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In this week’s magazine | Isis can be beaten

A first look at this week’s magazine.

“The best of times, the worst of times”

A guest column by US ambassador Matthew Barzun

John Simpson in Baghdad: Islamic State can be beaten


The Great Ebola Scare: why we must stem the panic in Europe

George Eaton: Labour might not be at war with itself, but Ed Miliband desperately needs to inspire his supporters

Howard Jacobson: What makes us human?

Helen Lewis: internet trolls thrive on fiction, not facts

Felix Martin on the coming age of mediocrity in

Mariana Mazzucato wins the inaugural NS Speri prize for political economy

Erica Wagner meets Ken Burns, the US pioneer of long-form television

The Guest Column: Matthew Barzun

While acknowledging the current horrors of ebola and Islamic State, the US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, wonders why we are so determined to dwell on the negative in our global narrative. It may be the worst of times in some senses, he argues, but it is the best of times in many other ways; child mortality, extreme poverty, damage to the ozone layer and the HIV infection rate have all been reduced in recent years:

So why are we intent on fixing our lens on the chaotic? And why do we insist on trying to weave a grand narrative out of mostly unrelated things? Do we believe there’s a common unravelling force at work behind the ebola tragedy, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the independence campaign in Scotland? My guess is that it might have more to do with how we feel than how things are.

Barzun argues that although at such moments we may feel drawn to strong leaders with a “grand master plan”, nimbleness and flexibility are the qualities needed to deal with global threats:

           What is the best way to lead and govern in times of remarkable change?

Here’s what Teddy Roosevelt said at the dawn of the progressive era: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” And one of America’s great unsung heroes, John “Gil” Winant, ambassador to Britain during the Second World War, explained in 1946 his approach to leadership in chaotic times as, “Doing the day’s work day by day, doing a little, adding a little, broadening our bases wanting not only for ourselves but for others also, a fairer chance for all people everywhere . . .”

[. . . ]

It is impossible to plan for every eventuality. And it is hardly fair to accuse the US of not having a highly detailed blueprint but simultaneously warn us that we should be taking into account our allies’ opinions and concerns. We take our responsibilities seriously but cannot be responsible for everything that happens. Other international actors make choices for good and for ill. So even the most far-sighted diplomacy must sometimes be reactive.


Cover story: John Simpson on why Isis can be beaten

The BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, files a despatch from Baghdad, where there are clear signs that Islamic State’s grip is weakening as western recruits begin to lose their resolve. Contrary to the defeatist tone of western politicians and media commentators, Simpson argues, Isis can be beaten:

“Seemingly unstoppable,” as someone on the BBC’s Today programme described the Islamist group the other day. “The Isil steamroller,” an American news anchor echoed. “There’s nothing to hold them back,” agreed an exhausted Kurd who had just escaped the street fighting in Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey, and was interviewed by the massed ranks of the world’s press.

How can you blame them, when our political leaders are queuing up to tell people how effective the Islamic State fighters are, and how useless are the efforts of those who are fighting them?

More than a week ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forecasting the imminent fall of Kobane and warning that air strikes had failed. The Eeyorish US secretary of state scored a particularly encouraging headline: “John Kerry suggests Iran could lead fight against Isil if ‘US fails miserably’ ”. That’s the stuff to give the troops. And here is our own Foreign Secretary, in his best Henry-V-before-Harfleur manner: “We can’t save Kobane from falling to Islamic State, says Philip Hammond”.

Simpson believes the emphasis on Kobane is unhelpful and has skewed the picture. Islamic State is indeed in control of that small town on the border between Syria and Turkey, but it is a “different story” in Baghdad, where, he points out, the Iraqi national army successfully repelled IS fighters only three weeks ago:

Kobane provides the world with the impression that IS is advancing everywhere, successfully dealing out the savagery that makes it so terrifying. The only boots on the ground belong to Kurdish fighters, who have not always been particularly effective.
The Turkish army could sort out IS in no time flat, but the Turks have a phobia about helping any form of Kurdish resistance, in case it spreads into Turkey itself.

Simpson senses that the IS rank and file are not as dedicated as they once were. The jihadis are fighting on several fronts in two countries and reports suggest that demoralised western recruits are increasingly repulsed by the atrocities they have witnessed:

A new IS training video shows recruits being beaten and bullied and forced to carry out exercises to the accompaniment of live rounds. This works with professional soldiers, but with volunteers, as most of IS’s fighters are, it can be counterproductive.

The hundreds of enthusiasts from western Europe and the US who have joined IS have often (Jihadi John aside) proved rather feeble and lacking in the necessary bloodlust. They are usually restricted to the status of what US soldiers call REMFs (short for “rear-echelon motherf***ers”), doing the cooking and the laundry.


