Coronavirus has upended the world of work and further exposed the failing UK welfare system. Allan Young argues the time for a Universal Basic Income has arrived, and it should form an important element of the left’s response.
Coronavirus has, amongst other things, shone a huge spotlight on the substantial and growing levels of inequality in Scotland, and across the wider UK. Some billionaires have asked for handouts from the government, whilst calling for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible in order to make profits. They may style themselves as creators of wealth and prosperity, but as Covid-19 shows, they rely on the labour of many others.
After its initial laissez faire approach to lockdown failed, the UK Government published a list of ‘essential’ jobs which are to continue throughout the period of lockdown whilst everyone else remains at home. Aside from doctors, and other frontline emergency services, this list largely includes people on the lowest wages, and many of whom are on zero hours contracts with few employment rights.
Over the years of Conservative rule, hard-won rights for workers have been steadily eroded alongside the failure to extend basic protections and rights for those working in emerging industries, such as the gig economy. These workers are now bearing the brunt of the pandemic conditions.
Many others of course, have not been able to keep working and earning. Whilst some are working from home, a significant number of people have either been furloughed, made redundant or sacked. Support for these individuals brought in by the UK Government has been piecemeal, often difficult to access and has fallen far short of what is needed in the form of a rapid, fair and comprehensive response.
Many of those placed on statutory sick pay have rightly argued that they can’t survive on under £100 a week. That the social security system does not provide enough of an income for a decent life is not news to many, unfortunately. The brutal cuts regime which started in 2010 has not only forced individuals to undergo a dehumanising testing program or face unjust punishment through a brutal sanctions regime, but has also left people with insufficient levels of income to live a decent life.
Our economic system, our employment rights and our social security safety net are clearly failing. What we need is a radical approach, one which sets out to tackle inequality, puts health and wellbeing first, and does not strip people of their dignity. A key part of that approach should be through a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
For the purposes of this article I won’t go into the similarities and differences between the different models of UBI, sticking instead to outlining the benefits of the policy. By that I am referring to a system which pays a monthly amount to everyone, without attaching any conditions. As such it is both universal and unconditional.
It has some immediate benefits. The simplicity of it is clearly appealing and would cut down on the cost and effort required for administration. Attempts to simplify the social security system through universal credit have been a disaster, and it is clear the welfare system is significantly out of touch with modern ways of balancing work, life and caring responsibilities. By being unconditional it also removes means testing, avoiding another costly and difficult process which can seem arbitrary and undignified.
If implemented properly a UBI has the potential to offer people more opportunities in life. As well as, and because of, significant gaps in income, there is substantial inequality in aspiration and life chances in Scotland.
Having a solid monthly income could provide opportunities currently not available for many to study and achieve a better work life balance. With a solid monthly income, workers would not feel as pressured as they do now to accept minimum wage, zero hour contracts. The lowest paid jobs tend to offer fewer chances of up-skilling and career progression. A universal basic income could provide more freedom for the lowest paid to retrain and gain a wider choice of careers. It could also benefit local economies by encouraging people to start their own small business, as well as providing an invaluable safety net for aspiring artists, writers, musicians and many others.
This would help mitigate the impact of shocks, both current and future, which push many into poverty and contribute negatively to health and well-being. With predicted rising automation and a more fluid job market, there are very few, if any, guaranteed jobs for life. People will need to retrain and up-skill at various points in the future. Having a solid income from which to proactively decide your future is infinitely better than being forced into a crisis response with little or no government support.
The need for this kind of solid protection from an era of economic shocks has been starkly emphasised by the pandemic and its wider ramifications. It should focus minds on the very real threat of climate catastrophe and the uncertainty and danger that brings with it.
A basic income could also be effective in tackling health inequalities. For a start removing the degrading means testing, benefit sanctions and work capability assessments would have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of those who would otherwise undergo them. A UBI should be part of a wider approach which puts health ahead of false measures of success such as GDP and economic growth.
A properly funded UBI would support people undertaking caring responsibilities, the vast majority of whom are female, and would sit alongside comprehensive, dignified support for disabled people and those with long term health conditions.
UBI, like any other policy, needs to be adequately resourced to ensure it can help everyone to live a decent standard of life. The argument that a hard right government could introduce, for example, a UBI of £25 a week and cut all other forms of support to people is not an argument against a universal basic income. It’s an argument against a hard- right government. The same way that the increasing privatisation and underfunding of the NHS under a hard-right government is not an argument against having a universal healthcare system.
Making it universal also has the benefit of locking it in, making it is far less likely to be removed on a whim by a government, and would create a stronger sense of resilience and community solidarity. Shameful attacks on the welfare system, through inaccurate, unhelpful and divisive language such as ‘strivers v skivers’ created a narrative under which the social security system was then undermined.
It would be foolish to think a UBI would resolve economic inequality in our society. It must not be seen as a replacement to any other core services, such as proper support for those with disabilities, measures to ensure fair rents, or other universal basic services which should be human rights for everyone.
At the heart of a successful UBI is a fairer and more progressive tax system to complement it. Those with higher incomes and substantial assets are able to, and should, pay a greater share to fund universal services for all of us. After all, we would all benefit from a society which is more united and with lower levels of inequality and poverty.
What was already a very strong case, has only been cemented by the onset of Covid-19. We need a UBI to help tackle income and gender inequalities, as well as improve people’s health. With a UBI, alongside other universal services and a fairer tax system, we can say no to foodbanks, homelessness, and zero hours contracts. Instead we can ensure everyone in society has enough money to deal with unexpected shocks, live a decent life with dignity and have the freedom to choose their future.
Picture courtesy of Kelvin Stuttard