There are moments in your political life when you have to pinch yourself. When John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor said he wanted the Party to have a conversation about a basic income it was one of them. And before you are tempted to write this off as a mad left wing idea – just remember that joining John McDonnell on the platform to launch the Compass report on Basic Income is none other than Jonathan Reynolds, the much more “moderate” Labour MP.
John and Jonathan are speaking together because basic income, the payment of an unconditional sum to very adult, is an issue whose time has come. Trials are being planned in Finland and Holland, the RSA is backing a basic income and economists and technologists see it as an answer to the creaking welfare model and the march of the machines. It is an idea Labour should be examining hard and getting behind.
We live in an age of insecurity and anxiety. Pay and work has never been more precarious and it isn’t going to get any better. The welfare system is now so complex and bureaucratic as its tries to make allowances for the increasingly complex nature of our working and none working lives. What is more it humiliates people in the process. It is based on believing the worst in people – that they will lie and cheat and sit on the sofa and do nothing. We know we can’t win that debate and mustn’t even try.
Instead we should use the idea of a basic income to redesign social security and give everyone a floor under their feet from which they can get better paid jobs, training and have time to care, learn and be active citizens. We should use basic income to build a security system based on as belief in the best of people. And all the evidence of the trails shows that a basic income leads to people doing more – not doing nothing.
In 1945 Beveridge bravely set out the principles for the transformation of welfare. Today we have to set out new principles and practices based on our time and the demands of the future. The proposals in the Compass report, which have been fully modelled, introduce the principle of a basic income at a modest rate that can be scaled-up over time. Its is hugely progressive and benefits all but a tiny per cent of the population.
Of course, just like the national insurance system of Beveridge – based on jobs and labour markets that no longer exist – it will be resisted by those who say it’s impossible. So, apparently, were the NHS and the minimum wage!
Social democracy is dying the world over. Francois Hollande is polling at 15 per cent in France, the German SPD at 19 per cent, in Spain the PSOE look set to finish third for the first time ever. Labour and all social democrats need new ideas fit for the 21 st century.
Basic income appeals to people right through the income scales as white collar, middle class and professional lives become more precarious. A Universal Basic Income is an idea big enough to put Labour into power. But like 1945 the party has to be brave.
Neal Lawson is chair of Compass. The group launches its report on the universal basic income tonight.