Time for basic income?

AuthorSloman, Peter

Life comes at you fast. Less than six months ago, I published a book under the title of Transfer State: The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain, which concluded by reflecting on the prospects for universal basic income (UBI). (1) In sketching out possible scenarios for British social policy in the 2020s, I had no inkling of the global pandemic that was coming towards us. The political landscape of autumn 2019--pre-election, pre-Brexit and pre-Covid--now feels like a different age. If the landslide Conservative election victory seemed to close down the political space for UBI in Britain, the massive social and economic disruption caused by Covid has opened it up again. The Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh has revived his interest in the idea, thirty-five years after he first pressed it on Margaret Thatcher, and even the Pope has now come out in favour. Is it, at long last, time for basic income?

The prominence that UBI proposals have received in the debate over how to respond to Covid vividly illustrates two of the trends which I identified in Transfer State.

Firstly, it confirms the radical shift which has taken place in (elite) thinking about poverty and inequality since the 1970s, away from the traditional labourist focus on wage bargaining, social insurance and collective provision and towards the direct redistribution of income through cash transfers. Although British policy-makers have sought to rein in working-age welfare spending over the last ten years--the Conservatives through benefit cuts and the National Living Wage, and Labour politicians such as Ed Miliband through a more ambitious 'predistribution' agenda--many economists and social researchers continue to see transfer payments as the most effective way of providing rapid and targeted support for household incomes.

Secondly, the widespread interest in UBI as an emergency response to Covid shows how effectively basic income campaigners in the UK and beyond have popularised the idea since the 1980s. Over the last decade, in particular, UBI supporters have managed to link concerns about automation and precarious work in the global North with a radical critique of mainstream development strategies in the global South, and to use pilot schemes in India, Finland and elsewhere to create a sense of momentum around the idea. The Labour Party's 2019 manifesto pledge to explore a basic income pilot, which drew on a report by the economist Guy...

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