CentreForum Liberal Hero of the Week #38: Ed Balls. Our Liberal Villain is Lord Dear.

by Stephen Tall on June 7, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism in some way they’re liable to be named Villains.

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Ed Balls

Labour’s shadow chancellor
Reason: for ending Labour’s support for the winter fuel allowance for wealthy pensioners

Ed Balls this week announced a future Labour government would halt winter fuel payments for 600,000 of Britain’s richest pensioners. To some in his party (such as Peter Hain) this is a betrayal of its founding socialist principles. To me it signals — at long, long last — that Labour may, just may, be beginning to grapple seriously with how to deliver true social justice through the welfare budget.

The reason those on the more unthinkingly knee-jerk left give for believing millionaires like Alan Sugar deserve assistance with their fuel bills when they reach 65 is that it is fundamental to the principle of welfare universalism: that everyone has to know they will one day receive benefits in order to buy into the re-distribution which underpins the welfare state.

This ignores a few key points as well as a big slab of common sense. Let’s start with the big slab: it is wrong, utterly wrong, for a 20-something in a low-earning job struggling to make ends meet to be helping to pay for Lord Sugar’s central heating.

Now a few other key points. First, the winter fuel allowance isn’t universalism in any meaningful sense. It is available only to pensioners for a start! That low-earning 20-something has more than three decades to wait before they can receive this supposedly universal benefit.

There is, to be fair, a reasonable enough logic for winter fuel payments: pensioners are liable to feel the cold more than younger people and more likely to be at home for much of the day. But that is an argument for ensuring the state pension is set at a decent level — and for incentivising individuals to get smarter at saving for their old age — not for indiscriminately handing £200 to every 60 year-old in the country regardless of their means. And, as it happens, spending on the state pension in Great Britain, which accounts for nearly half of all expenditure on benefits, will increase by nearly 20% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2017–18.

Indeed, the Coalition’s ‘triple lock’ on pensions is further skewing public spending towards those who are old and away from the young. As Tim Leunig and Adam Corlett put it in their CentreForum pamphlet ‘Tax justice whatever your age’ (2012):

Financial pressures are not even over our lifetimes. People usually find themselves most “squeezed” immediately after buying their first house, and after their children are born. If Britain were to have age-specific tax breaks, it should be for the young.

We know why this is: the old are more likely to vote than the young. Woe betide the politician who suggests levelling the playing field by cutting back on benefits to pensioners! Remember the furore over the so-called ‘granny tax’, which simply tried to ensure working-age people and over-65s were taxed equally? Back then Labour were on the side of those conservatives who sought to protect a basic inequality.

The debate has, thankfully, moved on. Credit is due to those, including such strange bedfellows as Nick Clegg and The Sun, who some time ago staked out potentially unpopular positions calling for an end to these benefits. They have created the political space that allows a proper look at how we re-distribute public money to ensure we adhere to the welfare principle that help goes first to those who need it most.

cf villain lord dear

Lord (Geoffrey) Dear

Ex-chief constable of the West Midlands Police and crossbench peer
Reason: for seeking to wreck the same-sex marriage bill

Six months ago I nominated David Cameron as a Liberal Hero for his support for same sex marriage despite the virulent opposition of many in his party.

The Bill which will legalise lesbian and gay couples to have their relationships formally recognised as marriages by the state — and give religious institutions the freedom to conduct ceremonies if they wish — is still working its way through parliament, still clearing the obstacles put in its path by opponents.

The latest hurdle was put in place by ex-chief constable Lord Dear, who tabled an amendment in the House of Lords aimed at stopping it proceeding any further. It is not simply that I disagree with Lord Dear on the issue.

There is another point: the unelected House of Lords shouldn’t seek to torpedo legislation that has been approved (with a substantial majority of 205) by the elected House of Commons on a free vote.

A chamber which has no democratic legitimacy should not try to tell one that does that it is wrong. Revise and improve legislation? Yes. Reject and wreck? No.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.