marketisation of higher education. Many young people that we meet feel frightened to study what they love, or even to study at all, because of the extent of the debt they face. We want to reassure them that if they study what they love, it will benefit them and society immeasurably in the long term.

What has been most amazing is how much the idea has flourished. We have a hundred people signed up to our alumni scheme – a kind of alternative old boys’ network to give people without privilege the kind of connections that allow wealthy students to sail into life. We have eight schools signed up to our pilot mentoring scheme, which pairs young people with en - thusiastic BA graduates and creative adults. We have a proper board, with lawyers and accountants. Something born out of hours, months, nearly years of discussion is finally taking shape as a real thing and it could not be more inspiring and wonderful.

My second favourite thing: watching Owen Jones on anything. He is so well prepared and such a good speaker. It makes me so happy. Then there’s the video clip “Dennis Skinner Trolls the Queen” on YouTube.

Finally, there are my two favourite campaigns: the Everyday Sexism Project and the No More Page Three campaign.

Two years ago I was touring a show where I outed myself as a feminist. At the time it seemed like that was something necessary, as I felt a bit beleaguered and outnumbered. It was the first time I’d tried to talk about it on stage and the material I did was about the kind of hassle I’d get for having opinions about feminist issues. I’d start by saying, “I’m definitely a feminist and I’m not creepy for having said that . . . I don’t like to bang any less. I didn’t think it was an issue but then whenever you say anything remotely strident, people are like, ‘Who invited the frigid puritan cow?’ and I have to be like, ‘Heyyyy! I’d just like to get paid the same! Hiyaaaa!’”

It could be my own perceptions entirely, but now mentioning it on stage doesn’t feel difficult or confrontational. I feel more confident, yet it’s more than that. Teenage girls (and boys, but girls especially) who follow me on Twitter and come to my shows often talk to me excitedly about being proud feminists. Talking about feminism gets me cheers and not the awkwardness that it used to.

Page creepy

These two campaigns make me feel like there’s a change happening. WhenFHMtried to make a joke about rape and domestic violence in the magazine – “it’s never acceptable to wear your girlfriend/mother/victim’s socks” – they were called out on it until they backed down. I felt the sense that other people have my back in a way that I didn’t before, that more dynamic and intelligent people than me are taking up the challenge and will keep it up.

No More Page Three is strident and demanding but has such a good sense of humour and fun to it. It doesn’t demand a ban; it just says: “Stop doing this, this is totally creepy. It’s weird. Stop it.” And I love it. I also love having a long list of reasons why page three should stop. When I’m trolled about it now I can say: “There are tens of thousands of people who agree with me. Why not take a look?” That is wonderful.

If 2010 was the year when I realised that I wasn’t alone in opposing this government, then 2012 was the one when I realised I wasn’t alone in struggling to keep going, or occasionally feeling despondent. It’s always been easy for me to be an optimist but recently, when the NHS reforms in particular have threatened something that I need in order to feel secure, it has felt meaningless.

I feel as if I’ve learned that sometimes you have to force yourself out of bitterness and cynicism and despair. That it’s a choice to make initially and to keep making over and over and over again, no matter how hard or tiring or unlikely it feels that you will win.

For more details visit:

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Show Hide image

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.