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 Buying TV licences and the like for well-off pensioners no longer represents a sensible allocation of scarce government funds, and introducing a means-test aligns with his commitment to fairly spread the pain of deficit reduction across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.
Labour should always defend universal public services: giving savvy and demanding middle class patients and parents a stake in their local hospitals and schools helps to assure standards for everyone, and these public institutions as far as possible should not be segregated by class or income. These arguments for universality (enlisting the middle classes to champion services, and integrating communities) fail, however, to make sense when talking about the income transfers of the benefits system. In other words, Labour can coherently support universal public services while arguing for means-tested welfare.
Miliband should pledge to scrap universal entitlements because it is the right thing to do, but he should also be alive to the political opportunity of such a move. Labour has made a pivotal strategic decision to back deficit reduction over all-out Keynesian stimulus. The problem is that whenever Miliband criticises Cameron’s cuts programme, the prime minister can parry his blows by saying Labour has nothing constructive to say about deficit reduction. Putting some flesh on the bones of a plan would neutralise this rhetorical ploy.
As the contributions in this month’s Prospect attest, opinion formers on the left and right are increasingly questioning middle class benefits. There is a reward for the politician who gets ahead of the pack: with Miliband’s strength being questioned, flexing his political muscles with a carefully calculated act of iconoclasm might hush the critics.