It will come back and when it does it will haunt the Shadow Chancellor, but for now- his speech and the briefing to the media released the day before it that contained a pledge to end Winter Fuel Allowances for some wealthy pensioners is already off the News agenda today. It will be forgotten for some time.
Ed Balls has surrendered ground on fundamental keystones of social security which will have lasting consequences, in return for very brief and insubstantial publicity and political advantage. I have written about the Prime Minister, I have written about the Leader of the Official Opposition and to a lesser extent about the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Soon the time will come to write about Edward Balls, because the first purpose of this blog is to probe all the possible reasons for why official policy on social security in Britain is decided. For now though, this announcement started some debate which may have already ended but if it doesn't then I want to be in the middle of it slapping people with a wet fish. These debates have a tendency to be of very low quality, so I don't see how this could be bringing down the tone. Typically they are about 'what is right' or 'what is fair' or 'what gets popular support' as if these things immediately matter.
The first thing that immediately matters but gets overlooked in each of them: 'what is'.
Universalism in social security, like Starfleet's Prime Directive is not just 'a principle' or 'an ideal'. Unlike the Monarchy, they both serve an actual tangible function. The Prime Directive prevents exploitation, particularly covert or complex systems of exploitation. Universalism means that an ill-informed, ambitious or unscrupulous politician can not immediately do terrible malevolent things. I'd rather defend a castle designed like a maze than one that makes sense. However it is by invoking the things that don't make sense that politicians justify their attack on social security- which is why it is so important people understand this maze, what they are defending and use reason and evidence in doing so. The Labour leadership has abandoned reason and evidence. They will likely not confront their real record on social security from their time in government.
The mistake people are going to make is to defend universalism 'on principle' or by appealing to the 'popular support' it encourages. But these are not Facts, they are very difficult to demonstrate with evidence and why are our sincerely and long-held principles superior to the ones which Ed Balls will discard as soon as it is expedient? Obvious, but can it be proven with evidence that can't be disputed?
'What is' is that politicians enable themselves to be worse. Parliament can not bind it's successors, but must still follow the laws it doesn't repeal. Those are hurdles they have to navigate first, warning careful observers well in advance of what could be at stake. What Ed Balls has done is commit his party to a tiny budget saving, but if this happens then the statutory instrument for it will be created and it will still be there after X number of upper income pensioners have Y amount of money taken from them. So what happens later when a politician decides they want to make a bigger saving? There are then way fewer checks and balances.
Most of the complexity in social security is not in the primary legislation but in the regulations and guidelines, which primary legislation proscribes what they can do. The Coalition has used this complexity to justify making changes but really they've just expanded what is proscribed so there will be more complexity, not less because the statutory instruments have had their role expanded. Ed Balls is wanting to do the same damn thing with Winter Fuel Allowance- introduce the statutory instrument that enable real abuse later.
This is not the same as making a 'slippery slope' argument: I am not saying that A always leads to C, but that C requires B which requires A meaning that C requires A. We could not have had £9,000 annual tuition fees imposed on students by this government without tuition fees being imposed in the first place by the previous one. Without the Personal Capability Assessment there would be no Work Capability Assessment. Without the New Deals, there would be no Work Programme. Universal Benefit claimants will lose all statutory rights because despite the claims of politicians, JSA claimants have always been at the mercy of the legally-binding Jobseekers Agreement since the 90s. Having realised that despite this being the case for ages, the public hasn't noticed so they were able to get away with massively expanding this abusive power of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the Welfare Reform Act so it includes every claimant even if they are in work.
They could not have done any of these terrible things without first overcoming the initial massive hurdles to implement tiny insignificant policies, only to later use the statutory framework developed after the fact to do much worse. What will Ed Balls do when someone decides to expand the scope of who is affected? Will he say "I never thought that would happened" or will he be the one himself who does it?
Universalism is not negotiable. That is not a statement of principle. It's my cynical survival reflex.