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.