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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

0800 7318496