Ideas are, far and away, the single most important thing in politics. They are an essential part of elections and policy. They can come to define failed leaders or great statesmen. They are a higher power which have the ability to inspire followers and bridge political divides. Decisions made today about issues such as Brexit, coronavirus and economic inequality are often determined by a thinker or thought conjured up long before now. In this spirit, ideas of yesterday are often competing and being replaced with the ideas of today and tomorrow. Universal Basic Income, a.k.a UBI, is no different. The idea holds that the government should give each citizen a set amount of money on a regular basis in order to provide a basic income for the necessities we each need. Such necessities include food and housing amongst others. Though thought of as a relatively new idea, it’s an idea that has a long history. President Richard Nixon himself discussed in private the possibility of a UBI in the United States. It has in more recent times been trialed in Canada, Finland and Scotland. The literature surrounding it is increasing every week and in light of coronavirus and the economic and social consequences it presents, it’s an idea that has been floated about in many western countries.
For those who don’t know me very well (which I can imagine will be a vast majority) it’s probably worth me outlining a few things from the get go. Firstly, I am a strong supporter of UBI. It, for me, represents the end of poverty and prejudicial welfare as we know it. In many of the UBI case studies the results all demonstrate the same things: crime is reduced, child mortality is reduced, the gender pay gap is reduced, mental health issues are reduced, poverty is eliminated. Often criticisms levelled at UBI tend to be along the lines of: people won’t work if they don’t have an incentive to work. The case studies done so far indicate that this isn’t the case with only a minor drop in working hours if no drop at all. UBI can also be politically unifying with both the right and the left being seduced by its many benefits. The left supports its ability to reduce poverty and welfare prejudice and the right supports it because it reduces the vast bureaucracy surrounding welfare systems and can encourage entrepreneurism. Fredrich von Hayek, a prominent right-wing economist of the 20th century, was a big fan.
The benefits of UBI are innumerable and the cons are outweighed heavily by these pros. However, I don’t want to argue about whether it’s a good idea or not; the evidence clearly sways in UBI’s favour. I don’t want this to be an argument about whether it should or could be implemented. Feasibility is a non-argument when you take into account modern welfare budgets and the cost of many unnecessary wars. You also have to factor in costs saved as well in healthcare, mental health and policing. Whether we can isn’t really up for dispute. I want this to be an argument about the most important part of whether we can achieve a UBI. In fact, it’s part of the very crux of the title. When do we make the arguments and implement a UBI? It’s all well and good having a good idea that’s feasible. The important bit is when. When do we make these arguments and when is it advantageous to do so?
Timing is essential in politics. For example, would arguments about whether or not we join the euro be well timed today? Not really. The euro is struggling. Not just in the wake of the eurozone crisis in 2009 and the decimation of the mediterranean EU states but coronavirus isn’t necessarily lending a hand either. If you were to make arguments about joining the euro now you would be at best ignored, maybe even ridiculed. That doesn’t mean it’s a good or bad idea it just means that, because of the political circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to make those arguments now. Was it best to have arguments about the euro back in the early 2000s when the economy was doing well and the euro seemed unassailable? Absolutely; however this doesn’t mean that your arguments are, because of timing, guaranteed to succeed. The euro arguments made in the early 2000s are, again, a good example of this. Yet, it does make strategic sense to make the arguments not just convincingly and eloquently but also at the right time.
The same applies to UBI. The arguments are there, the data is there to support them, the grassroots movement exists. The foundations for a debate about the practicality and implementation of a UBI is there and ready. Is now, in Britain at least, the right time to be making these arguments? My inclination is towards now not being the right time. I know what you’re thinking: if not now, when there is an economic and particularly an income crisis, then when? Now surely seems the logical time to be making such arguments. Alas, I don’t think it is. Don’t get me wrong I do think that in this situation, in this crisis, UBI would have been the perfect remedy for a crisis of income. However, the time has long passed to be making those arguments. They should have been made weeks ago when the government was formulating its furlough scheme. For all its faults, the furlough scheme, as of today, is generally accepted to be a reasonable response to the income crisis. It’s very hard to make a popular argument that firstly, a scheme which is relatively popular is not good and secondly, that UBI would be better. Of course this is the right argument because the furlough scheme does have flaws and UBI could easily solve them. However, it is simply a strategic error to be making such arguments now. The window of opportunity has gone.
The strategic brain would now be thinking we have to make arguments about PPE shortages, the crisis in care homes and the fact that 1.5 million people have gone without a full day of food during lockdown. These are arguments that are both topical and easy to create widespread support for. UBI, I am afraid to say, is not an argument that makes strategic sense to be made now. The discussions taking place now are about the things I stated before and UBI would likely be drowned out by these other conversations. In fact, the movement for UBI may well take a couple of steps backwards if the case is made prematurely. There has to be time and space for the argument to be made for a UBI. Despite this and the fact that the window of opportunity was missed several weeks ago, there will be further opportunities some of which will be in the very near future. Post-covid the conversations will undoubtedly be about how fit for purpose society is as it stands. There will be widespread discussion about problems, ideas and policy. Whether we should raise wages for essential workers, whether we need more workplace protections, whether we need to ensure that any economic settlement includes the need for companies to start paying their fair share of tax. An obvious part of this discussion has to be about welfare and UBI.
As it is part of this wider discussion it will be easier to integrate arguments and form a narrative for change. It’s obvious that wages are too low and the cost of living too high. It’s slightly less obvious but still as important to recognise that people are, as shown by coronavirus, far too reliant on employers for their income and prosperity. The important bit will be making the case for UBI as part of a broader solution. If there was something important to learn from the 2019 election it would be about timing. The free broadband policy was a very good policy. It makes sense that in the 21st century access to the internet should be guaranteed to all. However, it wasn’t popular. Why? The policy had been dumped at the feet of voters weeks before the election without making the foundational arguments in advance and without integrating it into a coherent and appealing narrative. The same applies to UBI. We have to make the foundational arguments first about the importance of leisure, the importance of a good welfare system and the importance of universality as opposed to means tested. Then we need to make the argument for UBI as part of a broader package that is not only coherent but also appealing. If we don’t do these things then you can kiss the prospect of success goodbye.
We must of course use this crisis to further our ambitions for a UBI. Often one of my criticisms of the left is that we are generally rubbish at using crises to further our political ambitions. But during the crisis is not the right time. Rather, we need to make the foundational arguments now about incomes, job security and welfare, then in the aftermath present a broader package of remedies among which UBI would be an ideal member. If we dump the idea of UBI into the mix now it will not be seen as reasonable nor fair. It will be rejected based on the fact that there are more pressing matters and that it’s just not achievable right now. Obviously I think it’s achievable and many of you reading this probably think it’s achievable too; but me and you aren’t the only people that a) go out to vote and b) matter in this discussion. One of the great successes of the 20th century – the 1945 election win for Labour and the policies it then undertook – is often thought to have happened purely because they were radical and bold. They were radical and bold, to deny this would be to deny reality but that’s not the whole picture. Between 1940 and 1945, the grand coalition had left Labour largely in charge of domestic issues. It was this process of making the foundational arguments during the crisis, about the need for state intervention to protect people and support them, that meant come election time the foundations were already there. They just needed to propose a broader package which matched these arguments. We have to learn from this success and others like it just as much as we do the failures. We can’t just assume that people are logically going to think UBI is a brilliant policy if we don’t put the hard graft in beforehand. It’s a mistake we have made again and again in modern history. Let’s not make it again. We owe it to the people we represent not to.
This article was written two or so weeks prior to it’s publication here; it’s argument still stands and the examples still valid.