IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

After Brexit: The Eurosceptic vision of an Anglosphere Future

📥  Brexit, European politics, UK politics

Now that the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has published the proposed reforms to the relationship between the UK and the EU, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has endorsed them as the basis for the UK’s continued membership of the union, the starting gun has effectively been fired in the referendum campaign. A central challenge for Eurosceptic supporters of Brexit is how to articulate a prosperous, optimistic future for the UK outside the EU. Conversely, supporters of staying-in need to show why Britain is stronger inside the union, and why leaving it would be risky. Much of this hangs on bread-and-butter questions about jobs and living standards, and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s reform package addresses public concerns about immigration and democratic control over EU institutions. But bigger questions about Britain’s identity and place in the world loom large too.

In the last couple of decades, eurosceptics have developed the idea that Britain’s future lies with a group of “Anglosphere” countries, not with a union of European states. At the core of this Anglosphere are the “five eyes” countries (so-called because of intelligence cooperation) of the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Each, it is argued, share a common history, language and political culture: liberal, protestant, free market, democratic and English-speaking. Sometimes the net is cast wider, to encompass Commonwealth countries and former British colonies, such as India, Singapore and Hong Kong. But the emotional and political heart of the project resides in the five eyes nations.

As this lineage suggests, the roots of the Anglosphere concept lie in 19th century imperialist discourses, and more specifically in the idea of an Imperial Federation, which gained ground in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as the British Empire came under pressure from rising nationalist and anti-colonialist forces. Federation, with an Imperial Parliament governing foreign, defence and trade policy, seemed an ideal solution for keeping dominions and colonies happily inside the empire. The First World War put paid to this ambition but the idea lived on in the concept of the Commonwealth.

As Professor Michael Kenny and I set out in an essay for the New Statesman, the Anglosphere returned as a central concept in eurosceptic thinking in the 1980s, when Europhilia started to wane in the Conservative Party and Thatcherism was its ascendancy. On the right of the Conservative Party, we argued:

“…American ideas were a major influence, especially following the emergence of a powerful set of foundations, think tanks and intellectuals in the UK that propounded arguments and ideas that were associated with the fledgling “New Right”. In this climate, the Anglosphere came back to life as an alternative ambition, advanced by a powerful alliance of global media moguls (Conrad Black, in particular), outspoken politicians, well-known commentators and intellectual outriders, who all shared an insurgent ideological agenda and a strong sense of disgruntlement with the direction and character of mainstream conservatism.

In his major work Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the historian Robert Conquest argued that the political arrangements of the west were all increasingly deficient, the EU included. The answer was “a more fruitful unity” between the Anglosphere nations. And, in a speech to the English-Speaking Union in New York in 1999, Margaret Thatcher endorsed Conquest’s vision, noting how such an alliance would “redefine the political landscape”. What appealed most was the prospect of the UK finding an alliance founded upon deep, shared values, the antithesis of the position it faced in Europe.”

The idea of the Anglosphere as an alternative to the European Union gained ground amongst conservatives in their New Labour wildnerness years, when transatlantic dialogue and trips down under kept their hopes of ideological revival alive. It was given further oxygen by the neo-conservative coalition of the willing stitched together for the invasion of Iraq, which seemed to demonstrate the Anglosphere’s potency as an geo-political organizing ideal, in contrast to mainstream hostility to the war in Europe. By the time of the 2010 election, the Anglosphere had become common currency in conservative circles, name checked by leading centre-right thinkers like David Willetts, as well as eurosceptic luminaries, such as Dan Hannan MEP, who devoted a book and numerous blogs to the subject.

As Foreign Secretary, William Hague, sought to strengthen ties between the Anglosphere countries, despite the indifference shown by the Obama Presidency to the idea. After leaving the cabinet, the leading eurosceptic Owen Patterson gave a lengthy speech in the US on the subject of an Anglospheric global alliance for free trade and security; he could expect a sympathetic hearing in Republican circles, if not the White House. And in its 2015 election Manifesto, UKIP praised the Anglosphere as a “global community” of which the UK was a key part.

These geo-political claims are met with derision in centrist political circles. For international relations realists, the idea of an Anglosphere barely merits a straight face, let alone serious consideration. And it is unquestionable that the US and Canada, let alone India, would view a geo-political alliance of English-speaking as an alternative to existing global structures as fanciful; indeed, they question why the UK should be entertaining leaving the EU at all.

