This is a developing idea, with support and opposition across the political spectrum.
From the Marxist left, it offers the opportunity to ensure everyone receives a basic income, so has no need to work- so wage rates have to be attractive enough to ensure workers want to sell their labour to an employer, even if they are self- employed. This would be a major change in the balance between labour and capital; labour would gain the upper hand, which is why capitalism will oppose a change on this scale.
Society currently values work and defines individuals by what work they undertake – Doctor, Cleaner, Carer – basic income could overturn this. It’s not clear that there is (yet) support for such a fundamental change.
To others, a basic income will ensure that everyone has sufficient income to have a reasonable standard of living and there are potential links with universal credit and an integrated benefits system. This is not necessarily a bad thing – properly resourced there is a logic to universal credit, which is an attempt to simplify the multitude of benefits into one payment system. That’s not where we are now, and that’s after a former Tory leader invested a lot of political energy into the current mess – this is a warning of what can happen if the Tories set the agenda.
The dangers of adopting a change in approach are clear. The current model is full of inequities with a constant stream of horror stories, individuals left with no income for weeks on end. A basic income has potential to overcome this, as everyone would be entitled, so some payment would always be due.
There is also scope to encompass the long held feminist “wages for housework” within a framework, if basic income were extended to all sections of the community.
There is some support for the concept amongst those on the economic free market right as well. A basic income can be guaranteed, and set at a level that constrains the total level of benefit paid. It is reasonable to assume there would be a significant difference between the base level of income set by the free market right and the left wing supporters of the policy, although the key issue will be the interface with the welfare system.
By guaranteeing an income without work, the state could will play a very different role. It would be able to determine living standards by varying the base income, and would be able to vary this during the economic cycle. In times of recession, this would enable the right to cut living standards “at a stroke” – can this be avoided? Only with the type of political consensus that is rarely achieved in Britain.
Labour thinking on this is developing. It is likely to be linked to welfare reform rather than on fundamentally redefining the relationship between labour and capital. That’s something with merit, as the current system is over complex. Universal credit is a toxic brand, but the aim of a simplified system is worth supporting.
The emerging issue that also needs addressing is the increased use of technology to undertake routine tasks. The spread of automated supermarket tills is the first indication of what is ahead of us. Many routine, and eventually complex administrative tasks can be undertaken by automated digitised technologies. This has potential to put millions out of work – the great John Maynard Keynes was predicting a 15 hour working week in the 1930s. For the first time this looks possible. Overlaying a basic guaranteed income could change society for the better if all are allowed to benefit from this.
Another area where the left and right are likely to take diametrically different views, with the left seeking to spread the benefits to labour, the right to capital. Many service industries will need far less employees and enable capital to profit from a lower cost of Labour – this could impoverish million. In either scenario, the population of the post-industrial nationals – mainly Britain- with little manufacturing industry left, will see decimation of employment levels in many service industries.
There is a big choice coming about the direction of society. The choice of embracing the opportunity to fundamentally change society by reducing the hours needed to earn a comfortable living, or store up all sorts of issues by impoverishing millions by paying a low basis income
It needs to be a well-informed one it is at one level is a continuation of the traditional capital versus labour issue. The Labour Party needs to ensure that the workers displaced by digital technology remain useful members of society and do not lose out. While a guaranteed basic income is a solution, it’s also a real threat- in the hands of the right it makes a permanent shift in wealth to capital from labour.