The complaint of the age is that politics is managerial, risk-averse, and wholly lacking in ideas and ideals. You might have never heard of anything even half as daft as the Green Party of England and Wales’ plan to introduce a guaranteed “citizen’s income” to all adults. But this scheme is new and radical and its recent rejection by the Green leadership, three months before a general election, casts a mild shadow over our democracy.
The basic income has a long and venerable intellectual heritage, with the principles behind it being championed by figures as diverse as James Tobin and Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon. Yet last week the basic income finally met the BBC journalist Andrew Neil and it was wiped completely off the political map in England and Wales. During a “car crash” interview with Neil on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, the Green leader Natalie Bennett struggled to explain how the policy was realistically affordable. The Greens yesterday announced that the policy had been demoted from a forthcoming manifesto commitment to a “longer term aspiration.” You can still vote for it in Scotland, however, where the Scottish Greens have guaranteed £50 per week for the under 16s; £100 for working-age adults; and £150 for over 65s.
The proposed “citizen’s income” (CI) for England and Wales would have guaranteed every adult £72 a week and this would have cost the country an estimated £280 billion a year. In return, the state bureaucracy which “means-tests” the majority of other benefits would have been dismantled. The danger is clearly of introducing a system which costs far more than the current one, but which redistributes the money less fairly. Whenever anybody hears the figure £72 a week they probably think the same thing: that’s a miserable amount to live on. Suburbs of affluent pensioners would receive a subsidy which they scarcely notice, whilst unemployed single parents would be fighting to stretch every penny of the same total. The sense of grievance which accompanied the CI would essentially transform it into an inside-out poll tax.
The Greens might reply that if somebody living on the CI procured a temporary part-time job, the baseline £72 would not be automatically deducted as benefits are under the existing system. Under the CI, the “welfare trap” – in which you cannot earn more wages than benefits – would be history. The Greens might also maintain that the project’s universality eliminates snobbish or paternalistic attitudes towards welfare recipients. The poor would no longer have to submit to the weekly humiliation of explaining themselves to the means-testing bureaucracy. Or, as the Vice writer Dawn Foster has put it, “nobody hates benefit scroungers any more because everyone is one!”
It’s still an extremely odd policy. For one thing, the state would pay out a similar figure in benefits during a recession as it would during a boom. Milton Friedman’s wisdom that an economic malaise can be treated by “dropping money out of a helicopter” is also downplayed. The poor, who spend money because they have no alternative, get the bulk of the available revenue by virtue of their superior numbers. Yet a considerable sum is still accorded to people who won’t spend it. And then there’s the fact that the CI remains fixed regardless of whatever economy it finds itself in. The CI might be of some help in Sunderland, but good luck trying to live on it anywhere near London.
Both Green parties in England/Wales and Scotland have tried to redress this imbalance by excluding housing benefits from the welfare massacre. But unless you’re so pitiless a libertarian that you would hand the welfare of schizophrenics and paralytics over to private charities, then you’ll have to eventually sully the CI’s unbureaucratic purity. There can never be a flat rate, without any exceptions. What about recently-arrived immigrants – will they live as non-persons, with mafia assistance? What about people with debilitating illnesses – they surely cannot be expected to survive on the same amount as Olympic athletes?
Once you begin to add to the collection of benefits and subtract from the uniqueness of the CI, the latter is soon in respectable company. Why, the NHS is a universal benefit, IDS’s Universal Credit is pretty universal, the new state pension will be set at a flat rate, and the CI campaigner Malcolm Torry adopts the tactic of comparing it to Child Benefit:
This is still paid unconditionally and nonwithdrawably for every child – that is, there are no conditions attached to receipt, apart from a residence test; and, as earnings rise, Child Benefit is not withdrawn. In 2010 the Government planned to means-test Child Benefit, and subsequently found that it could not do so – so instead it ‘withdraws’ the value of the Child Benefit by increasing the Income Tax paid by higher rate taxpayers living in households containing children.
In the Scottish Greens’ system, the under-16s rate of the CI effectively replaces Child Benefit whilst the over-65s rate is just the state pension under another name. You might preserve the allure of the CI by building it into a portfolio of other simplifying measures, such as the practice of taxing a single thing (i.e. the value of land). But one soon runs up against the policy’s sheer lack of energy and radicalism.
The CI represents, as Adam Buick from The Socialist Party of Great Britain has contended, a “reorganisation of poverty” or a more efficient way of subsidising low wages. Joseph Finlay’s article in the Huffington Post successfully explains how Bennett’s policy could be financed, but at the cost of admitting that it’s “in fact a rearrangement of existing benefits and tax allowances.” The blogger Rory Scothorne argues that, “The Citizen’s Income is only confirmation that any perspective of wielding political power through working class mobilisation and organisation has been abandoned by large sections of the left in favour of the hopefully benign actions of the state.” Our guaranteed share of society’s wealth is now reduced to something like free school meals, a dreary service which is doled out by paternalistic administrators.
When Paul Mason makes the more urgent case in the Guardian that the CI will counteract a future invasion of robotic employees, he fails to acknowledge that this is more synonymous with the needs of Capital than of Labour. Robots might be perfectly qualified to make the goods but they can’t yet consume them. And so robots will replace workers and the CI will replace their wages.
The Greens answer this interpretation of their policy with a logic which is characteristically antisocial. Ursula Huws proposes that the CI will liberate us from labour, so that you can “live on very little and devote your life to art, music, prayer, blogging, archaeology, chasing an elusive scientific concept, conserving rare plants or charitable work, that would be your choice.” The state is in effect paying you to opt out of society altogether and to spend your days painting ceramic pots or tending bees. This might be attractive for some people, but it’s hardly empowering and the result could be a more atomised or even selfish society.
There’s conceivably still scope for a progressive model of mass automation, with 3D printers sprouting in households and communities. But CI usually ends up becoming as neutral as liberalism itself. It’s a parleying ground for those on the Left who want the poor to get a better deal and those on the Right who want to conserve the system from the demands of the poor. There’s nonetheless a daydreaming-in-the-garden aura around this policy, which results from its advantages being unlikely to yet offset the inconvenience of the necessary reorganisation. Perhaps this policy is a product which has been made for middle-class voters who like the novelty and dreaminess of social change, but without the violence which is needed to change society.
The CI remains a complex, slippery policy and when you put pressure on it, you find it skidding off in all sorts of unexpected directions. It’s not a policy which can be simply announced by the leadership, but it has to be built by a party, with all of its options and implications being carefully measured and tested. Sunday’s inelegant media appearance by the leader might have been a PR disaster, but the Greens are conforming to the same trend as the mainstream parties if they choose to prioritise spin over democratic policymaking. For a party which depends upon rising cynicism towards the mainstream parties as its own “guaranteed income,” this is risky. Far better that the Greens had rejected the CI after a long and fascinating debate, especially since there may be ideas on board which need not have gone down with the flagship.