The Basic, Citizens’ in the streets, the media – and Parliament

The Basic Income is as vital now as it was in the election. Anti austerity demos are planned, with a big one on 20th June. But without the Basic Income, the message is ‘Put the Clock back’. Sorry, the anti-scroungers have won that argument. Rachel Reeves, who would have seamlessly taken over from Iain Duncan Smith, Ed Miliband, and now Andy Burnham, Labour leadership contender, all agree that the workshy are a problem. So although the speeches will say “End Benefit Sanctions, Workfare, the Bedroom Tax and Work Capability Assessments”, all the public on buses going past these demos will hear is “Give us back our Scroungers’ Charter”.

I know this is an utterly false view of the facts, and a travesty of the hurt and distress felt by those demonstrating, but there is a sound reason why scrounger demonization is the dominant view. Iain Duncan Smith was right in one respect:

Means testing is wrong in principle, and must be removed

This did not matter as long as economic growth, and somewhere near full employment could be relied on as the norm. Lady Rhys Williams’ predictions in 1944 that means testing was a serious structural flaw in the Beveridge Report proposals did not come true for 50 years.

But there are two diametrically opposite ways of removing means testing, either just remove benefits, or give them to everybody, and pay for whatever that costs in taxation. One variation on that is that whenever the economy is functioning at a lower level than it could sustainably function, the taxation can be reduced.

The government adopted the first course when it launched the benefit sanctions regime in October 2012. In tandem with this tightening, it became necessary to plug the possible escape route of disability, hence Work Capability Assessments. These are of course carried out by lay assessors – medically qualified staff would fail to meet their (denied) quotas. Once again I recommend Johnny Void’s blog for chapter and verse on the depths to which the Department of Work and Pensions has sunk in implementing a policy of stripping the vulnerable of benefits.

It would have been far easier as part of the election campaign, but if, better late than never, the Basic, Citizens’ Income can become an integral part of the anti-austerity protest, it could still be crucial in delivering the coup de grâce to the Universal Credit.

I have signally failed to persuade the Green Party to look at the report which invented the Universal Credit: Dynamic Benefits: towards Welfare that worksWhy should they? It was produced in September 2009 by the Centre for Social Justice, a Think Tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith. But the Green Party leadership, and Press Office, all fail to see the importance of means testing. Blanket opposition to Zero hours contracts demonstrates this failure. Once upon a time, zero hours contracts were a suitable option for some employees. Suddenly, in October 2012, they became an instrument of slavery, an integral part of IDS’s strategy for abolishing benefits. It is the imposition of the benefit sanctions regime which is the problem. Once compulsion  is replaced by persuasion – the Basic Income – zero hours contracts will again be what they have always been- a useful option for some, particularly appropriate in a sustainable economy.

Dynamic Benefits is a thorough account of just how serious a problem means testing is. It is an excellent, even though unintended statement of the case for the Basic income. But in practice IDS is simply removing benefits. In theory, this was to be underpinned by the Universal Credit, which would allow claimants to retain 35% of their former benefits on getting a job. But the UC has not happened. The Civil Service could have been planning since the 2010 election, yet barely 0.5% of the over two million who should have qualified for the UC actually receive it. It remains beset by insuperable practical problems, and its collapse can only be a matter of time. The Basic Income as part of the anti-austerity campaign could determine how soon this happens.

The UC was supposed to ‘make work pay’. But this is one of the purposes of the Basic, Citizens’ Income. Critics of the latter have pointed out that Tax Credits will complicate its introduction, but the problems are minimal as compared with those facing the UC. But even if the UC had worked, that 35% benefit retention would have actually meant a tax rate equivalent of 65% (Incidentally, Dynamic Benefits only suggested a 45% – 55% ratio). The main problem with the Basic Income is said to be the cost. It is affordable, but it will cost the better off whatever it costs to put claimants losing benefits on the same level field as bankers on the top tax rate of 45%.

