As Paul Waugh
"http://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/32791/purnells_universalism.html">notes, James Purnell’s article for the
"http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article3106120.ece">Times today (£) is striking for its attack on universal benefits. "I have never bought the argument,"
writes the former welfare secretary, "that universal benefits bind the middle classes in. It feels too much like taxing with one hand to give back with another." Although this is, in
truth, a point that he has been making for some time. He said something similar in a "http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6906198/purnell-stakes-out-a-new-welfare-battleground.thtml">speech back in April.
The question, really, is how much Purnell’s viewpoint will percolate down through Labour circles. During last year’s leadership election, it seemed as though universal benefits
"http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6216958/this-parliaments-key-dividing-line.thtml">were to become one of the defining divides of this Parliament: with Labour standing up for measures
such as the Winter Fuel Allowance and bus passes, and the coalition slowly stripping them away to hasten along deficit reduction. But that divide has never really kicked in, not least because the
Tory leadership has been reluctant to provoke the middle class and elderly voters who receive these hand-outs. And now Labour types like Purnell are pushing in the opposite direction, urging their
party to do what was unthinkable only a few months ago.
If the debate were to flip, with Labour sniping at the coalition’s universalism, it would certainly throw up some intriguing politics. Just imagine if Ed Balls could, for once, actually fund one of
his tax cuts, by pledging to scrap some of the middle class benefits that cost the Exchequer tens of £billions a year. Given their views, the Lib Dems might line up with him. And — who
knows? — in that sort of atmosphere Cameron and Osborne could even be persuaded to trim the universal benefits bill themselves. Certainly one to keep an eye on, as politics sweats through the