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Labour begins to turn against universal benefits

Welfare spokesman Liam Byrne says that benefits to the elderly will need to be "looked at".

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne warned that Labour would need to make cuts to welfare. Photograph: Getty Images.

Last week, we heard Nick Clegg question the future of universal benefits for the elderly such as the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes, and now Labour is doing the same. On the Today programme this morning, Liam Byrne suggested that a better "balance" needed to be struck between means-tested and universal benefits. The shadow work and pensions secretary said:

There has always been a balance in the welfare state between universal benefits and targeted benefits and I'm afraid as part of Ed's zero-based review that balance has got to be looked at

To date, Ed Miliband's leadership has been characterised by a strong defence of universal benefits, most obviously in the case of child benefit. He believes, as Richard Titmuss put it, that "services for the poor will always be poor services" and that "middle class benefits" are important to sustain public support for the welfare state. But such is the fiscal mess that Labour will inherit (the latest independent forecasts suggest the deficit will be £99.5bn in 2015) that this stance will become harder to defend. As Clegg quipped last week, "at a time when people’s housing benefit is being cut", Labour wants to protect "Alan Sugar’s free bus pass". While there are many on the left who will rightly argue that the cuts to working-age benefits are not a reason to reduce support for the elderly, there are others who will sympathise with Clegg's argument.

Owing to David Cameron's pre-election pledge to protect benefits for the elderly, there is no prospect of the coalition restricting eligibility before 2015. But it does now look as if all three of the main parties will go into the next election promising, to varying degrees, to limit universal payments.