There are two golden rules in British politics…convinced the public that the National Health Service is always a national treasure and don’t start a punch-up with pensioners.
So far, however star-crossed the UK’s Coalition government is, somehow it has managed to avoid the unpardonable sins of upsetting either apple-cart, despite David Cameron doing more U-turns than a motorist with a demented sat-nav system.
The Prime Minister may be accident-prone and finding Downing Street a morass of quicksand, but he’s doing a fair impression of minimising harm to the money pit that is the NHS and not trying to squeeze the last pips from OAPs.
Low inflation, meagre interest rates on savings and rising utility prices are taxing the elderly enough already, so reducing or axing their universal benefits – winter fuel allowance, non-requisite TV licences for the over-75s and free bus travel – would be electoral suicide.
The brouhaha over Chancellor Osborne’s wheeze to make retirees pay the first £120,000 of care-home costs was quickly rumbled and instantly reduced to £75K. There’s been a similar reversal, too, over private pension drawn-down schemes, which the Inland Revenue skimmed by 20% two years ago, only to reinstate the cut this January.
Besides, as leader of a party whose dwindling membership is mainly composed of over-60s stalwarts, Cameron and Co – the Lib-Dems, too, even if they won’t countenance a reduction in Inheritance Tax – know the value and psyche of the Blue Rinse Brigade.
Come election day, pensioners are more conditioned to vote than any other demographic group and Tory-minded volunteers can be relied on to stuff envelopes full of manifesto bumf, knock on doors and put up posters in their chintz-curtained windows.
In contrast, Labour, which can’t seem to decide whether it’s Old or New, is displaying all the symptoms of a political lemming under geeky Ed Miliband’s stewardship by deliberately targeting the wrinklies and crinklies.
Red Ed, who says he won’t reverse Coalition cuts to Child Benefit, recently backed his wannabe Chancellor Ed Balls’ plan to exclude rich pensioners from receiving the £200 winter fuel grant and stop their gratis bus-hopping (if, indeed, they ever do so).
Balls said, ‘When we introduced the winter allowance we introduced it universally in a different circumstance. It’s tougher times now. I think it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t pay it to the richest five per cent [but] keep it for everyone else.’
And on free TV licences worth £145, he noted rather ominously, ‘I think you have to be pragmatic about that one to be honest.’
In the cold glare of financial reality, removing the winter fuel subsidy to fatter-cat pensioners would net about £100M, manifestly less by axing the telly grant. Together, they’d hardly make a dent in the country’s debt.
It’s therefore fair to assume that the man who assisted Gordon Brown in the biggest, barmiest government spending spree in history – one that has contributed exponentially to the UK’s dire financial plight – is telling Darby and Joan that Labour has them in its crosshairs.
And once the breach has been made by means-testing universal benefits, rarely can it be reversed. So, if a sliding scale of disentitlement is introduced, who’s to say it won’t slither downwards to trap not just five per cent, but 10, 15 or 20 per cent?
Bizarrely, this might appease a few over-loaded old timers, who can manage very nicely, thank you, by private means without being encumbered with state largesse and they’re insisting on making maximum fuss about not receiving it.
So let me state, unequivocally, that I have no gripe with fatter cats, of whatever vintage, giving away money (though, ironically, those who’ve tried to return their pensions to the Treasury have been told where to stick the moolah, because they can’t do that).
By all means lavish what you don’t need on your favourite kith and kin, charity or bookmaker.
However, these aren’t privileges you’re undermining, but universal benefits all are entitled to receive by law. And, if you’ve been fortunate to be a high earner, you’ve paid your fair share of income tax and national insurance to justify a small return in your dotage.
I know it sounds ridiculous that multi-millionaires, like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Bruce Forsyth, should receive pensions+benefits, but that’s how the system was designed and should remain.
If you don’t like it, vote Labour, because Ed Balls will be delighted to grant your wish.