Count the spoons! Miliband and Balls are out to cut benefits
Labour leader and his shadow chancellor want to persuade us they won't be soft on 'scroungers'
LABOUR leader Ed Miliband is poised to embrace the Tories' cuts in child benefit for the rich. As a result, well-off pensioners, particularly those in the capital, are worried it will mean the end of the line for their Freedom Passes on public transport.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls denied Labour was planning to cut the valuable passes which entitle pensioners across London to Tube, bus and some train journeys entirely free. Balls said the Freedom Passes were in a "different category".
The trouble is – as a weekend YouGov poll confirmed – the voters don't trust the politicians any more. When politicians come round making promises they won't be removing benefits, the voters instinctively count the spoons.
On Monday, Balls announced he would cut the universal £200 winter heating allowance for those pensioners wealthy enough to be paying the higher rate of income tax. Appearing later on Newsnight, he appeared to cast doubt on another universal benefit – free TV licences for the over 75s – by saying Labour would have to take a 'pragmatic' approach in the continuing age of austerity.
Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, reported on the Today programme this morning that Miliband will follow up on Balls's speech by announcing tomorrow that Labour will not reverse the controversial cut in universal child benefit imposed by the Tories on wealthier families because it would cost £2.3 billion to restore it.
Miliband will also declare his support in principle for an idea first suggested by Chancellor George Osborne - a cap on that part of the benefits bill which is not triggered simply by a rise in unemployment.
Socialists (and some liberal Tories) defend the universal payments principle because it guarantees benefits go to the worst off who tend to be bad at claiming means-tested benefits. If a relatively small number of the articulate wealthy get freebies as a result – well, it's a price worth paying.
Peter Hain, the former Labour Cabinet minister, has bitterly attacked Balls for ending Labour's long-standing commitment to universal benefits. He warned in the New Statesman that it "opens the door to a wider attack on universal benefits, such as free bus passes".
What are Balls and Miliband up to? Simple. It's all part of a carefully hatched strategy to counter David Cameron's jibe that they are the friends of benefit scroungers because they have opposed some of the coalition's welfare cuts in the past. Cameron clearly stung Miliband into action when he accused Labour of being" the welfare party" at a recent Prime Minister's Questions.
So Miliband feels he has to show voters that Labour would be no soft touch for "scroungers". But he risks making the grey electorate cling more closely to their bus passes - by voting Tory.