But the Anglosphere’s potency is ideological, not geo-political. It functions as an imaginary horizon for a eurosceptic worldview of Britain after Brexit, uniting the UK with a global trading future as well as a sceptered isle past. It registers nostalgia, but also energy: Britain would be liberated to march on the world stage again, freed from sclerotic, conformist Europe and reanimated by the animal spirits that once gave it an empire. Thus it defends the eurosceptic flank where it is most vulnerable – rebutting the charge that it wants to take Britain back to the 1950s by delving even deeper into our island story and casting it forward into the 21st century.

This should give pro-Europeans pause for thought. The “Remain” campaign is currently premised largely on the risks of Brexit (or “Project Fear” as it is known to its detractors). It needs an optimistic account of Britain’s future in the world - one which passes through the European Union, not past it.  Yet globalization currently has a bad press, and in the face of insecurity and inequality, a New Labour formula of “globalization plus good schools” doesn’t cut much ice with working class voters. Developing its own version of Britain’s identity and role in the world, beyond the fact of EU membership alone, is therefore a pressing task.


Marley Morris on the EU renegotiation: finding a deal on free movement

📥  European politics, Migration

By Marley Morris, Research Fellow, the Institute for Public Policy Research

Rumours abound over the Prime Minister’s renegotiation over the UK’s EU membership with his European counterparts. With the aim clearly to wrap things up by the European Council summit next month, the pressure is on to find a solution to Cameron’s most troublesome renegotiation demand: restricting tax credits and child benefit for EU migrants for their first four years in the UK. Other EU countries say it’s discriminatory; the Prime Minister says it’s essential for Britain to remain in the EU. (Indeed more than four fifths of the public support the change.)

While much has been written on a potential deal in the press, the daily injection of contradictory and ambiguous briefings paint an increasingly confused picture. So what are the real options available to the government and what are their prospects of success? There appear to be (at least) five main ways out of the current impasse currently being discussed.

·       The residency test

Some have suggested that, in order to avoid directly discriminating against EU migrants, the UK could introduce a four-year residency test for accessing benefits for all newcomers, UK and EU nationals alike. The problem here is that, while it may not be directly discriminatory, it is still likely to be considered indirectly discriminatory by the European Court of Justice, as EU migrants are far more likely to be affected than UK nationals.

It has been proposed that the UK could extend the ban on in-work benefits to all 18-22 year olds too, in order to avoid the discrimination charge. Judging by the headlines so far on such an arrangement, it is likely this would be politically toxic. Reports have suggested that an alternative means could be found to compensate 18-22 year olds that wouldn’t apply to EU migrants, perhaps through a voucher for college fees or some other form of “social payment” before they enter the workforce (presumably described in such a way as to justify categorisation as a “social assistance” benefit, which under EU law would be more easy to deny to EU migrants). Yet this too has its problems. Apart from the somewhat absurdly bureaucratic consequences of such a move, it would likely still be considered discriminatory if young EU workers were openly barred from the new system – or even if they were indirectly disadvantaged.

·       Redefining ‘workers’

On the other hand, this week there has been talk of a German proposal to restrict benefits for EU migrants by redefining what counts as a worker under EU law. Currently according to the European Court of Justice’s case law, EU nationals who undertake “genuine and effective” and not “marginal and ancillary” work have a right to reside as a worker and so full access to in-work benefits on a par with UK nationals. It seems that this proposal would remove worker status from anyone who earns under £7000 a year (or 20 hours a week on the minimum wage) On the face of it this might seem an ingenious solution to the standoff: the UK’s EU partners won’t tolerate any discrimination against workers in particular, so a change to how workers are defined removes their primary concern.

But there are two problems here. First, as the German proposal is only to remove worker status (and therefore in-work benefits) to anyone earning less than £7000 a year, everyone else will still be classified as a worker. So most EU migrants will not be affected by the change. Second, it is quite possible that such a reform would require treaty change, given that the European Court of Justice could argue that it takes its interpretation of who counts as a worker and who doesn’t from the treaties themselves. Treaty change is harder to secure than an amendment to secondary legislation, as it requires ratification by all 28 member states.

·       The labour mobility package

At the same time, there has been much talk in the press about European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen’s labour mobility package, which was meant to be published last year but has been delayed due to the UK’s renegotiation efforts. While the full details of the proposals are not yet published, some papers have argued that they will at least deliver part of the Prime Minister’s four year demand.

