I’ve been thinking about Universal Basic Income (UBI) a lot recently…in a good way. What sort of society could we become if each adult citizen was given say £1000 a month each, from the state? There would be no strings attached; that £1000 per month would be a right for each man or woman over the age of 18. A study released by the University of Bath in September suggested that 49% of 18-79 year olds would support a policy of this nature and certainly, in principle at least, UBI tackles poverty in a brave, bold way. It is ‘Tom-Paine-Thinking’ for the Twenty-First Century.
I think to my friends. Most of whom are in their 30s and 40s and what you could politely describe as being stagnantly mid-career. Would being in receipt of UBI change what we were doing with our lives? Would my teacher friends still teach? Would my friends in the NHS still want to work for our struggling health service? Would my banker friends still steal money from the poor to line the pockets of The Man (obviously I’m joking; I don’t have any banker friends – ahem, Sorry Dave). For most they probably wouldn’t change the job, they would change the hours. For some, it would give them the confidence to try a start-up idea, or launch a ‘passion project’ long since shelved for fear of leaving their families without, if and when it failed. UBI could give Britain the chance to be more creative, most aspirational and much, much braver.
It could also help ease Britain’s growing mental health crisis. We are overworked; as Owen Jones detailed in The Guardian yesterday in his calls for a four-day week, nearly half of all people suffering from stress, depression or anxiety, attribute it to workload. UBI could allow all workers the choice to spend more time with their families. It could help liberate the workers; I make no apology if I come over full on Marx here, but UBI is going to be a key part of liberating workers from the oppression of labour. Indeed, economic and industrial development has long been seen as a precondition for Socialism and with Artificial Intelligence potentially rendering many jobs we know today obsolete, it may well be that the industrial developments of the Twenty-First Century actually bring the voices calling for UBI away from the traditional ‘hard’ left and into the centre.
Combined with Labour’s proposed National Education Service, which will offer free education at any point in life, adults could re-enter education, re-train, re-fresh, and ultimately become a more academic, skilled workforce; they would use UBI to facilitate and free-up the hours for part-time study. A more skilled workforce, eventually gives back to the state in increased productivity. Could the policy then pay for itself?
Well there has to be another form of funding UBI, at least initially. Most here on the left, would raise taxes; but a Canadian poll in 2016 showed that support for UBI fell dramatically when such rises in taxation were mentioned. Neo-liberals would fund UBI another way: essentially by stripping away most welfare. It may well be that welfare can have a huge shake-up if UBI were introduced, but there will always be people for whom circumstance requires financial support from the state.
So, it certainly won’t all be plain sailing: some experts warn that UBI could, within a generation, simply reinforce women’s traditional role by encouraging them to return to providing care and household services. It could spell the end of state maternity pay and limit further entitlements to child benefit. In the USA, supporters of UBI see it as allowing women to spend more time at home with new-born babies before returning to work; of course, the USA does not have a Welfare State like ours in the UK. The introduction of UBI would raise other serious questions relating to benefits: Would there be any more need for a state pension? Would there be a sort of ‘UBI-plus’ for a generation who had paid in substantial National Insurance contributions before the transition of arrangements? What about those entitled to Personal Independence Payments (PiP) or many of the benefits being brought under the umbrella of Universal Credit? Could we end up with UBIPIPUC? Would you pay more to people who live in areas with higher rents and associated living costs? Would your UBI amount depend on which postcode you were born into, or where you lived?
So, lots of questions. One thing I am sure of though: it’s time for the discussion. I want a future Labour government to put UBI on the table. In the meantime, let’s get it to Parliament for a full Chamber debate. There’s a parliament.uk petition online. I’ve signed today.