Why Labour must defend universal benefits for pensioners

The party should remember that benefits for the poor end up being poor benefits.

One of the suggestions that Tony Blair makes in his piece for the centenary edition of the New Statesman (180 pages, out today) is that Labour should look again at "the right balance between universal and means-tested help for pensioners". It's an argument that's made with increasing frequency as the coalition's welfare cuts bite. While dramatically reducing support for working-age claimants, Cameron has "triple-locked" the state pension (so that it increases each year by average earnings, the rate of inflation or 2.5%, whichever is highest) and protected universal benefits for the elderly such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licences and free bus passes.

With pensioners accounting for 42.3% of all welfare spending (a total that will continue to rise with an ageing population), an ever greater number of politicians and commentators argue that this settlement is unsustainable. Nick Clegg has called for pensioners' benefits to be means-tested, while Iain Duncan Smith has hinted that he believes David Cameron should not repeat his 2010 election pledge to protect them. As Labour seeks to win credibility on welfare and deficit reduction, Ed Miliband is being urged to abandon his long-standing support for universalism and announce that he would restricit benefits if he becomes prime minister. 

It is right to highlight Cameron's cynicism in protecting pensioner benefits. As the decision to means-test child benefit shows, the Prime Minister has little regard for the principle of universalism. The move was motivated by raw political calculation: pensioners are more likely to vote than any other group (76 per cent did in 2010, compared to 65 per cent of the population at large) and are notoriously vigorous in defending their interests. But there are strong principled and practical reasons why Labour should be wary of joining the coming war against universal benefits.

A new system of means-testing would be complex and expensive to administer, while affecting only a fraction of pensioners. Of the UK's 11 million over-65s, two million live in poverty and another six and half a million have an income below £10,500. Just 200,000 earn enough to pay the 40p rate of tax, meaning that any savings would be largely symbolic. Clegg complains that "we are giving free bus passes and TV licences and winter fuel payments to Alan Sugar", while forgetting how rare the likes of Sur Alan are.

The government currently spends £2.2bn a year on winter fuel payments, £1bn on free bus passes and £600m on free TV licences. Compare that to the £23.8bn annually spent on housing benefit (owing to extortionate rents and substandard wages) and the £27.2bn spent on tax credits (owing to inadequate pay) and it becomes clear where the real savings are to be made. It makes little sense to target benefits for cuts when £70bn a year is still lost to tax evasion, £25bn to tax avoidance and the highest earners (including some of those dreaded "millionaire pensioners") have just received a £1bn income tax cut. By insisting that the welfare state (or at least part of it) should bear the brunt of austerity, the left is playing Osborne's game. 

The great practical advantage of universal benefits is that they ensures support goes to those who need it. At present, 1.8 million elderly people eligible for the means-tested pension credit do not claim it due to the complexity and invasiveness of the application process. In the case of the winter fuel payment, restricting the benefit would risk an increase in the 25,000 pensioners who die every year as a result of cold-related illnesses. 

The left most of all, should be wary of abandoning the principle of universalism. History shows that a narrower welfare state soon becomes a shallower one as the politically powerful middle classes lose any stake in the system and the poor are stigmatised as "dependent". The "paradox of redistribution", as social scientists call it, is that provision for some depends on provision for all. A Fabian Society study of 11 OECD countries found that greater means-testing led to increased levels of poverty as the value of benefits progressively withered. In the UK, we are already witnessing this phenomenon at work. While removing child benefit from higher-earners (a measure defended by Beveridge’s ostensible heirs, the Liberal Democrats), the coalition has simultaneously frozen it in cash terms for three years, a real-terms reduction of £1,080 for a family with two children. As Richard Titmuss observed more than forty years ago, "services for the poor end up being poor services". 

