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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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred