Dr Luke Martinelli is a Research Associate in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath.
There has been a lot of debate around basic income in recent years, motivating commentators to ponder whether it is ‘an idea whose time has come’. Experiments examining the real-world implications of the policy have been implemented in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada and the US in the industrialised world and Namibia, India and Kenya in the developing world. The prospect of technologically-induced labour market transformation provides a conspicuous rationale, and appears to have driven a wave of interest from Silicon Valley tech. entrepreneurs. But basic income provides an attractive solution to a range of more immediate problems: what Nancy Fraser has termed a ‘crisis of care’; epidemic levels of stress and mental ill-health; poverty and unemployment traps; and holes in ‘traditional’ social safety nets caused by stringent and punitive sanctions regimes, and the decline in social insurance coverage.
In this context, the inclusion or otherwise of basic income in election manifestos may provide important indications about the significance of growing interest in basic income. Political scientists have suggested that basic income is frequently characterised by ‘cheap support’. This is the suggestion that political actors ‘cash in’ on the policy’s radical appeal with supportive rhetoric, but drop it (or downgrade concrete support for vague commitments) when electoral prospects become more immediate, as politicians seek to ensure more broad-based support – and as funding implications and implementation barriers attract greater scrutiny. More generally, party positions may suggest whether recent interest in the radical policy idea is the start of more widespread investment of political capital by UK actors – or if enthusiasm will fall away in the face of concrete political and fiscal realities.
Support for basic income – as well as fervent opposition – has engulfed the UK over the past couple of years. While support comes from across the political spectrum, the policy has a natural home within the progressive left. And indeed, support in the UK tends to reflect this. The most dependable source of support has been the Green Party; in the UK as across Europe, basic income finds its most stable base among minor post-productivist and ‘new left’ parties. The Green Party predictably gives basic income its full-throated support: not just for a trial but for full implementation, by 2025.
Like all proposed ‘full’ basic income schemes, the Green proposals would dramatically transform the existing social security system, but would surely come at significant fiscal cost. Microsimulation by the IPR shows that basic income policy design is subject to a three-way trade-off between affordability, adequacy and securing the advantages on which basic income is sold. The Green scheme would require significant tax increases, but would still fall short of replacing the full range of disability benefits and supplements – not to mention housing benefit, childcare subsidies and so on – which would have to remain in payment in order to prevent low-income households losing out. This then potentially reduces the advantages of basic income in terms of radical simplification of existing means-tested and conditional systems. Of course, the Green Party is unlikely to be in any position to have to worry about implementation problems or fiscal trade-offs. It is unfortunate (but perhaps fitting) that the most dependable source of political capital has little electoral significance, at least in majoritarian systems like that of the UK (in contrast, Greens frequently form coalition governments in European countries with proportional systems).
In any case, support is no longer confined to the fringes. A string of centre-left think-tanks back the idea, and enthusiasm for a UK trial has grown among the main social democratic parties: Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Four local authorities in Scotland have taken the first important steps, supported by funding from the SNP-led devolved Scottish Parliament to run a feasibility study. In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford (and leader of Welsh Labour) has indicated provisional support, while Plaid Cymru proposed a ‘youth basic income’ in 2017. (There have been no formal moves to implement trials, however, with Welsh basic income champions (perhaps wisely) content to monitor the Scottish experience.) In England, the Councils of Sheffield and Liverpool have backed plans to conduct experiments in their cities. The Labour Party has also been supportive about experimentation, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell convinced of the potential merits of the policy and the need to find out more about its effects in practice, following a high-profile consultation with one of basic income’s most famous advocates, Guy Standing.
At the same time, basic income fits uneasily within mainstream social democratic left parties, with many social democrats, particularly those connected to the unions, viewing the policy with suspicion. Indeed, although a commitment to engage in basic income trials was included in the Labour manifesto – “And we will explore other innovative ways of responding to low pay, including a pilot of Universal Basic Income” – the party has apparently shifted its more immediate focus onto an alternative ‘grand vision’ of the progressive left: ‘universal basic services’. Nonetheless, Labour’s commitment to trial basic income remains significant, especially in the context that the success of the efforts of the devolved authorities in conducting experiments will arguably depend heavily on Westminster’s approval to bring HMRC and DWP fully on board.
This blog is part of the IPR 'General Election 2019' blog series. Visit the IPR blog to read more.