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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories