Peter Hain attacks Labour plan to remove winter fuel payments from wealthy pensioners

Former cabinet minister tells The Staggers that the move "raises the question of whether Labour is really going to offer an alternative".

I wrote earlier that Labour's pledge to remove the winter fuel allowance from wealthy pensioners wouldn't be well received by all on the left and even before Ed Balls has finished delivering his speech, the backlash has begun. 

I've just spoken to Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister, who has criticised the decision, warning that it "opens the door to a wider attack on universal benefits, such as free bus passes" and raises the question of "whether Labour is really going to offer an alternative".

While shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie insisted on the Today programme this morning that Labour had no plans to means-test other pensioner benefits such as free TV licences and free bus passes, the decision to break with universalism makes it easier to justify doing so in the future. It is also likely a signal that Labour would not prioritise the reintroduction of universal child benefit, which the coalition has removed from all those earning over £50,000.

I asked Hain, an early backer of Ed Miliband, whether he was surprised by the move given Miliband's long-standing support for universal benefits (as recently as January he described them as as a "bedrock of our society"), he replied: "Yes, I am. But I think it's a combination of the commentariat and the pressure within the party to show a sufficiently hairshirt approach". 

In a piece for the Guardian last month, Hain warned that "Cutting or means-testing pensioners' allowances risks turning young against old and rich against poor while making negligible savings for the Treasury." But Miliband, in perhaps his most significant rebuke to his social democratic supporters, has chosen not to heed his words.

Former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain with Ed Miliband, who he supported for the leadership, in June 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here