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Ed Miliband goes out of his way to defend universal benefits

By Peter Hoskin
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Standing in for the recovering Andrew Marr, James Landale managed to extract several noteworthy lines from Ed Miliband on the Marr Show earlier. Among them was the Labour leader’s claim that, despite recent speculation to the contrary, Ed Balls would “absolutely” remain in his job until 2015 — but more striking, to my ears, was his defence of universal benefits.

Attacking the Government’s child benefit cuts, he said that “universal benefits are an important bedrock of our society.” And he made a similar point in defence of pensioner benefits such as the Winter Fuel Allownace.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Even back in March 2010, before he became Labour leader, Mr Miliband distinguished between “a residual welfare state that is just for the poor, which is the Tory position,” and a “more inclusive welfare state”. His argument was that the former goes against “all the evidence of maintaining public support [for the welfare state]” — and he has continued with it, with varying force, ever since.

But what’s different between then and now is the political context. As I pointed out the other day, there is now a growing, more determined consensus around cutting universal benefits — yet Mr Miliband appears determined not to join it. And so it seems that, at the next election, he will be arguing in favour of spending taxpayers’ money on things like free bus passes and free TV licences for millionaires. That David Cameron may be doing likewise doesn’t make it any less of a difficult sell.

Strangely enough, the Labour leader could also suffer from holding such a consistent line against the Tories’ own inconsistency. When he stands up for universality in the case of Child Benefit, he is attacking the Conservatives’ policy. But when he does so in the case of old-age benefits, he is, in effect, defending the Conservatives’ policy, which is still to retain those benefits. So, unless the facts change between now and the election, Mr Miliband is hardly establishing a clear dividing line with which to trip up his opponents.

And there is another problem with Mr Miliband’s position: he won’t yet commit his party to undoing some of the Government cuts that he’s complaining about, such as those to Child Benefit. On the Marr Show, he put this down to a reluctance to repeat the mistakes of John Smith’s “shadow budget” — which is understandable enough. But it does look rather opportunistic, doesn’t it?