Photo credit: HM Revenue & Customs
Something has changed in the UK. As an audience member tearily lambasted energy minister Amber Rudd on Question Time last week, the UK government was finally forced to face up to the human cost of its relentless programme of austerity. Whilst it's clear that the Conservative Party never bought into its own cynical rebranding as the new "Workers' Party", last week's emotional encounter brought into sharp focus that the public don't believe the rhetoric, either.
"You're about to cut tax credits when you promised you wouldn't" came the exclamation from Michelle Dorrell. "I work bloody hard for my money, to provide for my children, to give them everything they've got, and you're going to take it away from me and them. Shame on you!" Amber Rudd did indeed appear ashamed, merely bowing her head by way of response to the outburst.
The moment was powerful, but made all the more so because the attack was made by a former Conservative voter. A mum of four who runs a nails salon from her home in Folkestone, Ms Dorrell had placed her trust in the politicians she thought would best protect the interests of her and her family in May's general election. Welfare cuts had fallen on families with spare bedrooms, on the out-of-work and young housing benefits claimants - on the people in society this Conservative government has never pretended to care about. They would not affect the working tax credits that mothers like Ms Dorrell relied on - David Cameron had made a promise.
Michelle Dorrell was fooled, as were all the men and women who thought their in-work benefits would be safe under the Tories. But it would be simplistic and patronising to suggest that they should have known better. Cameron and Osborne are masters of spin: by couching the welfare debate so early on as a question of "shirkers" versus "strivers", they achieved the key publicity coup of making those that work feel supported and cherished in the face of a demonized, undeserving underclass that needed to be forced to learn the value of hard work. The right wing media was more than happy to join in this fun game, with the Sun announcing that it was waging war on the "Great British shirker," releasing regular exposés on the men and women not pulling their weight in the nation's effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
The rhetoric worked: 27% of those who at the time were wholly reliant on state benefits, bearing the brunt of the most brutal of brutal austerity measures, voted Tory in the last general election.
Yet barely five months into their first term in majority government, the Conservatives have decided to now position the austerity axe above the necks of the very same "hard-working strivers" they purport to represent.
The results will be bloody. Of the 4.6million families that received tax credits in 2014, 3.3million - or 71% - were in work. And with the working tax credit threshold to be slashed from £6,240 to £3,850 next April, it is estimated that three million lower-paid household will lose on average £1,350 per year, plunging 200,000 children into poverty in 2016. This is an unabashed assault on the working poor in our society: escalating rents and the meteoric rise of zero-hours contracts in the UK mean that tax credits for many are the lifeline that ensures they have enough money to feed, clothe and heat themselves and their children.
It is worth remembering that those earning £3,850 have less than £75 per week to spend.
In the North East, tax credits cuts will affect 148,000 families, or 56% of the population, and will take £300 million out of the regional economy. This in a region which still has the highest rates of unemployment in the country: while unemployment is falling overall nationally, levels in the North East have risen to 8.6% this month. This is not counting the devastating 2,200 job losses in Redcar following the closure of SSI's steel plant this month.
George Osborne's cries for fiscal discipline, as he snatches tax credits for working families with one hand whilst cutting inheritance tax for the rich and corporation taxes for businesses with the other, simply won't wash any more. But out of tragedy must rise anger: we must refuse to be silent over the state of injustice that has become the status quo under Tory rule. Once upon a time the shouts of hundreds of thousands of protesters marching the streets, journalists, charities leaders and politicians were able to fall on deaf ears, because David Cameron and George Osborne knew that they had the powerful voting force of Middle England on their side. No more: Tory guffaws in the House of Commons as Jeremy Corbyn reads aloud the desperate plight of those in work as well as those out of it is a stark reminder that this government's disdain for all but the very rich knows no bounds.
We must seize this opportunity to expose the Tories for what they really are: uncompassionate, uncompromisingly neoliberal, and worlds apart from the party for the working people. And we must vote - vote in 2020 to get rid of a government for whom our best interests do not come into consideration.
But another vote will come much sooner than 2020: the vote on whether or not the UK should stay in the European Union. With a referendum to take place definitely by the end of 2017, and perhaps as early as April next year, the campaign to stay in has no time to lose. Swelling Eurosceptic ranks within the Conservative Party and UKIP would have us believe that we are better off out, that any negative effects will not be felt by the British public. It's time to stop believing these masters of spin, whose tenuous promises are refuted by great swathes of evidence proving the contrary. Leaving the EU would be catastrophic for the UK, and will affect every single person living on our small island - rich and poor. Working tax credits are one broken promise too many: we can't let ourselves be fooled again.