A Universal Basic Income is a workable, popular policy which could redefine left-leaning parties in the face of electoral irrelevance.
Whatever the statement the citizens of the United States made, we have four years of a Donald J. Trump presidency to look forward to. And this, along with Brexit, has sent the Left into crisis, although it is hard to say exactly when the previous one ended. Voters in the Western Hemisphere have made it eminently clear that mainstream Leftist politics, as they stand, are simply unappealing.
The post-recession rise of far-right nationalist politics has become a recurring theme throughout recent history. Unfortunately, so has the Left’s inability to create a coherent alternative when it needs to. In the weeks since Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat, commentators have laid blame at the feet of nearly every conceivable demographic. Certainly, it is important to examine exactly how an unqualified demagogue was able to enter the White House. But it is equally important to start thinking seriously about how Left-leaning parties can appeal to a genuinely frightened and angry electorate.
Fears over security, employment and culture are widespread. Whether in Europe or the US, voters simply do not trust the standard bearers for the status-quo to be able, or willing, to address these issues. And this year they made themselves heard. This is surely an incentive for us to admit we need to do better. That two profoundly critical votes were won through dishonesty and hatred is worrying. What is more worrying is that the side which claimed to be on the side of truth and inclusiveness could not beat them.
I will surely be reminded of some relevant factors - like a debilitatingly partisan press, but we can’t continue to make excuses, however valid, whilst the defeats mount up. I refuse to wait until Marine Le Pen’s Front National wins a majority in the birthplace of European Liberalism. We must abandon the culture of elitism which has cut us off from the people we are supposed to represent. We must let go of outdated policies and adapt or create new ones based on the reality our voter base is living.
We must abandon the culture of elitism which has cut us off from the people we are supposed to represent.
The contemporary reality is one of decreased job security and stagnant wages while people’s cultural identities are eroded in the face of relentless globalisation. It is one of legitimate fear for one’s own safety as the Islamic State’s declining territorial power leads them to resort to more ‘traditional’ acts of terrorism. Instead of proposing solutions, we spend all our energy branding the Right’s as racist. Whether this criticism carries any validity stops being important when it is the only solution on the table. “Bomb the shit out of them” is better than nothing.
We need to acknowledge something that Donald Trump won’t - the jobs that have been central to the American Dream are not coming back. They’ve been automated, outsourced, or both. There is very little Trump can to do about that in the long term. In 4 years time, there will be another general election in both the US and UK. Barring a miracle, these issues will only have become more prominent. It is time the major parties of the Left adopted a universal basic income (UBI) as a central policy platform.
The jobs that have been central to the American Dream are not coming back.
The concept is not new and, as recently as June of this year, a Swiss proposal to grant every citizen and residents of more than 5 years a basic income was overwhelmingly rejected.
As discouraging as that may be, popular support among Europeans for a UBI is actually quite high (including among two thirds of British people), and support for the policy is directly linked with awareness and understanding of it, according to Dalia research.
If we have learned anything from 2016, successfully promoting a policy or candidate requires selling it to the electorate. Technological advancements and globalist policies mean that a basic income has never been a more relevant idea than now and the factual and emotive components of the pitch nearly write themselves.
A UBI negates the need for parts of a welfare system which is only going to continue to increase in size as more and more jobs are made obsolete. It has been suggested as a key solution to the problems of human trafficking, child labour and prostitution. It levels the playing field in contract negotiations for unskilled workers who are currently being forced to accept long hours and low wages because there is no real alternative. It would also render exploitative payday loan companies extinct. It is emancipatory for women, the disabled and the elderly. It provides the unskilled with the time and security to pursue further education, and increases entrepreneurship and rates of self-employment. It would help small business grow as the poorest become able to invest in the economy. Most importantly, it provides citizens with the freedom to make choices.
The studies referred to in the paragraph above demonstrate, at the very least, that the idea of a basic income deserves proper consideration. But the idea is too often dismissed by relying on the assumption that a public benefitting from a UBI would collectively stop working. If this were true, wouldn’t Britain and Western Europe have already collapsed under the weight of their own benefit systems? Contrary to public opinion, the amount of money lost to benefit fraud in the UK is actually less than the amount of unclaimed benefits. Nobody can guarantee that some people won’t try to take advantage of such a system. Simply, the number of people would be statistically irrelevant - not enough to make it unaffordable, and certainly not enough to place an undue burden on honest people.
There are, of course, practical criticisms of the basic income which need to be addressed. Most notably, there is concern that a UBI would cause massive inflation, perhaps even to the point where the monthly cheque would be rendered obsolete. Read here for a thorough and accessible analysis of the issue by Scott Santens but, in brief, a UBI would come from pre-existing (as opposed to newly printed) money, and in any case the evidence that increasing money supply necessarily increases inflation is lacking. Even if it did, a small amount of inflation is actually desirable, and regulators can control excess inflation through other policies.
For the Left in perpetual crisis, a universal basic income is the coherent alternative they have so far lacked. All the policy needs is someone to champion it with conviction and integrity. It is by no means some utopian cure-all, but positively addressing the economic insecurity of the individual (rather than demagogically) is a huge step in the right direction.