But this seems farfetched: from Thyssen’s recent public speeches, most of the proposals appear to be minor changes to the 2004 social security coordination regulation. For instance, Thyssen has raised the possibility of setting a time limit on how long an EU national must work in a member state before accessing contributory unemployment benefits there. This is meant to address a particular issue in the current system of coordination: EU nationals who have worked in one member state for many years, who find work in another member state, and who subsequently lose their job can then claim contributory unemployment benefits in their current member state on the basis of their previous contributions elsewhere, even if they have only paid into the current member state’s system for a matter of weeks. Thyssen has therefore hinted that someone should work in an EU member state for a certain time period (potentially one month or three months) before they can claim contributory unemployment benefits in that member state if they lose their job. For countries with highly contributory systems like Germany and the Nordic countries – who pay out a certain percentage of your former salary – such a change would be quite significant, but for the UK – where contribution-based JSA is paid at the same rate as income-based JSA – it is not. Thyssen has also suggested changes to the rules on exportability of contributory unemployment benefits, but this will for the most part not have a large impact on the UK.

Thyssen’s package of reforms is therefore unlikely to be anything close to the kind of change the Prime Minister needs (and in any case, even if Thyssen does propose something suitable it would still need to be passed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament). The one exception is on the Prime Minister’s arguments on access to child benefit in cases where a child lives in a different member state to the parent – here Thyssen has hinted that reform is coming.

·       The emergency brake

Another suggestion has pointed in a very different direction: rather than reforming the benefit rules for EU migrants, the EU could agree a deal to allow an emergency brake for free movement of people. Actual controls on people entering the country would be impractical; instead the brake would presumably consist of limits on access to the UK’s labour market. When it was originally discussed in 2014 it was widely deemed unfeasible. But now it is back on the table it might be a suitable political alternative to the four year rule and may be easier to negotiate than the Prime Minister’s current plans (though still will likely require treaty change). But the devil is in the detail: how in practice would an emergency brake work?

As the EU legal professor Steve Peers notes, there is an ‘emergency brake’ option in the arrangements for the seven year period of transitional controls after accession of new member states that perhaps serves as a model for a broader emergency brake. Here the brake can only be pulled when a country ‘undergoes or foresees disturbances on its labour market which could seriously threaten the standard of living or level of employment in a given region or occupation’. But such a decision has to be approved by the European Commission and can be overturned by the European Council, so the UK would not be able to pull such a brake at will.

Moreover, it is hard to know what an objective measure of determining a situation serious enough to justify an emergency break would look like. Could an emergency brake be pulled because levels of migration are simply too high? If that’s the case then this would amount to a quota system, which would presumably be unacceptable to the rest of the EU. Could it be pulled if there is evidence of high unemployment, of a burden on the welfare system, or of pressures on public services? The problem is that the evidence for such challenges is either limited or hard to compare across member states.

So a deal here might be possible – but the challenge for the Prime Minister will be to get a balance between an emergency brake that does not unduly restrict free movement – which would clearly not be countenanced by other member states – yet which is meaningful enough to convince the British public.

·       Benefits for unemployed EU migrants

Finally, as IPPR has suggested, there is political and legal scope for action on benefits for unemployed EU nationals, rather than those who are in work. Here the rules are very different and there are signs from recent European Court of Justice judgements that there is scope for tightening them further. Certainly other EU member states seem more comfortable with a deal of this sort, and a few proposals have been touted, particularly with respect to the rules that allow EU migrants to retain their worker status after losing their job and so continue to get access to the benefit system on a par with UK nationals. IPPR has suggested removing the retention of worker status until EU migrants have worked in the UK for three years; more modestly, in Germany there have been recent suggestions of a similar restriction for six months.

None of these proposals are perfect – all face their own legal and political difficulties. Perhaps the most convincing and achievable are the emergency brake (depending of course on the details) and the benefit limits for unemployed EU migrants – because they both are capable of gaining support in the UK and avoid the toxic accusation of discrimination between EU workers. Yet here the Prime Minister may be accused of backing down on a manifesto promise to restrict in-work benefits. Surely some kind of compromise will be found – but it’s still far from clear whether it will be enough for the Prime Minister to declare his renegotiation a success.

