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 Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.