The idea of a universal or unconditional basic income (UBI) is not a new idea. The concept of providing every citizen with a basic amount of money throughout their lifetime was first mooted by Thomas Paine, and has staunch defenders from around the world and across the political spectrum. The left applaud the principle of universality, its redistributive effect and the potential for tackling poverty; those on the Right see an encouragement to independence, a smaller state, and a way to tackle reliance on benefits.
The Labour Party’s move earlier this year to set up a working group on the subject has shifted it closer to the mainstream and closer to national policy. It was a welcome step towards recognising that some features of our state are in dire need of a radical overhaul.
The UBI offers an alternative to unpredictability. Job market volatility would be underwritten by a level of security. People could take their time to pick a job that suits them rather than any one immediately available, which would deliver a long-term boost to productivity. Women could decide when – or if – to return to work after having a baby, based on what works for their family, rather than a choice between career suicide or prohibitive childcare costs. The list of examples is endless.
There is often an immediate reaction, even among those who like the idea, that delivering UBI would be politically impossible. But the real political toxicity lies in trying to defend a system which works for no-one, and in offering nothing more than continuation of an ineffective and grinding status quo.
I remember canvassing years ago in one of the most deprived areas of the ward I now represent. My colleague came back from one house shaking her head and I asked her what was wrong.
“He’s on the minimum wage, he’s just got a job after being out of work for five years, and his daughter’s a single mum on benefits. But he says he’s voting Conservative. Why doesn’t he understand?”
It’s an argument repeated around the country, and it’s one that if the left continues to misunderstand, we will continue to lose. The man she spoke to probably would have been better off if we’d won that year because he was largely reliant on the state. But he didn’t want to be. He wanted to earn enough for high tax to be an issue, he wanted to own his own house, to drive a nice car, to work for a company – or even run his own – that was doing well. And under that logic it made perfect sense for him to vote Conservative because they promised that everyone could do those things. Targeting people’s immediate situations is no longer a strategy that is fit for purpose. And promising people what we think they ought to want is ineffective and patronising.
The UBI is a policy which seeks to provide a sustainable path into the future, rather than stop-gap solutions for an often dismal present. Even if everyone on benefits of any sort were Labour’s “natural” supporters, the welfare state under the Conservatives has been decimated beyond all recognition. Why would anyone vote Labour if our promises go no further than “defending” a system which is now dangerously punitive and morally bankrupt?
For the Labour party, UBI as a policy gives us a way forward. It allows us to defend our core principles in a meaningful way. The “scroungers and shirkers” narrative is undermined by the fact that UBI is universal and de-stigmatising. The staggering complexity of our current system is resolved. And the cruelty and humiliation which has become an inherent part of our welfare state is removed. Proposed in a way which appeals emotionally as well as practically – for example, beginning with children first – answers some of the obvious criticisms around it being deliverable.
The UBI is a policy of hope and aspiration. It sends a message that everyone deserves a fighting chance – but it encourages them to make what they can of that chance. It shows that as a country, and as a party, we value caring roles as much as paid work. It says loudly and clearly that we can do better.
We can do better as a society. We can also do better as individuals, with liberties and freedoms which allow us to really achieve our potential. We can do better as entrepreneurs, with the courage to try something new, and as creatives, with the freedom not to starve in the pursuit of art. How far back has the human race been held while some of our best minds sweated in steel mills and mines and childbirth?
Universal basic income is not an easy answer. It is not a fix-all solution. Poverty and inequality in the UK have very deep roots and leave very deep scars, whether on the individual psyche, on a community, or on our nations. But what UBI does do is openly acknowledge that what we have now is not working – for anyone. And it offers a solution with appeal beyond a narrow cohort of the left.
Erin Hill is a councillor in Kirklees in Yorkshire.