As today’s frontpages demonstrate, George Osborne’s announcement yesterday that the coalition will be withdrawing universal child benefit has provoked concern and controversy across the political spectrum.
For a newly-elected leader of the opposition, this was surely a great opportunity to get stuck into the counter-arguments and start as strongly as you mean to go on. Add to this the fact that Ed Miliband has long been an advocate of maintaining universal benefits as far as possible. In September 2009, when interviewed by the BBC in his role as Labour’s manifesto co-ordinator, he emphasised the importance of a mix of universal and targeted welfare, saying:
“Lots of families need the support that child benefit provides, not just the poorest.”
A year on, on The Andrew Marr Show a few weeks ago, he said he didn’t support reopening the issue of universal benefits, saying that means testing has “real problems”, going on to say:
“I’m all for speaking hard truths. I don’t personally think undermining the universal welfare state is the right thing to do.”
Why, then, has Ed been so conspicuously absent from the debate since Osborne’s speech yesterday?
Yvette Cooper is the only Labour figure who has made it into the coverage today in her capacity as shadow work and pensions secretary, which incidentally can’t be doing her profile as a potential shadow chancellor any home. Most of the major papers feature a version of the following quote from her:
“The Government’s unfair attack on child benefit is now unravelling. The Chancellor only announced means testing this morning, and already the Children’s Minister has admitted that the thresholds need to be looked at again. They have clearly been taken aback by the reaction of parents across the country.”
It could well be, as Iain Martin has suggested, that Labour are choosing to stand back and let the Tories face the not inconsiderable opposition from their own party, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and others, before weighing in with their own defence of universal benefits, and universal child benefit in particular.
But it is now over 24 hours since Osborne’s announcement, and Ed’s silence is starting to seem less strategic, and more hesitant. There are intelligent and substantive counter-arguments to be made to this cut, as Nicola Smith demonstrated yesterday on Left Foot Forward. This is a big opportunity for him to make a real statement about the kind of leader of the opposition he is going to be, and to set the tone for how Labour are going to respond to the spending review in a few weeks’ time. During the summer’s hustings, he spoke often about the hard work Labour need to do to get back in power — now it’s time to lead by example and start doing it.