Since the beginning of the financial crisis, government policies have hammered young people. With the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) through the roof, the coalition government chose to triple tuition fees, to scrap education maintenance allowance, to force councils to close youth services, to close Connexions, and to put schools on the road to privatisation. Young people in Scotland thanked the stars for devolution.
Having dealt with the young, now they’re turning to the old, and Labour’s Ed Balls has today made clear that Labour aren’t the party to run to for help. In a speech today, he said Labour would maintain the same levels of spending as the Tories if they win the next election, and that specifically, they would means-test the winter fuel allowance, saving £100m.
Labour MP and former cabinet minister Peter Hain outlines the problems with this policy with devastating precision:
There are three main problems with Labour’s proposal today to cut winter fuel allowances for higher rate tax payers. First the money raised is estimated at 100 million which is peanuts in terms of the wider welfare budget let alone total government spending.
Second it begs the question; if winter fuel allowances are to be means tested then how far does the means testing go, does it stop at fuel or will TV licences, bus passes and senior rail cards come next?
Third, if middle Britain ceased to benefit from the welfare state through some of the few universal benefits that are left, how can we convince them to fund the larger part of that budget through their taxes? The worry is this is the top of a slippery slope towards US-type system of public services for the poor only, from which President Obama has struggled to escape with his health reforms.
Means testing is administratively costly, time-consuming and inefficient because of the many varied combinations of assets, capital and earnings among pensioners.
There are two significant things about this. Firstly, Peter Hain is the Chair of Labour’s National Policy Forum. Why is it that Ed Balls can simply announce to the shadow cabinet the limits he’ll be placing on spending, and that the only recourse Hain has is to complain about it in the press? Labour’s democratic processes are in a poor state indeed.
Secondly, and more importantly, Better Together and other ‘no’ campaigns should be worried about this announcement. It comes mere months after Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont humiliated herself by suggesting that benefits in Scotland should be means tested. They should be wary of reopening that healing wound.
After all, one of the biggest arguments for independence is not just that the Tories are bad, but rather that the Tories are bad and that Labour will be no better. Ed Balls has put the rest of the UK on a policy one-way street, diverging from the Scottish norm, and Better Together will now have to convince referendum voters that they’re better off together on the road to nowhere than taking their own way.
And from Twitter this morning, someone who seems to recognise that fact is Nicola Sturgeon:
I know I’d rather have her in charge than anyone Labour can put forward in Westminster.