It's a big U-turn. Shortly after his election as Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband used his first appearance at Prime Minister's Questions to attack the Prime Minister for removing Child Benefit from these families. He said he did not believe the changes were “fair and reasonable”. Even as recently as a few months ago, he was defending the principle of universal benefits:
Now he tells us he’s changed his mind.
But politicians execute U-turns (some more gracefully than others) all the time. Why is this one particularly significant?
First because this isn't just about Child Benefit. It's about how we tackle the deficit, which is the central issue in British politics. The changes to Child Benefit are one of a number of cuts this Government has had to make to restore financial sanity. Labour have vociferously opposed virtually every one. Now, with an Election approaching, they are being asked whether they would reverse them and if so how they would pay for it. They don't want to go into an Election promising huge increases in taxes and/or borrowing so in the vast majority of cases they have to say "No, we wouldn't reverse that". Expect lots more announcements like today's between now and the next Election (in passing, it was a tactical mistake to say that they wouldn't reverse one cut - they'll now get asked about all the others and it's much harder to say "We'll set out our position nearer the Election" when you're already set out your position in some areas).
Second, the centre ground of British politics has just shifted to the centre right. All three of the main parties now accept that universal Child Benefit (ie a benefit that everyone gets, regardless of their income) is unaffordable. As we have to take tough decisions in the next Parliament, there is now a precedent for looking at other universal entitlements. And once relatively well off people don't get anything from the welfare state, they are likely to take a more sceptical view of the size of the overall budget.
Third and most importantly, this change of heart speaks volumes about Ed Miliband's suitability to be Prime Minister. When he became Leader of the Labour Party, he had a key choice to make: accept that cuts on the scale the Coalition were proposing were necessary but question whether the particular cuts it was making were fair; or argue that cuts on that scale were both unnecessary and damaging. it was both an important choice in that it would define Labour's strategic position for this Parliament and a tough one - accepting the principle of cuts on this scale would both implicitly involve a recognition that the last Labour Government borrowed too much and upset his trade union supporters; refusing to do so would mean committing Labour to supporting higher taxes and/or borrowing. So what did Ed do? He couldn't choose. Instead, he took the easy way out, opposing pretty much all of the cuts but refusing to accept what such an approach would mean for taxes and/or borrowing if Labour were in office. Whoever is Prime Minister after the next Election is going to have to take some very tough decisions and Ed Miliband has just shown the electorate that he's a man who can't do that.