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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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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