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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.