Time to be counted

Detailed lowdown of what's going on in Wales

The most notable part of the Welsh Assembly election campaign so far is the exceptionally good weather. Canvassers have reported a good natured reception from electors basking in the sun, alas many of these voters still remain undecided as to how they will vote, if they vote at all, and a number have expressed a level of confusion as to what we all stand for. A confusion that is only enhanced by the huge amount of paper that has been thrown at them in many areas.

The most common comment on phone-ins is that very few people have met a real politician in the flesh, and there is a certain truth to that as the parties work out their differences on the television, radio, the internet and through letterboxes. The problem is that a large chunk of Wales does not watch Welsh TV or read a Welsh newspaper. As far as they are concerned it is 'election, what election?'

Despite all of that those voters I talk to, and I have been on doorsteps every night since the beginning of March, are anxious to engage with the politicians and take advantage of what the Assembly can do for them. Most are now familiar with the fact that there are two ballot papers and are showing signs of thinking quite deeply as to how they use this double opportunity. It seems clear to me that there will be an increased turnout but how this will impact upon the result is anybody's guess.

The absence of regular polling as in Scotland means that both politicians and media are working in a vacuum. Those polls that have been published are largely contradictory and every time I speak to an opposition politician they express genuine puzzlement as to how the pollsters could have secured the outcome they did. One senior Labour Assembly Member contesting a marginal seat told me that he could find no evidence of a swing to Plaid Cymru at all despite the fact that a recent poll shows the nationalists as being ready to consolidate their position as the second largest party. He and other Labour Party AMs repeat the mantra that their vote is solid and that the Labour meltdown forecast by many will not come about at all.

The truth is most probably somewhere in between. My experience is that there is a certain level of disillusionment with Labour and that people are turning away from them. In many instances this will result in an abstention, in many others it will translate into a vote for the dominant opposition party in a constituency. Labour will lose seats but the impact of those losses will be largely offset by gains at a regional level. It is possible that Labour will end up with no constituency seats at all in the Mid and West Wales region for example. The outcome in my view is that Labour will remain the largest party with between 24 and 26 seats.

What is interesting about this campaign is the way that David Cameron's reformed Conservatives have failed to gel with the electorate. There is no doubt that they will pick up constituency seats such as Cardiff North, but by no means certain that they will gain everything that they expect. Their little local difficulty in Clwyd West, where their candidate called for schools to teach creationism as part of science classes for example, may well be enough to allow Labour's Alun Pugh to survive what a few weeks ago seemed a certain loss. I think that on balance Plaid will just pip the Tories in the number of Assembly seats.

Prospects for the Welsh Liberal Democrats look good. Gains by other parties will enable us to pick up one or two regional seats, whilst the constituency of Ceredigion still remains on a knife edge. Our vote will be up once more and we will increase the size of our Assembly group.

In many ways the most interesting times look to be the weeks after the election during which various parties will be vying for a piece of the action in any future coalition government. Although the presence of a limited proportional voting system means that coalitions are mostly inevitable that does not mean that all politicians and party members accept the reality of that situation. Already we have seen parties trying to limit their own options prior to the election so as to avoid losing votes. How it will all end up is not down to us but to the electorate.

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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.