After Ed Balls announced earlier this week that Labour would remove the winter fuel allowance from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, I wrote that it was a sign that the party would not seek to reverse the coalition's cuts to child benefit. Having made the argument against universalism in the case of winter fuel payments, it becomes harder to make it in the case of child benefit.
This morning, the BBC has confirmed my suspicions, reporting that "a future Labour government would not reverse cuts to child benefit made by the coalition". This is partly for the obvious reason that it would be very expensive to do so. Given that public spending, as Balls indicated in his speech, will continue to fall under a Labour government, it will be hard to justify spending £2.3bn on restoring the benefit to individuals earning over £50,000 a year, who rank among the top 8 per cent of earners in the country.
But the decision also likely reflects a wider shift in Labour thinking. Influential figures such as IPPR director Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, have recently argued that the party should switch spending from universal benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and child benefit to services such as social care and childcare. This is not just because the funds for improved provision cannot be raised through taxation alone, but also because universal services (most obviously the NHS, but also comprehensive education and Sure Start) have generated more enduring public support than cash benefits. It is notable, for instance, that while the government was able to win majority support for the cuts to child benefit, it could never hope to do so in the case of the NHS.
But despite the economic and political logic of the move, it will prompt anger among those such as Peter Hain, who retain a traditional social democratic commitment to universal benefits. The case of child benefit is a good example of what Richard Titmuss had in mind when he warned that "services for the poor end up being poor services". While removing child benefit from higher-earners, 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. But rather than seeking to restore child benefit to its previous value, Labour, for the reasons I've outlined, is likely to focus on investing resources in childcare.