Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Left needs to take ownership of the idea of a Universal Basic Income

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an idea that has been picking up support over recent years but it is one over which the Left needs to assert ownership.

The UBI is a radical idea that has drawn supporters on the left like John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman on the right.

The idea appealed on the left on the grounds of redistribution of wealth for the good of all, equality and egalitarianism. The appeal to the right is in cutting the power of the coercive state, reducing welfare and “promoting freedom.”

The driving forces for the idea now come with the increasing levels of automation going on worldwide and the need to find solutions to welfare provision.

The idea resonates with the outlook in the 1970s, when it was predicted that in the future there would be shorter working weeks, more leisure time and earlier retirement ages. These predictions remember existed long before the internet came along.

Then came Margaret Thatcher with the neoliberal model, which promptly saw the opposite occur with longer working weeks, less pay and an ever more distant retirement age.

However, despite the damage caused over the past 30 years by the neoliberal model, the underlying motors of development foreseen in the 1970s have continued to grow.

Ironically, it has been some of the features of neoliberalism that have helped accelerate the demand for the UBI today.

So the neoliberal model has led to a very polarised society with “the 1 per cent” at the top, with fewer and fewer people coming to hold most of the wealth.

The wealthy don’t spend money in the same way that the poor do, they often store it away or place it offshore — so demand in the economy falters.

This problem will be exacerbated in a world where there is a growing population but fewer jobs due to automation.

In the future, many ask where will the money come from to create that demand to keep the wheels of market capitalism turning?

In Britain, the recognition of the crisis in capitalism has seen the tentative efforts to raise the minimum wage to a living level and extend personal tax allowances, taking many people out of tax.

Many questions remain of course. Such as what would be the motivation for people to work if they were receiving UBI?

The level would inevitably be low so many would want to work anyway. On this point there are concerns from unions that UBI could be set too low, thereby cutting welfare, while not providing adequate compensation via payment.

UBI though is gaining support.

The Finnish government is experimenting with the idea, making tax-free monthly payments of £300 to a random sample of 10,000 adults of working age, as part of a two-year experiment. Some 20 municipalities in the Netherlands are conducting similar experiments.

Ironically, it would seem the advance of capitalism in its present form seems likely to make UBI inevitable in the medium to long term. There simply will not be the jobs and subsequently demand for products.

Funding for the UBI is likely in the main to come from general taxation, with the sums no doubt taking some balancing.

However, the idea is an exciting one, brought about in many ways by the ongoing contradictions of the capitalist market system model. It is an idea of which that the left needs to take ownership. In that respect, it has been good to see Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and several unions, including Unite, giving support to the idea Not all though are convinced with Labour MP Jon Cruddas a vehement critic.

 There is though much to be resolved before a Labour government could adopt such an idea, which is why the debate needs to be taking place now.

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