Of course to include the Basic Income in the anti-austerity campaign needs two other allies: the media, and Parliament. Dynamic Benefits has made it easy to offer the media a story they should find newsworthy. The same should also apply in Parliament. Caroline Lucas has said that she will press for the Basic Income when detailed figures are available. There is no need to wait, and this is urgent, to discredit the UC. Those graphs in Dynamic Benefits do all the donkey work explaining how the Basic Income would work, without the problems preventing the UC. In passing, Dynamic is dishonest in its claim that nearly all claimants are better off on benefits than working. Tax Credits complicate the picture for the UC as well as the BI, but Dynamic just ignores them. But there are 56 new Scottish kids on the Parliamentary block. It may not be plain sailing. I  don’t think Natalie has told Nicola how important the Basic Income is. We all saw those images of the three anti-austerity party leaders embracing after the 7-way debate, but not one of them mentioned the Basic Income. But I am in contact with Natalie McGarry, the SNP member who has been given the Welfare & Disability brief.  Hope springs eternal.

5 responses to “The Basic, Citizens’ in the streets, the media – and Parliament

  1. Dear Chris, Just been re-reading your blog on CI. I am a member of the Green Party and a welfare rights adviser and I understand what you say about means-tests, tapers and the Dynamic Benefits report, etc. A Marxist friend of mine has suggested to me that, if the Green Party were to really propose CI, it would be either dishonest or ineffective, depending on the CI rate that is chosen. (It didn’t really propose CI in the last election: while Citizen’s Pension was proposed and costed, we said we’d do costings for CI later, and thus CI became merely an aspiration on the never-never.) Here is why, according to my Marxist friend, it would be either dishonest or ineffective to propose CI.
    1. Marxist analysis says that our current capitalist system depends on profit being extracted from workers through exploitative and alienating work.
    2. The Green Party, like all other political parties that seek to win power within the capitalist system, is seeking to make capitalism better, not overthrow it.
    3. If the Greens propose a CI that is actually high enough to live on, workers would no longer be compelled into wage slavery. That means the end of capitalism.
    4. If the Greens propose a CI that is not actually high enough to live on, workers remain compelled to work so it isn’t really a CI at all.
    The important point is point 3. How can we argue for CI for working age people without logically following through and explaining that we are out to overthrow capitalism? That is what my friend says is dishonest. Possibly no-one but a Marxist can grasp the point. I didn’t till he told me. I’d like to know what you think.

    • Clive, not Chris. What does your Marxist friend envisage that doesn’t assume growth, regardless of what it is based on?
      !. True, sort of, but so what? That does not preclude the possibility of other economic arrangements.
      2. It is pointless to discuss attacking capitalism. It is robust, and will destroy the ecosphere before any dent in its progress can be made. What new ideas are there for making that any more successful than it ever has been? My strategy is that the BI, purely at the ‘thought experiment’ stage, is the start of a cultural shift towards a more communal, less competitive ethos. Gradually reduce support for capitalism. There are very recent signs that more of the big guys are taking climate change seriously, but that is irrelevant to the BI strategy. Also in passing, Ellen Meiksins Wood (a Marxist), in her book “The Origin if Capitalism: a longer View” argues, convincingly for me, that both Marxist and neo-liberal explanations beg questions. Capitalists are trapped by imperatives to behave as they do. So for me “Do you work within or try to overthrow?” is not a helpful approach.
      3 & 4 The left want a big BI. £500pw has been mentioned. The right think £15. Neither are bothered about eco-sustainability. For me (the Green Party is still uneducated on the BI) the amount is fixed. The BI must be enough for an individual to live a civilized life without needing to do anything, but especially not needing to do anything to damage the environment. It must be no more than that. Exact figures are difficult because of the disparity in housing costs, but for Leeds I make it £175 per week.
      On that basis, the vast majority will CHOOSE to work. This is not conjecture: it happened in Dauphin, Manitoba (search “Minincome”) and a recent survey in Germany reported that 10% would cease all paid employment, some giving family or voluntary work as their reason. 60% would stay in their present job.
      Philippe van Parijs, a leading advocate of the Basic Income, described it as “A Capitalist road to Communism”. Please tell your friend to stop being preoccupied with the c-word.

  2. Clive, thanks and sorry for mis-naming you. I have another friend in the Green Party with a similar name. (No need to post this online.)

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