As the country approaches a general election, a party leader, desperate to reassure a key group of voters, makes a very silly pledge. He is as unequivocal as possible that, in spite of the big spending implications in a time of economic crisis, he will stick to this silly pledge to keep his target voters happy. Months later, a Coalition has formed, and those target voters are enraged because that promise turned out to be worth little more than the paper it was written on.
We all know that this is what happened with the Lib Dems and their extraordinarily stupid pledge to block rises in tuition fees. But in 2010, David Cameron also made a similarly silly promise, which was to protect universal benefits for older people, including the winter fuel payment, TV licences and free bus passes when he knew there would have to be a squeeze on welfare payments. He said in May 2010:
‘And let me say very clearly to pensioners if you have a Conservative Government your Winter Fuel Allowance, your bus pass, your Pension Credit, your free TV licence all these things are safe. You can read my lips, that is a promise from my heart.’
Nick Clegg, who has been muttering about this for months, made another push on pensioner benefits today in his speech to CentreForum, mentioning ‘looking again at universal benefits paid to the wealthiest pensioners’. He might have half an eye on the work Ed Davey has been doing on the subject, first reported on Coffee House. The Prime Minister’s spokesman didn’t wait around to quash this suggestion, saying this morning:
‘The Prime Minister made a commitment to protect those benefits and he believes in keeping his promises.’
But aside from this wonderfully catty side-swipe, there are other Conservatives who are in favour of a move away from universal benefits, including Robert Halfon and Nick Boles. Labour, meanwhile, continue to oppose any change in its own silly way (it was the party’s scaremongering on pensioner benefits that provoked Cameron into making his pledge in the first place): Liam Byrne told me last week that ‘Winter Fuel Payment is actually a very efficient benefit’.
Aside from the nonsense of cutting benefits for working-age people who need the support while continuing to pay pensioners a benefit regardless of their financial circumstances, the Winter Fuel Payment is not efficient because it does not deal with the source of the problem in many cases. Every year, a pensioner in a cold, poorly insulated house will spend their £200 from the government bringing their rooms up from freezing cold to just about bearable, while the heat continues to dance merrily out of the loft and the windows. Targeting the payment towards insulating those houses would mean it could in the future pay for homes to be warm.
Clegg is unlikely to get his way on this before 2015: the Lib Dems might have suffered for their silly promise on fees, but the Tories will need something enormous to persuade them to break the manifesto pledge on universal benefits. But even if Cameron lets the Lib Dem leader chunter away about his own policies to no real effect, he should at least take heed of those within his own party who don’t want it to be another silly pledge in 2015.