By Adam George
The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has told The Independent that Labour are setting up a “working group” to investigate the policy of universal basic income.
McDonnell suggested that the party would like to report back on its conclusions before the next general election.
He will be publishing the report with the help of Guy Standing, founding member of the Basic Income Earth Network and well-established advocate of the policy.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is considered by most as a radical idea that is usually only discussed by fantasists on the fringe of mainstream politics.
The concept itself is a very simple one: a minimum amount of money is given to people to offset depressed wages and poor quality of life.
This would mean a total overhaul of the welfare state and ditching means-tested benefits in favour of unconditional flat-rate payments to all citizens.
The Shadow Chancellor detailed Labour’s plans by stating “What we’re going to do is bring forward a publication and then tour around the country and have discussions with people around that.
It’s interesting – the winds have sort of taken in the sails of basic income at that moment”.
UBI has been promoted by people from all across the political spectrum, from liberals to libertarians, including Martin Luther King and Milton Friedman.
It has been gaining publicity in recent years due to several countries trialling the policy. Finland has recently voted in favour of trialling UBI for two years, Oakland in California will be the first area in the United States to perform a similar trial and the Swiss recently voted against the idea in a referendum.
One of the main reasons for the increase in discussion around UBI is because of the modern problem of job insecurity born out of zero-hours contracts and public-sector contraction.
The Silicon Valley bigwigs and some prominent scientists including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, see UBI as the means to deal with the threats to jobs posed by robots and artificial intelligence.
Economists at the World Bank see it as a way of tackling the favoured target of populist politicians: red tape. UBI, it is theorised, would remove layers of bureaucracy from the current system.
However, as to be expected, there are also many criticisms of the policy. Obviously the policy would not be free and comes with an incredibly high cost, even factoring in the savings on means-testing.
A common problem with policies that put universalism above means-testing is the danger that the poorest will benefit far less than those better off.
It is also seen by critics as a way to damage the incentive for people to work, meaning those that are unemployed will not feel the necessity to look for work.
We are living in an increasingly volatile economic atmosphere and UBI is certainly one way to provide a guarantee of basic inequality whilst also offering personal financial security in general.
Labour’s number two seemingly coming on board with the idea is certainly a step forward for UBI. It shows how far the policy has come from being a concept only favoured by rogue economists and not serious politicians.
With campaigners well funded and well organised, we could certainly be seeing a debate on the issue taking place in the United Kingdom in the coming years.