The current issue of Prospect reviews the taboos in British politics today—those orthodoxies which politicians are loathe to challenge because they think it will lose them elections. At the top of the list is threatening to touch universal benefits, like the winter fuel allowance, and pensioners’ free TV licences and bus passes. With the elderly representing the demographic most likely to vote, any politician who rolls their tank onto pensioners’ well-mowed lawns will be punished at the polls, or so the argument goes.
While attacking sacred cows can be a dangerous business, if attempted at the opportune moment by the right person it can sometimes deliver substantial political returns. In our age of austerity, universal welfare entitlements are no longer justifiable, and Ed Miliband has a golden opportunity to bolster his position by calling for their abolition.
Miliband can argue for the means-testing of “middle class benefits” with a clear Labour conscience. Buying TV licences and the like for well-off pensioners no longer represents a sensible allocation of scarce government funds, and introducing a means-test aligns with his commitment to fairly spread the pain of deficit reduction across the income spectrum.