Labour begins to turn against universal benefits

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

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.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.