05/06/2013 12:23 BST | Updated 05/06/2013 13:12 BST

Ed Miliband And Ed Balls Under Fire From Labour Left Over Cuts To Universal Benefits


The decision by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to reposition Labour's stance on benefits spending has been attacked by leading figures on the left of the party as "cheap politics", "dreadful" and a "disaster".

On Monday, Balls announced that a post-2015 Labour government would prevent the wealthiest pensioners from claiming winter fuel allowance. On Wednesday, the BBC revealed that Labour would not reverse the coalition's cuts to child benefit for the better off.

And, in a speech on Thursday, Miliband is expected to declare his support for a cap on so-called 'structural' benefit spending (that is, welfare payments that are not the direct result of rising unemployment) - a cap that was originally suggested by the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne.

Senior figures on the Labour left have expressed concerns that their party, under pressure from the Tories and the centre-right press, is dropping its historic commitment to universal welfare. In his blog for the Huffington Post UK on Monday, former cabinet minister Peter Hain warned that Labour was embarking on a "slippery slope towards US-type system of public services for the poor only".

Former Labour cabinet minister Peter Hain has warned of the dangers of a "slippery slope" on welfare reform

"The attack on pensioners' allowances leaves a big question hovering over the future of the welfare state: is it for everyone, or just for the poor?" wrote Hain, who was one of only four shadow cabinet ministers to back the younger Miliband for leader in 2010.

On Wednesday, a serving Labour frontbencher echoed Hain's concerns, telling HuffPost UK that the party high command's decision to reverse its position on child benefits for high-earners could be seen as a "slippery slope towards a state that caters for the poor only" and in which "the middle classes have no buy in". "I'm worried," said the MP.

Another disgruntled Labour frontbencher on the left of the parliamentary party - also speaking off the record - referred to the two Eds' move away from universalism as "dreadful".

These left-wing critics of the Labour leadership are concerned that the new approach to benefits spending will save little money ("peanuts," according to Hain), legitimise Tory attempts to means test a growing number of welfare payments and make it much easier for Labour's opponents to attack the party for both indecision and opportunism. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron repeatedly raised Labour's U-turn on child benefit, mocking the two Eds for taking what he called "policy-altering substances" while on holiday.

"I think it's cheap politics that will not rebuild our record on [economic] credibility," agrees a former adviser to Ed Miliband, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I am worried that we are at risk of salami-slicing universalism away for a very small amount of money, and the effect in terms of suport for the welfare state as a whole will be deleterious," adds the aide, who also condemns the "ad hoc-ery of these [proposed] spending cuts" rather than "strategic budgetary decisions" from the shadow chancellor.

The lack of a coherent counter-narrative to the Tories' alleged 'shrink the state' agenda seems to be a common criticism among Labour left-wingers.

Despite offering tentative support for the removal of "entitlements for the rich" on the grounds that a future Labour government will "have to think long and hard about the most egregious policies that it wants to reverse", Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society, says that his "concern is that these little announcements [on benefits] have been dribbled out without a big positive Labour agenda to be set against". The opposition, he argues, "have failed to offer a positive case for how they would reform welfare".

"To be honest, this is a disaster," says the general secretary of one of Britain's biggest trade unions. "And just at the moment that [Balls] was being proved right [on austerity]. It's crazy."

The trade union movement is "very concerned" about Labour's shift on universal benefits, the union leader tells HuffPost UK. The move is a result of "pressure from the Blairites," he says.

However, it isn't all bad news for the two Eds. The shadow chancellor's decision to remove winter fuel allowance from the richest pensioners has secured the backing of one of the party's best-known left-wingers. The former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, says he can't get "agitated" by the shift away from universal benefits: "I don't claim my winter fuel allowance and it's nonsense to have [millionaires] getting it."

'Red Ken' defended the two Eds, telling HuffPost UK that a future, Miliband-led Labour government would have to deal with "a tough inheritance, with a [coalition] Budget that's locked in savage spending cuts".