Ed Miliband reveals himself to be a “sympathiser” of universal basic income

Sienna Rodgers
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Ed Miliband has described himself as a “sympathiser” of universal basic income and backed proposals to pilot the policy proposal that would see the government offer regular payments to individuals without a means test.

The Labour frontbencher, who says he has “become more radical with age”,  was asked about UBI when he appeared live on the podcast ‘It’s Bloody Complicated’ of progressive think tank Compass on Thursday evening.

Setting out his views on the bold policy idea, the former Labour leader and current shadow cabinet member said the “massive change” was “not going to happen tomorrow” but that there should be pilots to test the scheme.

“I am a sympathiser of the UBI,” Miliband said. “One because I think that the current welfare system Universal Credit is not only intrusive, not only demeaning, not only doesn’t have that much popular support – in terms of the people on it, rightly – and it has caused terrible hardship and misery…

“Secondly, there’s a chap called Matthew Taylor who runs the RSA. He’s got this thing, which is the power to choose… I think it’s a very good way of putting it, which is the attraction of a UBI is it gives people more choice in life.

“More choice about caring, and properly values caring roles. More choices about the jobs they take. It gives people a platform.” Miliband added that automation is “not the main reason for it” but “in the background” as another good argument in favour of adopting UBI.

“It’s a big, big change,” the Shadow Business Secretary continued. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow and it’s not going to happen in the first term of a Labour government either – sorry to disappoint some people on the podcast.”

But he added: “We should at least do some pilots on this. Because all the pilots and trials that have been done on this say that quite the opposite from it discouraging work, either that is marginal or a non-existent issue.

“Actually you’ve got things going both ways here: yes you might be helping people to exercise their caring responsibilities, which is a good thing, but the current welfare system has a massive marginal tax rate where for extra pound, you go into work and you’re hardly better off.

“You earn more and you lose 70% of your income. We got rid of those very high marginal tax rates at the top, but we still have them at the bottom.

“So my view about this is that it’s a massive change, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. I think it is important to give it a chance and give it a hearing. That’s why I would find some ways of piloting it as other countries are doing.”

Miliband added that the coronavirus crisis had “exposed and highlighted” the case in favour of introducing a basic income, and he challenged UBI opponents to “tell me other things that we can do which are big interventions”.

The Shadow Business Secretary concluded on the Compass podcast: “Yes, there’s a big cost to it. That’s partly why I say it can’t be done overnight. But I think it’s got to be kept alive as an idea.”

Labour figures including Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and London mayor Sadiq Khan have supported the introduction of a UBI. A LabourList survey in May found that our readers overwhelmingly back the idea.

The party leadership has rejected the idea of starting a UBI amid the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking in April, Keir Starmer’s spokesperson said its implementation was “unlikely to be possible during the crisis”.

Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto included proposals to pilot the policy in several towns and cities across the UK, with bids from Liverpool and Sheffield among other areas.

Compass director Neal Lawson has written for LabourList to argue that Labour cannot “afford politically to be outflanked and left behind” on UBI and instead “must be part of this radical debate for change”.

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