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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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