Marley Morris is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research



New Canada, New Labour: Trudeau takes a lesson in Blairite government

📥  Political history, Political ideologies

As the Labour Party wrestles over whether to honour or disown its New Labour past, Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has been busy assembling the architecture of a Blairite central government.

Trudeau’s youth, good looks and self-declared “sunny ways” all evoke the Tony Blair of 1997. Both were swept to power on the back of popular discontent with a tired, shrunken conservative government, and each embodied widely held aspirations for a new, open and optimistic national spirit.

But the parallels don’t end there. Trudeau is consciously borrowing from the structures of the delivery state that Tony Blair developed in his second term as Prime Minister, most often associated with Sir Michael Barber and his No10 Delivery Unit.  Barber joined Trudeau and his Cabinet for a retreat earlier this week held to hammer out priorities for the new Liberal government, advising the assembled ministers on how to deliver their core objectives. (With the oil price still falling, and China’s debt bubble unwinding, the global economic slowdown was top of their agenda. The Liberal government was elected to inject a deficit-financed infrastructure investment stimulus into the economy, and it needs to deliver on that in its first Budget).

Trudeau has appointed his own Barber figure, Matthew Mendelsohn, to be the Canadian government’s first deputy secretary for “results and delivery”.  Mendelsohn is one of a stable of top Trudeau advisers who worked for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s administration, which pioneered the take up of Barber’ delivery approach in Canada. Political links, shared institutional history and a common language often facilitate policy transfer within the so-called “Anglosphere” countries, and in this case, the pivotal figure was Trudeau’s new Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts, who travelled to the UK in the early 2000s to study the Blair government’s delivery unit and took the lessons back to Ontario.

Institutional and political differences limit the scope for straightforward R & D – “Rob and Duplicate” – in governance practices across countries. Canada is a federal country, with powerful provincial and territorial governments, unlike centralised England (for the most part, Barber’s writ did not run in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since each has devolved government responsible for its public services). The Prime Minister cannot simply pull a delivery lever in Ottawa and expect the Canadian provincial premiers to do his bidding. Trudeau is also committed to restoring some semblance of Cabinet government to Canada, after the government-by-closed-clique administration of the Stephen Harper years. His advisers know they need to empower, and engage carefully, with Cabinet ministers, which will require modifications to the delivery and implementation structure pioneered by Barber and Blair. On forming his government, Trudeau lifted the technique of Ministerial appointment mandates – letters to new Ministers setting out their key objectives - straight from the Blair delivery textbook. But the letters were in two halves: one setting out how a Minister should govern with openness, democratic engagement and accountability, in pointed contrast to the Harper government; and the second, a list of delivery goals drawn from the lengthy Liberal manifesto. How Canada’s ministers spatch these technocratic and democratic modes together will be an interesting object lesson in modern federal government.

Does Trudeau’s delivery agenda signal fresh vitality for new public management (NPM)? Elsewhere in the world, the high water mark of NPM appears to have passed, challenged from below by democratic forces, such as insurgent political parties and powerful city leaders exercising their own mandates; by the emergence of identity issues, such as immigration, which cannot be dealt with as “delivery” challenges;  by the explosion of data, which can be used to spread power out of central government as much as to underpin centralised public sector management; and by new relational approaches to public sector reform, which draw on the insights of complexity theory and the twin democratic and realist turns in political theory.

On the centre-left, in particular, advocates of relational egalitarianism stress the need for active, democratic equality, in which policy ambitions are shaped in everyday struggles and then embodied in the institutions and practices of a country, not handed down from above and measured on a civil servant’s spreadsheet. Contrast the public support for the NHS and the National Minimum Wage which the lack of popular commitment to say, the Labour government’s child poverty target, and you have this argument crystallised.

Trudeau must also contend with the demoralisation of the civil service under his predecessor. Harper consistently marginalised his Ottawan public servants, to the point of ritual humiliation. There was a palpable sense of relief amongst the official class when Trudeau won. They will expect a restoration of Canadian public service traditions, and to be trusted with formulating policy advice as well as the administrative implementation of the Liberals’ plans.

For all these reasons, Trudeau’s version of the delivery state may end up looking very different to Blair’s. But the central political insight – that progressive governments have to gain the public’s trust, not just to defend, but to consistently improve public services  – animates Trudeau’s government as much as it did Blair’s. Whether Trudeau can govern effectively beyond his honeymoon period and, as importantly, leave a progressive legacy, will be the test of his Ottawan experiment in delivery.






