The bar was set high, and Ed Miliband has cleared it

"An audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister."

The Labour leader took a risk today. There was a technical risk: he spoke without notes, which can go wrong in many ways. And the speech was long, which exponentially increases the danger of stumbling and losing the audience. But that is a small practical obstacle compared to the tactical gamble that his speech represented, which was – in effect – advertising itself as an audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister.

He didn’t set it out in quite those terms, but throughout the week his team has been allowing the idea to float around that this would be a defining piece of oration. The Miliband camp took the highly hazardous step of acknowledging that there had been flaws in the way their candidate presented himself and admitting that voters are under-whelmed by the Labour leader – or downright dismissive. So expectations were ramped up, which is the opposite of what usually happens. (The standard line at these conferences is “it’s only a speech, why is everyone so excited, of course it’s not a make or break moment.” Etc.)

So the Miliband operation set the bar high. Luckily for them, the Labour leader appears to have cleared it. He seemed much more confident than he has done on similar occasions in the past; much more in control of the mood in the room and much more assertive in delivering his message. He got a few good laughs in the right places. His theme - “One Nation” - was a pretty audacious raid on Tory language and, as a fusion of traditional left appeals to solidarity and a patriotic idiom more commonly associated with the right, it clearly has potential as a platform to reach out to a wide section of the electorate. His aides are busy now describing it as a radical vision. (That, of course, is something they always do.)

The obvious criticism was that Miliband is still travelling very light on policy and still skirts over the question of tricky spending pledges. It wasn’t exactly a macho demonstration of tough choices and a trampling of party shibboleths. (That really isn’t Miliband’s style.) He is wide open to the charge of policy flimsiness. No doubt the defence will come out that David Cameron was no more heavily freighted with practical policy at an equivalent point in his time in opposition. The mid-term challenge is to attract voters attention and sustain their interest in a way that makes them think they might be looking at their next Prime Minister. That was the explicit task that Ed Miliband set himself this week. Did he pass the audition? Too early to tell. But I suspect the party will come away more confident that they can talk about Prime Minister Miliband and the Conservatives will be a little bit less complacent in their assumption that no one is listening.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband acknowledges the applause after delivering his keynote on October 02, 2012 Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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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.