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By Peter Hoskin
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MiliE

Standing
in for the recovering Andrew Marr, James Landale managed to extract several noteworthy
lines from Ed Miliband on the Marr Show earlier. Among them was the Labour
leader’s claim that, despite recent speculation to the contrary, Ed Balls would
“absolutely” remain in his job until 2015 — but more striking, to my ears, was
his defence of universal benefits.

Attacking
the Government’s child benefit cuts, he said that “universal benefits are an
important bedrock of our society.” And he made a similar point
in defence of pensioner benefits such as the Winter Fuel Allownace.

This
shouldn’t be too surprising. Even back
in March 2010
, before he became Labour leader, Mr Miliband distinguished
between “a residual welfare state that is just for the poor, which is the Tory
position,” and a “more inclusive welfare state”. His argument was that the
former goes against “all the evidence of maintaining public support [for the
welfare state]” — and he has continued with it, with varying force, ever since.

But
what’s different between then and now is the political context. As I pointed
out
the other day, there is now a growing, more determined consensus around
cutting universal benefits — yet Mr Miliband appears determined not to join it.
And so it seems that, at the next election, he will be arguing in favour of
spending taxpayers’ money on things like free bus passes and free TV licences
for millionaires. That David Cameron may be doing likewise doesn’t make it any
less of a difficult sell.

Strangely
enough, the Labour leader could also suffer from holding such a consistent line
against the Tories’ own inconsistency. When he stands up for universality in
the case of Child Benefit, he is attacking the Conservatives’ policy. But when
he does so in the case of old-age benefits, he is, in effect, defending the
Conservatives’ policy, which is still to retain those benefits. So, unless the
facts change between now and the election, Mr Miliband is hardly establishing a
clear dividing line with which to trip up his opponents.

And
there is another problem with Mr Miliband’s position: he won’t yet commit his
party to undoing some of the Government cuts that he’s complaining about, such
as those to Child Benefit. On the Marr Show, he put this down to a reluctance
to repeat the mistakes of John Smith’s “shadow budget” — which is
understandable enough. But it does look rather opportunistic, doesn’t it?

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