In Search of a Vision: What Labour Can Learn From Professor Guy Standing

Ethan Penny sits down with Professor Guy Standing, as they discuss issues such as Universal Basic Income, public ownership and how Labour can win the next election. 

After twelve dismal years, the Conservative Party appears well along the path into the electoral wilderness. Two leadership hopefuls, each laden with scandal and shortcomings, have desperately thrust a string of promises before the Tory selectorate, shirking public interest for dogmatic ideological purity.

Keir Starmer finds himself in perhaps the most politically opportune position possible – beginning to break his vow of policy silence and trickle through a string of vague promises, but our party lacks a compelling vision.

Last week, I sat down with Guy Standing,  professorial research associate at SOAS and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network, to discuss his ideas and the importance of an energised Left. Since his student days in the 1970s, Guy Standing has been at the forefront of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) debate, producing works lauded in circles of progressive economists and gospel for anyone passionate about UBI. His books are crafted with the precision of academia and infused with rhetorical zeal. He tells me that the Left's traditional social democratic focus on "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" has got to step aside for something new, visionary, and compelling. Here's what we can learn.

Our conversation began with Standing's new book "The Blue Commons", a timely expose on the role of "rentier capitalism" in the destruction of our oceans. Ocean ecosystems, once part of the "commons" (and thus belonging to all), are now pawns in games of private capital. The result, Standing relates, is the destruction of our seabeds, the depletion of fish populations, the loss of biodiversity and the deregulation of practices at the hands of multinationals, subsidised by governments and facilitated by international organisations.

Soberly, Standing explains that the treatment of our oceans is a piece within the broader neoliberal trend towards environmental profiteering and exploitation. The movement kickstarted by Thatcher, ignored by New Labour in the early 2000s, and bolstered by the austerity packages of the coalition government, is set to receive a new lease of life through the appointment of a hard-right populist in the form of Sunak or Truss. The solution, which can only be the responsibility of the Left, is to create a "new vocabulary" beyond the limits of private wealth and corporations and towards public ownership. Labour's own hesitancy over public ownership not only defies the trend of public opinion but now stands at odds with ecological necessity. Any economic arguments for public ownership are surplus to the environmental imperative of reclaiming our public wealth – such will be the case of the Green New Deal motion at the upcoming Labour conference. For as long as our flawed distribution of wealth concentrates public profits in the hands of those at the top, "growth, growth, growth" will merely be paper over deep social and economic cracks.

Our conversation progressed onto Universal Basic Income, the topic for which Standing is best known. His books and research have pushed the policy into the political and economic mainstream. Against the tide of conservative thinkers who capitalise on UBI as a potential replacement for welfare, Standing's UBI is part of an enlightened social relationship with wealth and property – linked to the "intuitive claim that society's wealth is collective in character".

Standing asserts that the case for UBI is "ethical, not instrumental", as compensation for the loss of what we once owned in the Commons and a giver of "resilience" to people scourged by injustice and inequity. It thus takes on a unique liberating role: offering financial autonomy to the abused and a shot at redemption to the fallen.

The Left needs to champion this vision of UBI. Progressive politicians – most recently Manchester's mayor Andy Burnham – proclaim their support for UBI and consider its rollout inevitable, but it has yet to reach a Labour manifesto. Calling for UBI in the backdrop of global financial ruin would be challenging. Still, the speed of automation remains untrammelled and will lumber any Labour government with profound social consequences, which only UBI can forestall.

Automation accounts for only half of the shift in labour patterns we'll see in the next few decades, and the Left has a uniquely poor record of coping with them. The decline of partisan class voting plunged our party into the pits of an identity crisis from which we're still clambering to escape. Professor Standing explains that what we once described as the proletariat, with a distinct, working-class identity, is becoming a precariat, typified by the modern 'gig' economy, and without a fundamental social character.

Standing's conception of the precariat class stretches beyond the obvious

connection to precarious labour. He draws on the Latin derivation of precarious – meaning 'obtained from prayer' – to explain that the precariat class relies on a higher authority and lacks self-determination. They are, as Standing explains, the most vulnerable, not solely to poverty but also to populism. Our party must not only win the trust of the forgotten precariat but put forward a plan to protect them.

Our current leadership seem content in Labour's position as the not-Tory option, happy to lead a party devoid of a distinct identity beyond this simple negation. A new populist at the helm of the Conservatives, feigning unorthodoxy and identifying as a break from the Johnsonite status quo, will drain the appeal of a Labour party without a distinct character. If we cannot capture hearts and minds with an unapologetically transformative platform, a hard-right, populist Tory campaign would not be the making of our victory but would more likely spell our defeat.

We need a youthful, energetic Labour vision, rich in the language of transformation. Young people should be the driving force of such a campaign. In our conversation, Standing makes more than one reference to his desire to be a student again, inheriting a political landscape with such promise of change. His words in The Precariat (2011) said it best: "Youth has always been the repository of anger about the present, and the harbinger of a better tomorrow". The future is ours. We must find our feet and look forwards, for the Left without a vision will remain in opposition.

Ethan Penny is the Policy Officer of the Young Fabians Under 19s Advocacy Group, as well as serving as Under 19s Officer of North West Young Fabians and Oldham Young Labour. He tweets at @ethanpennny.

Cover image from Stanislas Jourdan, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

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