Special report: the great ebola scare

Michael Brooks, the New Statesman’s science correspondent, takes a dispassionate look at the facts of the ebola outbreak and the real threat posed by the virus in Europe. Western fears about mass contagion are largely unfounded, he argues, and the widespread anxiety must be stemmed in order to avoid a “short-sighted and short-lived” response:

Amid the rising panic, a few calm voices are struggling to be heard. Sarah Wollaston, who chairs the House of Commons health select committee, has said that she expects the UK to get five cases in total, at the rate of roughly one a month. The NHS, she says, is perfectly ready and able to cope. Seth Berkley, chief executive of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, concurs: ebola is not a disease you have to fear when living in a wealthy country. “The likelihood of this causing a major epidemic in Europe or the US is very, very low,” he says.

Brooks suggests that the “panicked reaction” to ebola is a symptom of the public mood and the current “economic and political gloom”.

In Liberia, however, the situation remains dire, as Clair MacDougall reports in a letter from the capital, Monrovia. To make matters worse, health workers on the front line are on the verge of striking:

With close to 500 infected people in treatment centres, and almost three times as many yet to access care, the strike threatened to derail efforts to contain the crisis in Monrovia, now the centre of the ebola outbreak in West Africa. Given the huge risks and sacrifices endured by local medical staff, it is not hard to understand their anger.

At least 200 health workers have been infected with ebola and 90 have died, according to the latest government figures. Yet pay is modest.


George Eaton: the politics column

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton argues that even though the Labour Party is not engaged in outright civil war, it is mired in a despondency that is just as self-destructive:

This is not a party at war. There has been no repeat of what Labour’s policy review head, Jon Cruddas, described to me as “the gang warfare” that disfigured the Blair and Brown years. By historic standards, the party that produced the MacDonald split of 1931, the struggle between the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites and the SDP schism of 1981 remains united. At the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party following the conference season and the near-death experience of the Heywood and Middleton by-election, there were just two dissenting voices: the Warrington North MP, Helen Jones, and the former welfare minister Frank Field. “It was hard to avoid the undercurrent of anxiety but the group dynamic inevitably led to the PLP rallying around,” a shadow cabinet minister observes. But while not locked in combat, Labour is desperately in need of inspiration.


Howard Jacobson: What makes us human?

The novelist Howard Jacobson is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show.

Jacobson, whose most recent novel, J, was shortlisted for yesterday’s Man Booker Prize, suggests that laughter is the route to “conscious humanity”:

The Navajo celebrate a baby’s first laugh as a rite of passage, a moment in which the baby laughs himself, as it were, out of inchoate babydom and into conscious humanity. It’s a wonderful concept and grants a primacy to laughter that we, who probably laugh too automatically and certainly far too much, would do well to think about. If it’s laughter that makes us human, or at least kick-starts the process of our becoming human, what does that say about what being human is?

[. . .]

I choose to believe that laughter is the portal to creativity, not necessarily in the sense of making things but in the sense of connecting to a world outside the self, in the first instance noticing that there is a world that isn’t you.

[. . .]

What makes us human is the joy we take in looking out; but even more, what makes us human is the impulse to go on wondering where that joy comes from and accepting that we will never know.


Mariana Mazzucato wins the inaugural NS Speri prize for political economy

Mariana Mazzucato, RM Phillips Professor in the Economics of Innovation at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, has been awarded the first New Statesman/Speri Prize for Political Economy for her work on smart growth and the entrepreneurial state.

Prof Mazzucato said: “Ignoring the key role of the state – or the taxpayer – in wealth creation has, in my view, been a leading cause of inequality, allowing some (hyped-up) actors to reap a rate of return way beyond their actual contribution.”

Mazzucato will explore this “dysfunctional dynamic” further in the inaugural New Statesman/Speri lecture on Thursday 13 November (6.30pm). For details visit:




Sophie McBain meets the 84-year-old psychologist Walter Mischel, inventor of the marshmallow test

Melissa Benn reviews two books on the
politics of primary education

Our TV critic, Rachel Cooke: not even a priapic
Pepys can save ITV’s Great Fire

Peter Wilby: why TV debates are the best
way to decide the next election

Angels and whores: Michael Prodger on the
unsettling work of the artist Paula Rego

Jessica Thatcher on plans to help cities
such as Nairobi beat gridlock using ski lifts

Leo Johnson rallies his north London neighbours
for a spot of civic-minded winemaking

Ian Steadman on the Mars One project
and the dangers facing the first colonists

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Paul O’Grady,
David Cameron, and a stolen kiss at the Pride of Britain Awards

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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.