“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”

📥  Culture and policy, UK politics

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”, was the slogan David Bowie coined to promote Heroes, the second instalment of his great Berlin album trilogy. It neatly captures one of his most important talents: to intuit the future and draw it forward into the popular culture of the present. Sometimes he would simply grasp the importance of a trend, as when he understood that the arrival of the internet would transform the economics of the music industry and the relationship between artists and audiences. But more often it was his artistry in self-reinvention that opened up new modes of cultural expression or brought shooting up to the surface deeper social trends. When he famously threw his arms round Mick Ronson’s shoulders on Top of the Pops, he was doing more than advertising his bisexuality. He was helping catalyse the liberation in the politics of sexual identity that would unfold in the 1970s.

Most of the commentary on Bowie’s life has been romantic in nature; that is, it has attributed his remarkable oeuvre to a singular, creative genius. But like most artists, his talents were nurtured in collaboration with others and born of particular historical circumstances. The flowering of social liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s was the product of the success of post-war Keynesianism. Full employment allowed young men and women to travel up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to new forms of self-expression. Their talents were nurtured by expanded opportunities to learn and study. If they fell to earth, the welfare state safety net was there to catch them. The fruits of their creativity couldn’t be streamed to a mobile device, but nor were they simply commodified for a global marketplace.

Yet for all that, the creative ability to intuit, anticipate and lay claim to the future is hard to institutionalise. Since the Cold War, governments have modelled scenarios of the future, gaming wars and scoping geo-political risks. The tools of this trade are now familiar to most multinationals. Climate change has brought sophisticated modelling and probability theory into the heart of environmental policymaking, and thence into international agreements, like last year’s Paris treaty, and domestic legislation, such as the ground breaking 2008 Climate Change Act in the UK, which set out a clear target and framework for climate policymaking to 2050. But orientation towards the long term future is still rare in much public policymaking; political and economic cycles militate against it.

Some politicians think hard about the long-term, and cast backwards and forwards across the past and future to think about intergenerational obligations. A notable example is the former universities’ minister, David Willetts, whose Burkean mindset lends itself to sharp thinking about how the old and wealthy are laying claim to resources that the young cannot enjoy. Other politicians manage to embody the future. When politics has ossified and decayed, the political leader who promises change can carry the promise of tomorrow. Wilson, Thatcher and Blair all once had the “future in their bones”, as Eric Hobsbawm put it. Thatcher used the crisis of post-war Keynesianism to embark on a radical transformation of Britain’s political economy, but a deep crisis is not always accompanied by profound change. The Great Recession of 2008 has ushered in a politics of security, not reform.

Only perhaps in the USA has the political terrain started to shift towards a new settlement in recent years, as this long read in the Atlantic claims. But President Obama, in his final State of the Union address, was still in the business of staking out an agenda for future reforms. Though he can claim a legacy of achievement, it was the future he sought to own for his party, even as he bows out of office.

Some countries create institutional forums for thinking about the future. Finland’s Parliamentary Committee on the Future is a thoughtful example. Better still, Finland increasingly combines incremental experimentalism with long range thinking; the sort of public policymaking Geoff Mulgan had in mind when praising the philosopher Roberto Unger here.  Universities are well equipped to perform these tasks, of course. Bowie’s long-time collaborator Brian Eno, even helped form a foundation dedicated to long-term, slow thinking - the Long Now.

Ultimately, however, it is only when we write the obituary of an artist, movement, party or institution that we know whether it helped bring the future into being. And that is one reason, of course, why we can be confident in the tributes paid to David Bowie this week.


Yes, we can? Renewal vs remorseless decline of political parties

📥  European politics, Political ideologies

At the end of last year, Spanish voters delivered a major, some would say fatal, blow to the country’s two party system.  The combined vote share of the two mainstream parties, the conservative People’s Party and the centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party, fell from just short of 74% at the previous general election in 2011, to a little over 50%. Two new insurgent parties – the radical new left Podemos and the liberal centrist Ciudadanos – won nearly a quarter of the vote between them. No single party gained enough seats to form a majority government, yet no obvious coalition emerged either. Negotiations are ongoing but fresh elections may yet be called.

