A universal basic income (UBI) has long been mooted as the solution to a number of employment and welfare-related issues, most notably the increased mechanisation of the workforce, as well as reducing the stigma that is attached to those who have to claim welfare in order to survive.
However, it is perhaps the most sure-fire way of making any political party look out-of-touch with the working family, or at least it can be spun that way. Anyone reading this will, I’m sure, remember how the Conservatives made themselves the party of the ‘striver’ and Labour the party of the ‘skiver’ in 2010 and again in 2015.
The policy is destined to be a hard sell. On the face of it, it appears to legitimise unemployment by saying the state will provide for you even if you don’t do so yourself. It will make Labour look weak if we suggest it. Anyone who saw the Daily Mail headlines of ‘Labour la la land’ during the Party’s national conference in September will know that even something remotely equivalent to a UBI will face calls of Labour becoming the ‘loony left’. And that is regardless of whether or not anyone actually thinks about the policy.
So, what can be done? Is the UBI a good idea? Terrible idea? Somewhere in between?
I think it’s probably a good idea but needs a bit better press coverage. The UBI is the policy equivalent of Ed Miliband.
What are the good points of a UBI? Well, the main one (and, yes, this is where I talk about robots again) is the increased mechanisation of the workforce. One of the criticisms I encountered to my previous article on mechanisation was that the burden should be on the worker to retrain when their job has come under pressure from a robotic colleague. That is an argument that I can somewhat agree with. However, there must be limits to that argument.
What happens when there are no longer jobs that cannot be done by a mechanised foe? There must be a next step that does not stand in the way of progress or does not end in an apocalyptic civil war between humans and machines that we will surely lose. Perhaps that step is a UBI. Perhaps not, but it deserves to be discussed and not dismissed.
The next argument for why UBI should be at least discussed is the current condition of the welfare state. It is bureaucratic and laced with stigma from the Department of Work and Pensions, all the way down to your local job centre. The amount of people living in this country below the poverty line is staggering. The amount of people living in poverty, while at the same time working is just unacceptable. A UBI would end bureaucracy in the welfare system as well as cut down on the expensive and inefficient Government contracts with bodies like Capita and Atos.
On top of this the stigma faced by disabled people is disgusting and the benefits for which they are forced to beg are unfit for purpose. Instead of being encouraged to contribute to society in whatever way they can, people claiming PIP or DLA are forced to prove how disabled they are before they are even capable of claiming those benefits. Any attempt to contribute may be seen as proof that they are not disabled, that they are ‘benefits cheats’. A UBI would flip this system on its head. Providing a safety net for those claiming PIP or DLA whilst allowing them to contribute in whatever way they feel comfortable.
Now for the spin. And undoubtedly the angry remarks from people who don’t read this properly.
‘A UBI would just be an opportunity for skivers to not do a hard day’s work.’
This appears to be an argument against welfare in general as opposed to a UBI. The awkward truth is that some people will not work. We have discovered this in our current welfare system and have taken steps to ensure that people who can work, do so where there are jobs available. What a UBI would do is reduce poverty levels. The fact that you can work full-time and remain below the poverty line is unacceptable. If you are working and that job pays you so little that you are living in poverty, you should have the choice to leave that job and find another one. A UBI would provide that support.
‘How will we pay for your crazy communist ideas?’
It will involve a complete reform of the current welfare system. The elimination of the complex bureaucracy of the DWP, coupled with the termination of the government contracts with Atos, Maximus and Capita which cost more than they save would save a pretty penny that could go straight into the Basic income pot. Oh, and you could probably increase corporation tax a little bit. Not a lot, but a little. I mean, it is their fault this would happen of course. Given that many corporations don’t pay their staff enough, and, as a result, in-work poverty is at record levels.
Oh, and the mechanisation of the workforce means they don’t have to pay wages or benefits to a large number of staff. I think they could afford an extra bob or two in corporation tax. The argument in rebuttal of this is usually brain drain, and it is one worth considering, but the effect of tax flight would be lessened if the Corporation tax level was increased only slightly.
The hard sell
The UBI is a hard sell, especially for a party trying to shake the mantel of the Party of the Skiver, but policy-wise it is pretty strong. It has been trialled and mooted in a number of countries worldwide and is a relatively sensible means by which to counter advancing mechanisation. It needs work as a policy but should not be dismissed out-of-hand. We should start the discussion and work out a policy that works for everyone.
A policy that means that a UBI does not disadvantage those in work and does not unnecessarily advantage those who just don’t want to work. It should not be a policy about skiving, but about striving for a more equal society for all.