Recently, we’ve begun to hear MPs and others say things like 'I'm against Basic Income because I'm pro-work'. I think this is a false opposition. One of the fundamental reasons I support Basic Income is because I believe it's vital to improve work – not least by giving workers some power to reject that which is demeaning, underpaid or demoralising.
And yet, there has to be some reflection in the pro-Basic Income community that a hazy post-work narrative floats around, blurring the view. There are many appealing arguments for Basic Income, but the idea that the struggle to improve work is lost so we should just throw in the towel is one of the least persuasive. Silicon Valley futurism has hardly been a help in this regard.
A rather richer conversation took place when Jon Cruddas MP, a thoughtful critic of Basic Income, Dr Louise Haagh, a cautious advocate, and John Thornhill of the FT joined me to discuss whether basic income was the right response to the new world of work for RSA Radio.
Despite different viewpoints towards UBI in the conversation, in favour, against and agnostic, there was rather a lot of common ground. There was a degree of consensus that work was vital for a sense of identity, 'work' and contribution were far wider concepts than simply a narrow economic perspective, and that for a UBI to be effective it would need to be carefully and constructively framed, linked to a raft of other interventions, to improve the quality of work amongst other aims. In Jon Cruddas’s words “we are not seeing the end of work but it’s degradation”.
So there is debate within the Basic Income conversation as well as between advocates and opponents of the concept. Some of this is manifested as a natural tension between idealism and pragmatism. There's something more fundamental though. There is one perspective that sees Basic Income as a route to a post-work future. There is another, one that I happen to share, that sees it as an institution designed to support good and better work.
But even if I didn't happen to believe, ethically, that the contribution we make to others, to our community, to society through work - paid, caring, and voluntary - is fundamental to human dignity, I would steer clear of the post-work narrative around Basic Income for very pragmatic reasons.
The most fundamental of these reasons is that it kills the conversation. Those who are anxious about purely individualistic and consumerist versions of Basic Income are coming from the right place and advocates should be able to engage proactively with them. There could be a shared agenda. If we are to move towards a Basic Income then it must be one that supports good work and the dignity of workers. There has to be a realisation that Basic Income is just one component of a much wider, more fundamental conversation.
In the context of rising insecurity, spread of new machine-learning technologies (explored by an excellent Royal Society report), the concentration of capital in uber-corporates, 'digital Taylorism', an ageing society that will need to rediscover an ethic of care, a split in destiny between those whose skills are scarce and those whose skills are abundant, and the gnawing realisation that the consumerist aspects of ourselves have to be balanced against our civic, creative and productive aspects, what are the institutions that we need to support better lives? If we frame the challenge in this way, keep Basic Income very much on the table, then an imaginative political discourse may open out.
It would be a tragedy if this opportunity for a rich and textured conversation about Basic Income as one key intervention were not to open out. The space is one in which there is space for a wide spectrum of politics and philosophies.
There is a bigger tragedy also. And that is the way that the English debate about Basic Income has progressed. England’s discourse, such as it is, stands in stark contrast to engaged and imaginative discussions that have taken place in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Finland and elsewhere. Just this week, a Scottish Government spokesperson expressed support for Basic Income experiments in Scotland such as those being explored in Glasgow, Fife and Ayrshire. The tragedy of the English discussion is partly a consequence of the post-work framing of some advocates but something deeper is at play also: a reluctance to face the scale of change to British society and economy that has been taking place and could well accelerate.
Never has this been more evident than in Work and Pensions select committee report into Basic Income published today. Let me put this in fairly blunt terms. Seldom has a parliamentary inquiry been more pre-ordained in terms of its conclusions, superficial in terms of its process, and glib in terms of its recommendations. To conclude after a single day’s evidence looking at Basic Income that the incoming Government should not ‘expend any energy on [Citizen’s Income]’ – especially given the insecurity and change mapped out above and a welfare system that is clearly causing relentless harm - does not match the scale of the collective challenge that we face.
A constructive but sensible committee report might have instead said: “given the scale of the challenges we face to ensure all have the security to make the best life choices, though we have very significant doubts about Basic Income, no option should be taken off the table. We encourage the new Government to think in ambitious ways about what we need from our social security systems over the next decades. Whilst we have identified barriers, more understanding is needed. We cannot afford to simply continue on the current path without considering genuine alternatives of which Basic Income would be just one.” The purpose of select committees is to explore in depth and this one fell way short.
So both advocates and opponents of Basic Income have to raise their game. There is a much more constructive dialogue to be had. An understanding that Basic Income is better understood as a support for good work rather than giving up on work has to be the starting point for any realistic discussion.