Is this further confirmation of the decline of established political parties? For decades now, political scientists have tracked the indicators of mainstream political party decline: falling membership, weakening partisan loyalty and shrinking vote share. In their celebrated thesis, the late Peter Mair and his colleague Richard Katz, described the transition in the late twentieth century of mainstream "catch all" political parties into “cartel parties”, that is, parties that had become increasingly state-centric in their finances, staffing and modes of operation, increasingly cut adrift from their foundations in civil society and the social class interests they had been formed to represent. Instead of representing the people to the state, they had come increasingly to represent the state to the people.

In parallel with this process, Mair further argued, citizens steadily abandoned the terrain of formal party politics. Turnout at elections, loyalty to parties, and trust in politics declined in tandem with the gravitation towards the state of the political party. As nation states ceded power to supra-national institutions like the EU or the WTO, and their room for fiscal manoeuvre shrank under pressure from accumulated social security obligations, dwindling corporate tax receipts and, latterly, austerity, the choice between different political parties also narrowed, leaving professionalised, technocratic political cadres “ruling the void”.

Spain’s recent history may appear as a precise exemplar of this thesis. Its mainstream parties occupied the state apparatus to such an extent that they became increasingly engulfed in corruption scandals. Austerity and the transfer of headline fiscal policy to the EU dramatically narrowed democratic policy choices, at the same time as Spain suffered mass unemployment and increased poverty. As a consequence, just as Mair & Katz predicted, “anti-party-system” or “post-cartel parties” sprang up to fill the void: Podemos, a new left formation, incubated in citizen resistance to austerity, and Ciudadanos, formed as an anti-Catalan independence party before morphing into a national liberal party nourished on anti-corruption, but promising “sensible change”.

Whether this new political pluralism represents a renewal of the party system, or simply another expression of its morbidity, is an open question. Populist and anti-system parties take many forms. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have arisen in very specific economic circumstances; they differ not just in ideology, but in their social roots and political practices, to the newly insurgent right wing anti-immigrant populist parties of Northern Europe. Different again are the various Pirate Parties scattered around Europe that draw on the libertarian sentiments of a young, prosperous urban population – a liquid democratic populism of relative prosperity, rather than austerity. In turn, civic nationalists like the SNP have managed to channel populist hostility towards a remote central government, while simultaneously governing effectively and responsibly in a devolved legislature.  Although each of these parties draws on “anti-politics as usual” public sentiments, it is difficult to characterise them as species of the same “anti-system party” form.

Yet in their different ways, each of these new parties does try to collapse the distance between represented and representatives, and to reintegrate the party with civil society. They are often highly networked horizontally, making free use of new technologies for communication as well as community-based activism. In their communications, they seek clarity and authenticity, speaking with strength and conviction, rather than the muted, often bloodless voices of mainstream parties. They often align themselves with new forms of democratic practice – participatory, local and citizen-led, rather than the traditional mechanisms of formal representative democracy.

In these new practices and modes of organisation may lie the key to the reinvention of the mainstream party form. As the political scientist Ingrid Van Biezen has written, in a tribute to Peter Mair:

“In order to address the legitimacy crisis, parties will have to integrate these alternatives with established institutional mechanisms…they will have to find a way to close the gap between an increasingly horizontalized public domain, on the one hand, in which critical citizens, societal organisations and political actors operate on a relatively equitable footing in real and virtual networks, and the vertical structures of electoral democracy and party government, on the other, which continue to be organised hierarchically and top-down. It is not easy to see how this can be accomplished.”

This challenge is perhaps most acute for social democratic parties. They have suffered the steepest decline of their core constituencies and cannot rest on the conservative reflexes of an ageing electorate. It is noticeable that in recent elections in Spain, Germany and the UK, the decline in mainstream party vote shares has been asymmetric: the centre-right bloc has held up better than the centre-left, despite voters peeling off from both.  For social democratic parties the challenge is to reinvent their democratic practices and party forms, while remaining electorally competitive – a challenge that is a lot easier to state than to meet. But unless they can reinvent themselves, the party may well be over.

Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath


Back to the future: the revival of interest in a Universal Basic Income

📥  Basic income

In recent weeks, the idea of a universal basic or “citizens” income (UBI) has been enjoying a revival of interest and support. Different versions of the proposal that all citizens should be entitled, by virtue of their citizenship, to a minimum income payment have been long been canvassed across the political spectrum, from Tom Paine to Milton Freidman. But a UBI has never made it from the margins to the mainstream.  Experiments have been small scale or time limited, and never gained wider political traction.