The logic of means-testing is remorseless. Remove winter fuel payments and free bus passes from well-off pensioners and the right will next ask why they should not be charged to use the NHS. Fortunately, as a principled social democrat, Ed Miliband has long recognised such arguments. Challenged over his support for universal pensioner benefits on The Andrew Marr Show in January, he replied: 

Look, if you’re saying to me we should make everything in our society means tested - in other words it shouldn’t be universal - that would include child benefit, the health service, the old age pension. Well that isn’t the road I want to go down. Why is that? Because I think everybody as part of the foundation of being a citizen of the country is entitled to some basic things, including on the basis of having children, needing free healthcare.
But as Labour's policy review continues, pressure will grow on Miliband to reverse his stance in order to prove that the party is "tough" on the deficit and welfare spending. He should resist such short-term maneouvres. The principle of universalism is too valuable to be traded in a foolhardy (and likely doomed) attempt to appease the austerity lobby. 
Tony Blair with Ed Miliband during a service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall on March 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

It feeds into the myth that when it comes to wiping bottoms and drying tears, fathers are amateurs while mothers are naturals.

It suggests that childcare remains the sole responsibility of mothers, who should therefore be grateful should any man bother to “help them out”.

It’s rare to see mothers described as “babysitting” their own children. On the contrary, one is either “being a mother” – doing what mothers do, without receiving any particular recognition for it – or one is guilty of neglect.

To that extent, I’m with the dads. I don’t want them to be seen as mere babysitters any more than you do. And yet there’s something about the testimonies of some of the “babysitting” dads of reddit that I can’t help but find annoying. Sure, their parenting efforts aren’t always appreciated – but do they have to be quite so self-pitying about it?

Take this complaint appearing in the “Dads don’t babysit” thread, for instance:

“Watch comedy shows about families. Dad is always the bumbling but loveable fool, mom is the strict, way too good looking, poor woman who has to put up with all of this.”

Poor men. Poor, poor men. And lucky, lucky women for being the beneficiaries of gender stereotypes that would appear not to bear any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

Except that’s not quite true. While the number of stay-at-home fathers in the UK has risen, it remains relatively low at 16 per cent of all stay-at-home parents. In heterosexual couples where both parents are in paid employment, women continue to take on the majority of household tasks and childcare responsibilities. While carework is seen as the key reason why mothers earn less than childfree women, men with children earn more than men without.

Moreover, there is evidence that men tend to cherrypick when it comes to the type of childcare they are willing to perform. Kicking a ball about in the park is one thing; taking time off work to look after a sick child is quite another.

Of course, when I say “men” I mean #notallmen. But enough men to make it somewhat galling when “fathers being seen as mere babysitters” is presented as an injustice not just to women, but to men.

The trouble is, when it comes to how children are cared for, many fathers do behave more like babysitters. They get to do the fun tasks; they don’t end up out-of-pocket; they’re not expected to stick around to clear up afterwards. Not all men are like this, but is it really fair to pretend that current divisions of labour are more equitable than they really are?

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect?

Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

After all, we’ve already been told, for years on end, that “perhaps the pendulum has swung too far”. Alas, it’s utter nonsense. The “pendulum” remains one massive swinging dick, swooping between boorish laddism on one side and performative new man-ism on the other. Women don’t even get a look-in.

It’s easier to be frustrated at gender stereotypes than it is to remember why they exist in the first place. Inequality between men and women is so deeply ingrained – and so pathetically mundane – that we forget beliefs about men and women’s “essential” selves have anything to do with it.

We treat the imposition of gender roles as equally unfair on both men and women, failing to register that it is through these assumed roles that men have acquired the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources. When men suffer due to gender, it is a side-effect; when women suffer, that’s because it’s the whole sodding point.

Thus a woman trying to gain acceptance while performing what is traditionally seen as a “man’s” role is not in the same position as a man performing a “woman’s” role. The woman will eventually crash into the glass ceiling, while the man may well find himself on board the glass escalator instead.

From a male perspective, this particular privilege is experienced as a mixed blessing. To their credit, some commenters on the reddit thread note how the criteria for being a wonderful dad can end up the same as those for being a terrible mother:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

The belief that men are not natural carers heightens the value of the caring work they do, whereas the belief that women are not natural, say, artists or politicians leads to them having to work several times as hard to be taken seriously. In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

We all deserve to be recognised for the roles we perform. Nonetheless, there’s a difficult balance to be made between reflecting the ways things are and the way they should be. When it comes to shared parenting, I’d like to assume that we all want the same thing. But if that were the case, devoted dads, surely we’d already have it by now? And since we haven’t yet been there and done that, is it really time to be getting the t-shirt?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.