Chris Smith discusses why the Labour Party should be pushing for universal basic income in the name of constructive opposition.
The longer the Covid-19 crisis continues the more difficult and dangerous the job of official opposition becomes for Labour. To avoid “opposition for oppositions sake” as Keir Starmer has pledged is magnanimous and whilst a welcome break from punch and Judy politics it runs the risk of making Labour seem irrelevant to the public unless it can provide clear answers to what it would do differently. Being able to present itself as a credible party of government distinctly different to the Tories whilst avoiding appearing opportunistically contrarian will be a very difficult line to walk. Doing so successfully will require careful choices of where to be bolder than the current leadership has currently been and I suggest the party championing the universal basic income is just such a policy.
For Labour to carry out this dual role of opposition to scrutinise government and provide an alternative to the public it must develop policies that in addition to their own merits can satisfy the following conditions, all of which I will argue the UBI can:
1: Set the political weather without appearing opportunistic
2: Be constructive in engaging with government policy whilst also setting out clear divergence.
3: Being positive in outlook, avoiding the traditional left wing trap of protesting without a programme for government and in the process painting a picture of a hopeless nation. Talking in terms of what Labour is for rather than just what it is against.
The UBI satisfies these as the government’s current programs of loans to businesses, tax holidays, furloughing of workers and speeding up of universal credit payments have massively increased the social security net. In the words of the Chancellor no less the government has put its arms around vast sections of the economy. If Labour was to champion the UBI it is not because the governments programs are wrong, it is that they have not gone far enough, been brought in fast enough and crucially are a reaction to an extreme situation rather than the actions of a government that sees the state as having a positive role to play to the lives of all citizens. This ultimately is a foundational difference between the left and right which championing the UBI now can make clear when such ideas will get a fair hearing with right wing scare mongering about government handouts creating dependency cultures having been exposed for what they are (at least temporarily) by the new reality.
Nye Bevan when defending the cost of the health service to those who complained of its costs outweighing benefits used to draw attention to a ledger overlooked by most book keepers. That being the cost to the country saved and the revenues generated by all of those treated by the health service and returned swiftly to work. The top argument against UBI is it would be prohibitively expensive. Leaving aside how the current crisis has shown that governments can mobilise vast sums when there is the will to do so let us apply Bevan’s logic to the present day. Think back to the wave of anxiety that greeted the first confused announcements that a lock down would be coming and businesses must be closed and workers potentially let go. All gone with UBI in place.
The argument against precarious employment is perhaps the oldest of left wing causes and the comparison of zero hours contracts to the labour exchanges of the early 1900s an often made one. However, one that hasn’t cut through to date as too many are just comfortable enough to feel it did not apply to them. Until now when many in prosperous professions or even successful small business owners find themselves in precariat. Look beyond coronavirus and the longer term state of British working life shows UBI as an idea whose time has come. It is common knowledge Britain is a nation beset by mental health issues and low productivity, the two of course being linked but to what extent being unclear. Millions attest to worries of lack of work, or resentment of work contributing to this with fear of destitution being what traps them in a miserable daily grind injurious to their and the health of the nation.
Alleviating this brings us to the second debate over UBI that of the virtues of universal versus means tested benefits. The last Labour manifesto was criticised quite rightly over its huge universalist commitments. Many of which were poorly chosen and should not be allowed to detract from the case for UBI which stands apart from free broadband to take the most notorious example. There is great positivity to universality which needs rediscovering such as how it restores the notion that all citizens even the middle class and rich can be united in benefitting from a functioning state. Too long the debate has been binary that the state is a minimum standard only for the poor at the expense of the middle and upper class who can afford better and in doing so pay twice, and in practical electioneering terms to form government you need such universal support. As Atlee & Wilson observed long before the notion of Labour being a one nation party became tainted by association with Blairism. That said it is the poor who will benefit the most from UBI and universality overcomes the most damaging issue with means testing the creation of “the undeserving poor” and the notion that poverty is a lack of character rather than what it truly is a lack of money.
This debate has been ongoing in this form not just since Bevan wrote In place of Fear in 1952 but since Thomas Paine wrote the Rights of Man back in 1791. If Labour was to grasp this opportunity to finally resolve it that would truly make the political weather and in such a way that would let the Left set the narrative of what our priorities are to be after lockdown.