Yet in the post-financial crisis era, interest in the idea appears to be taking off. The Finnish government has said it will soon test versions of the proposal, Swiss campaigners have brought a UBI forward to a referendum in 2016, and Dutch cities are reported to be experimenting with basic income plans. At the last UK general election, the Green Party proposed a citizens income, and in Ireland Fianna Fail is considering one for inclusion in the party’s manifesto. Academic interest in the idea is growing and it has been given careful thought by serious social policy research bodies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This week, commentators reacted enthusiastically to the news that the government in Finland was trialling the idea.

Why this renewed interest for a perennial hardy of social policy? For the “post-capitalist” left, a UBI has come to represent a key building block of human freedom in a technologically advanced, highly automated society. If the robots can do all the work, the argument goes, a citizens’ income would enable humans to enjoy a world of leisure and fulfilment freed from waged labour. It is the 21st century version of long-held humanist ambitions for emancipating workers from alienated labour, made possible by digital technology. The UBI prefigures the world to come.

For enthusiasts closer to the current political mainstream, a UBI appears ready made for a labour market with high levels of self-employment, and precarious or part-time work. For countries like Finland with relatively high unemployment, it offers the prospect of increasing incentives to work, as well as giving greater security to workers with fluctuating incomes. For high employment countries, by contrast, a UBI could enable a reduction in the steep withdrawal rates for in-work benefits and tax credits, incentivising extra hours of work and supporting dual earner households.

This is where technical problems with a UBI start to multiply, however. For a UBI to be revenue neutral at current safety net levels implies significantly higher tax rates on earned income. In the UK, Professor Donald Hirsch has estimated that it would require taking at least 40% of all earned income (i.e. assuming the abolition of existing allowances and national insurance thresholds).  In addition, in the UK support for low income families’ housing costs is met through Housing Benefit. Rolling this into a universal income payment would entail significant expenditure increases, with considerable variation in the welfare different families could enjoy from a single income payment in different parts of the country. Adding housing support to a citizens’ income would push the tax take on earned income required up above 50% (though it should be noted that a UBI could also be funded by wealth and consumption taxes).

Variations in household need, and the necessity of running extra benefits to meet additional costs of raising children, disability or housing, frustrate grand ambitions that a UBI would enable a significant reduction in welfare administration and the associated entanglement of citizens in state means-testing. Libertarians are attracted to a UBI because it would restrict state-citizen interactions to the bare minimum of single income transfers, and abolish the disciplinary architecture of welfare regimes at a stroke. Yet ending means testing in conditions of fiscal constraint is fanciful: the rough justice to households who would lose out would be too great to offset with higher universal payments. Even the administration challenges of a single universal income transfer are greater than commonly supposed. As Jurgen De Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton have argued, a UBI requires the maintenance of a robust population register, effective administration of payment systems, and substantial regulatory oversight. All of these bring significant practical and potentially costly challenges.

These concerns point to incremental, evolutionary progress towards a UBI, building on existing forms of universalism in welfare systems and those reforms, such as the Universal Credit in the UK, that aim to integrate different benefits. But technocratic reforms do not guarantee popular support. The decline in public commitment to working age social security over the last thirty years is in part due to the sense that welfare benefits have ceased to embody reciprocity: that the principle of contribution, of paying in before taking out, and not free riding on others, has lapsed. An alternative path towards restoring popular support for the welfare state to a UBI might therefore be to strengthen the contributory principle in social security, and instead of creating universal income payments, to shift public expenditure towards services and institutions, like the NHS, children’s centres or social housing developments, that directly meet social needs.  This is where communitarian opponents of a UBI pick up the argument, seeing in the grand design for a state mandated and administered income transfer a further weakening of social bonds, civic institutions and popular control over the welfare state. They prefer to repatriate social security to civil society, in partnership with the state, rather than to create a new universal administrative apparatus.

Real philosophical choices are therefore at stake here, not simply technocratic ones. And here is the rub: is the new experimentation with UBIs evidence of the kind of practical social innovation that can incubate wider and deeper social and political transformation, as envisaged by radical theorists such as Roberto Unger, or just the grandest compensatory amelioration of the inequalities and injustices of contemporary capitalist societies yet conceived, leaving untouched their underlying structures of power? The answer to that question may yet decide the fate of the citizens’ income movement.

Professor Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy Research, Director of IPR