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Real and lasting change tends to require three ingredients:

  • latent potential: an underlying desire and logic for things to be different
  • precipitating factors: events that create momentum for change
  • workable mechanisms: concrete ways of embedding change in social structures

Those of us (and this includes the RSA a whole) who see the tragedy of COVID-19 also as an obligation to try to create a better world when the pandemic is under control, need to think clearly about where these three conditions could apply.   

Has inequality created the circumstances for change?

Let’s start with inequality and insecurity.

Overall, there has for some time been a strong public feeling that inequality is excessive. Even politicians on the right have accepted the problem of real and perceived unfairness. The pandemic doubly amplifies the inequality story.

On the one hand, it reminds us of our common humanity and vulnerability. On the other, it brings into sharper relief how much more vulnerable some citizens are: casual workers, children in poorer families, isolated older people or even prisoners.

The first two change conditions apply but the hardest and most contested is the third. The right and left might agree that inequality is problem, but they have very different ways of responding.

Which is why the time for exploring Universal Basic Income may have come.

The case for a (modest) Universal Basic Income

Remember that Universal Basic Income (UBI) (or its close relation ‘negative income tax’) has historically had as many supporters on the right (including Milton Freidman) as the left.

Recent changes are creating the conditions for change. We now effectively have a minimum income guarantee. Even before the crisis the Government, through JobCentre Plus, had started to scale down punitive conditionality in the benefit system. Universal Credit has already moved away from a sole focus on getting into work.

Of course, there are lots of disagreements between people who support UBI. There are different views on how to make the case for and implement it.

If we’re to progress the argument, we need to make the right case (as the RSA been doing for some time).

That’s the case for a modest UBI. It’s not about the fantasy that everyone can have a comfortable life without working. It’s a practical argument that everyone (except the already rich) could have a baseline which offers them greater security, strengthens work incentives, and gives the chance to change their lives – for example, through re-training or pursuing self-employment.

Opponents of UBI may argue that on its own this does little to address inequality. In part, this depends partly on how it is funded (wealth taxes being the obvious source). More significantly, it fails to appreciate that people feel society is unequal based not just on their bank balances, but on secure they feel. Security – and dignity – would be significantly enhanced if every citizen had the means to basic subsistence as a right.

The crisis is helping us understand ‘good work’ better

A second, related, opportunity for change concerns working lives.

Ever since I published my report of modern employment for Prime Minister Theresa May in July 2017, I have been struck by how almost everyone signs up to the goal I laid out on the first page of the report: that every job should be ‘fair and decent with scope for development and fulfilment’.

The crisis has led us to recognise the vital importance of jobs which might previously have been seen as low status as well as low paid: social carers, supermarket workers, delivery drivers.

We’ve seen the wide variation in how employers have responded to the crisis, from those who have engaged staff and gone out of their way to be fair to those who have acted unilaterally and ruthlessly. And we have been made aware of the profound insecurity of those who are on low-incomes and self-employed or casual work.

If the crisis deepens an existing commitment to the principle of good work, what are the means to embed change?

First, the Government could recommit to the objectives of my Good Work plan:

  • They could get behind and strengthen changes to be implemented on April 1st which make it much easier for employees to demand independent representation and rights to information and consultation at work.
  • They could be bold in their forthcoming Employment Bill in areas like employment status and enhancing the protections for casual workers.
  • They could commit to adequate funding and enhanced powers for the proposed Single Enforcement Body.
  • They could take forward the idea of a single employability framework to boost transferability of skills and the ideal of every job being a learning job.

It’s time to tax self-employed work the same as employees

The Government is finding it difficult to respond to the plight of casual workers and the self-employed.

I am told the Chancellor has been surprised and concerned by the scale of this problem and how the growth of non-standard work has embedded insecurity.

Perhaps the door may be open to an idea which was too bold to be more than hinted at in my 2017 plan.

For almost entirely historical reasons, we continue to tax labour very differently depending on whether it is provided by employees (which means we pay for employers’ national insurance) or the self-employed. Labour provided by a self-employed person is taxed less. This creates incentives for bogus self-employment and a loss of tax revenues.

Meanwhile, the self-employed (and to a less extent casual workers) lack the entitlements that come with conventional employment.

The simple solution is to move (over time) towards all labour being taxed at the same level, with the additional revenue raised being used to provide the self-employed with sickness insurance as well as incentives to train or save for retirement.

Turning support for the NHS into momentum for relationship-focused public services

A third broad area of possibility is health and social care.

Public support for the NHS is unwavering. There is a widespread recognition that the crisis in social care is a scandal not only in itself but a source of pressures on the health service. Beyond this, experts, professionals and concerned citizens recognise the need and scope for a deeper rethink of our systems reflecting the importance of public behaviour and expectations, on the one hand, and technological innovation on the other.

The COVID-19 crisis has amplified all these sentiments but also provoked other responses.

There is the willingness of both individuals and communities to do the right thing in supporting the system whether that’s self- isolation, coming out of retirement to work in the NHS or establishing community support networks for vulnerable local people.

What can we do to turn this energy into lasting change?

  • First: vivid evidence of the frailty of our social care system should, at long last, provide the impetus for a fair and sustainable funding solution.
  • Second: could the crisis enable a more profound rethink of our model of public services? Can we start to see them not as goods to be ‘delivered’ but as relationships to be nurtured? This model that puts the empowerment of individuals and the building of community capacity at the forefront of service design and delivery?
  • Third: given the surprise many people trying to support the NHS have expressed about its fragmented structure of decision making, can we be much more ambitious in developing and enacting system-wide solutions that exploit the transformative potential of big data and technology?

In all of three of these areas the problem has up to now not been a lack of solutions and potential but the absence of political will and public consent.

Making change real

There are many other changes that could be hastened by the crisis: from greater home working to confronting the terrible state of our prisons.

But those hoping for progressive outcomes from the crisis need to learn from 2008 that these are only possibilities. To make it real we need to:

  • Develop new and broader alliances
  • Co-design practical solutions and realistic models of implementation 
  • Aim to go with - not against or too far beyond - the tide of public sentiment.

This time let’s not let the crisis go to waste.

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