Labour fuel policy struggles to find universal welcome

We learned a little more today about what Labour would do if it wins power at the May 2015 general election.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said richer pensioners (those with incomes of more than around £42,000 a year) would lose their entitlement to winter fuel payments of up to £300 a year.

It would not in itself save much cash, but Labour hope it will re-assure voters that the party would apply "iron discipline" to the UK's finances. It's something of a shift in emphasis since Ed Miliband told the BBC last January that universal benefits were "an important bedrock of our society."

Universalism tends to be more cherished in Welsh Labour circles. Prescriptions, for example, in Wales are free, whether you're a millionaire or a pauper. The proposed end of a universal winter fuel payment has been criticised by Neath MP (and former Welsh Secretary) Peter Hain.

Mr Hain (63) is the sort of sixtysomething who would lose their entitlement to the payments, although he is making a broader point here - that in his view there are three main problems with the proposal. It would raise relatively little money, would prompt questions about an extension of means testing to other benefits, and could make it difficult to persuade "middle Britain" to fund non-universal benefits through their taxes.

Ed Balls's speech went beyond winter fuel benefits. There was a warning for his shadow cabinet colleagues that their focus "must be on how to re-prioritise money within and between budgets for current spending, rather than coming to me with proposals for any additional spending". The coalition's spending plans "would be our starting point".

Labour's "serious policy action" would include: "A fair cap on household benefits - not one that costs more than it saves, and which takes account of housing costs in different parts of the country - with an independent body, like the Low Pay Commission, advising on whether the cap should be higher in high-cost housing areas like London, but potentially lower in other parts of the country."

The Liberal Democrats pointed out that Mr Balls didn't say much about this policy during his recent visit to south Wales. Lib Dem Whip Jenny Willott said: "Labour's plan for regional benefits would victimise people looking for work in Wales merely because of where they live.

"Welsh Liberal Democrats fought and won our campaign to halt George Osborne's plans for regional pay, will Welsh Labour now do likewise on regional benefits?"

The (national) household cap on benefits is seen as one of the coalition's more popular policies among voters. Ed Miliband is likely to say more later this week about how a Labour government would tackle rising welfare bills.