We won’t know the full picture on the Coalition cuts proposals until 20th October, but a number of firm proposals, leaks, or indications of possible options, have appeared since the summer. This week we were deafened by middle class bleating about the announcement that child benefit would be cut for higher rate taxpayers from 2013. And today we hear that university fees in England are likely to increase, now that the LibDems have been told to put their proposal for a graduate tax back in the toy box. And who laps up the majority of university places? Yes, it’s still the offspring of the more privileged sections of society.
The anomaly in the proposed child benefit cut, which permits dual earners to retain the payment whilst single earners in a household lose it, was astonishingly inept. Therefore it was surprising to read yesterday that a survey for the Daily Telegraph still shows support for the child benefit proposal by 53% of the population, although this has decreased from 83% just after the announcement. It’s also important to remember that the Coalition is still supported by the majority. But the press coverage shows who shouts loudest when their interests are affected. And they have influence too, with a number of wobbles over the past few days , especially from the LibDems but also including the Chancellor reminding us that his cuts package will be spread over four years.
Well that’s enough gloating, because sadly the bleaters are right. Whether you take the mainstream Labour view that the deficit must be reduced but at a slower rate, or you believe there’s an alternative approach, the argument for universal benefits remains that they inspire a genuine sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. It’s important to remember that universal benefits include the NHS and the primary and secondary education system, as well as cash benefits such as the state pension. Despite undoubted flaws in the quality of some state provision, and minority use of the private sector particularly for secondary education, there is still a consensus about the value of very large part of the UK’s welfare system. And of course the other side of the argument is that such provision should be paid for by progressive taxation. Once the better off become distanced from the welfare state, this case is weakened.
Labour’s new Shadow Cabinet must now take the opportunity to defend the concept of a universal benefits system paid for by taxation. Those who voted in the last election for a party that promised cuts in the national interest, without thinking they might be affected, should think about rediscovering the advantages of communal provision. The middle classes could learn a lesson from this. Be careful what you vote for, in case you get it.