The crafty political logic of the coalition’s war on universality

Labour has to find a credible counterargument to defend this key progressive principle.

Since the Second World War, one of the hallmarks of the British welfare state has been its universality. However, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have attempted to defend their decision to increase the cap on university tuition fees and means-test child benefit by arguing that they are making sure that the impact of the cuts is borne mainly by high-income earners.

They point out that support for university students from poor families will be increased while the coalition will give a "pupil premium" to those primary and secondary schools that deal with disadvantaged children. However, although these measures will have a progressive impact in the short term, they are part of a longer-term strategy to destroy middle-class support for good-quality public services.

The current system has two main benefits. From a political perspective, enabling those on average, and above-average, incomes to gain access to public services creates a sense of shared civic space. This is important, because psychological experiments have shown that people tend to be more altruistic towards those they feel that they have a connection with.

Similarly, those on middle and upper-middle incomes are more likely to support those services for which they can see tangible benefits, even if they are less than the taxes that they end up paying. And conversely, deliberately excluding sections of the population from public services makes it easier for the remaining users of those services to be demonised as "scroungers".

That means-testing may push middle-class voters rightwards is particularly significant, given that lower turnout in recent elections has increased the power of wealthier voters.

Although estimates for the 2010 election are not yet available, the Electoral Commission estimated that while nearly three-quarters of the top two social groups voted in 2005, just over half of those on in groups D and E did so.

Throw in the well-known tendency for voters to overestimate their relative income, and it becomes clear that Stanley Greenberg, a political consultant who worked for both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, is correct in claiming that middle-class voters are the key swing group in modern elections.

Ending universality is also bad economics. Means-testing services for all but the very poorest risks creating a middle-class version of the "poverty trap". In extreme cases, this could lead to families close to the average income facing punitive marginal tax rates, with any extra money that they make – for instance, from working extra hours – being eaten up by increased co-payments and fees.

However, under a means-testing regime, the rich would be able to use the threat of bypassing public services and going private to put a de facto cap on the amount that they are required to contribute – something that many fear may happen with higher education.

The coalition's plans are therefore both a challenge and opportunity for Ed Miliband's leadership. He clearly needs to set out a credible alternative economic programme, which will involve accepting the need to reduce the Budget deficit, albeit to a slightly longer timetable. The Conservatives have also cleverly co-opted several left-of-centre thinkers, such as Will Hutton, making it harder for Labour to challenge them.

There is a great need to make sure that those most affected by the recession are not hit by the cuts. However, if Miliband is able to mount a credible and convincing defence of universality, he will not only have defended a key progressive principle, but improved Labour's standing in the key, south-eastern marginal seats that the party needs to win to regain power in five years' time.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.