Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The progressive case for universal basic income

It is the right time to have the debate on basic income – and the centre-left should not be so quick to dismiss it, argues Mark Walker

Universal basic income looks to address a problem for the future rather than repair a problem of the past. It is the very essence of progressiveness and worthy of a proper debate across the whole of the left.

While that belief is not shared by Chuka Umunna, his recent comments about basic income will hopefully restart a debate about the policy.

Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, the common theme that has risen, from not just the election results here but from across the world, is that income equality has risen to such a point that it is now impossible for people to ‘get on’ let alone move up the ladder. Depending your perspective, the factors to blame vary greatly, however centre left need now to make our pitch for the solution.

UBI allows us to take what we’ve always known to be true – that citizens are capable of making their own decisions and that the state should be an enabler – and look again at how allow people to determine their own destiny. The guarantee should soften the edges of capitalism where it’s most sharpest for example with Uber drivers and care workers – by tackling head on the menace of uncertainty that plagues so many workers.

When Socialist party candidate Benoît Hamon started talking about UBI, and briefly stole a march, was the point in the French presidential election at which Emmanuel Macron looked most unimaginative.

Already embraced by the Trade Union Congress in 2016, we should not allow the idea to be owned by those to the left of us or allow the rightwing media to portray it as a government scheme designed to kill your dreams.

Sadly, it seems Umunna’s comments were designed to close down and dismiss the idea as belonging to the far left. Worse was that he also seemed to present the UBI as allowing politicians to abrogate responsibility by in his comment ‘can wash its hands of responsibility for the poor’.  This is an over-simplification of an idea that has admirers across the political spectrum.

Research shows that children who grown up in families where their parents receive the regular payments do better at school and are less likely to drift into crime, many pointing to a home life that is less stressful. In fact, a lot of key mental health indicators further back up the benefits generated by UBI. Some argue that if you give the poor money they will spend on personal whims, where research shows that additional income in the home is spent on children, healthy choices and further education.

In another example in London, 13 rough sleepers were given a modest income and 11 of them used it to move off the streets, finding the money empowering and a break from the usual process of being forced into a hostel. The cost of that was a lot less than the thousands we currently spend on people that are homeless.

Shortly before his departure from the White House, United States president Barack Obama said that we will be having the debate around universal income for the next ’10 or 20 years’. Rather than close down the debate it is time to open it up. I would highly recommend reading Guy Standing’s excellent Pelican Introduction book and even without my first citizens’ income I am happy to treat the member of parliament for Streatham to a copy. UBI is a much more fundamental idea that could help with the problems we face in the 21st century and is therefore deserving of much wider debate in our movement. I think the debate is starting and the idea’s time is about to come.


Mark Walker is a Labour party member. He tweets at @MarkTW2 


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Mark Walker

1 comment

  • I think that Basic Income is an idea that is well worth exploring. Interest is certainly sharpened by the government’s Universal Credit debacle.

    There are some pilots running elsewhere in the world and we should see what we can learn from them.

    I’m not sure that it would be bound to be a panacea though, as it would be quite expensive to give everybody an income regardless of need.

    There is active discussion around a number of variants though, including basic incomes that you can draw on for a limited number of years during periods of unemployment.

    Needs further even-handed investigation. I found the recent OECD policy brief a good place to start on a hard-headed look at the pros and cons:

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