Amid Ed Miliband’s fraught exchanges with John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning there was a flash of new policy. For the first time, Miliband suggested that Labour would consider freezing (or means-testing?) the winter fuel allowance in order to reduce the £79bn deficit George Osborne will leave. He told Humphrys:
What does that mean in concrete terms? Let me give you an example. We took great pride in increasing the winter fuel allowance when we were in government: it’s going to be much harder to do that should we come back to power. Of course, I hope to do it, it’s going to be much harder to do it.
Miliband’s leadership has been characterised by a strong defence of universal benefits (he believes, as Richard Titmuss put it, that “services for the poor will always be poor services”) but there is a growing view in Labour that the winter fuel allowance, in its present form, is indefensible. A campaign urging the wealthy to donate their fuel payments to those in greatest need has raised £500,000, a reminder of how poorly targeted the payment is. Last year 65,000 expats living in Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere received the benefit (set at £200 for the over-60s and £300 for the over-80s) despite their warmer climes.
It will be worth watching to see whether Miliband expands on this point in his speech to London Citizens at 11am. As last week’s New Statesman leader argued, a commitment to universalism need not imply unconditional support for all universal benefits.