The most universal benefit of them all

While the UK debates ending universality, economists in America are talking about making income itself universal.

With Labour's decision to push for the end of winter fuel payments for all, Britain has seen yet another step against the principle of universality in benefits this week. But while the tide here is pushing more and more in favour of means-testing every intervention possible, in the US, the opposite debate is being had: should even the largest interventions be universal?

In early May, Mike Konczal wrote an article in the Washington Post proposing a universal basic income (UBI), also called a "citizen's income". The idea is that significant proportions of the social insurance system get replaced with a "poverty-level" income which is given to all, universally and unconditionally. So rather than claiming unemployment benefit when out of work, disability benefit when sick, or a state pension in retirement, you claim a standard sum every month from the age of majority to your death, regardless of your status.

Many of the benefits of a UBI are the same as the benefits of universalising any part of the welfare system: it massively reduces bureaucracy at all stages; it's far easier to get benefits where they need to go; and it removes the stigma of claiming help from the state. For some benefits, even one of those arguments is enough to justify universalising them. So, for example, we don't means test the NHS – among other reasons – because the thought of keeping someone in the emergency room while we check their past six months of payslips is anathema to most people.

But the UBI carries its own additional upsides, by virtue of being so large compared to other benefits. The most important one is that its universality reduces so-called "income traps", points in the tax-and-benefit system where the marginal value of every pound earned drops too low. So, for example, as your earnings rise, you may find that you leave the personal tax allowance, lose working tax credits, and become ineligible for housing benefit all around the same time. That could mean that a job which pays thousands of pounds leads to a take-home pay rise of a tenth of that, giving you a serious incentive not to take it at all.

That problem is also what the Universal Credit is aimed at solving in Britain; but despite the name, it's not a universal benefit, and so it can at best smooth over the problems caused by withdrawal, rather than remove them already.

But Konczal's most interesting point is that there are strong right-wing – or, more accurately, libertarian-right – arguments for a UBI. By removing conditionality of benefits, it also removes a method of state control. It is no longer up to the government, for instance, to determine which types of work experience you can do while still being paid unemployment benefit; nor can they shape society by deciding which types of non-labour activities ought be rewarded – carers, community gardeners, political activist or artists all get the UBI without having to prove their worth.

In fact, as Konczal points out, it's the left which should really be wariest of arguments for a UBI. It has the potential to extend market logic to every reach of society, by equating "being a citizen" with "being paid". That's exactly the sort of thinking Michael Sandel warned against when I spoke to him last month, because, in his words, it "may crowd out attitudes and norms, non-market values, worth caring about".

Konczal's piece sparked a wide debate in the economics community. Despite his strong argument that a UBI ought to be a libertarian idea, many of them opposed it, arguing that handing out a UBI would mean that people would never work, and the government would instantly lose the tax revenue it takes to pay it in the first place.

That argument doesn't quite work; in fact, the understanding as to why that is was the great breakthrough in 19th century economics, the marginal revolution. People tend to make their decisions, not based on absolute levels, but on marginal changes. If you are given a UBI, then you still face the choice as to whether or not to go to work and earn an extra sum of money. And since people working on poverty pay don't tend to decide never to increase their income, it seems likely that a UBI wouldn't discourage much work.

But it would discourage some, because that's the point of it. By removing the link between "having to work" and "starving to death", a UBI would promote a healthier attitude to work, removing the element of fear which forces employees to sell their labour to exploitative employers. Instead, work would occur based on equitable negotiation: if the employee no longer lives in fear that they will be on the streets without a job, their bargaining position is greatly improved.

In the end, it's that outcome which will mean the UBI can never truly catch on among right-wingers – or even the centre-left – leaving the Green Party the only one in the UK to support it. In radically redistributing economic power from capital to labour, it is anathema to the conventional order . That is true despite the fact that elements of it ought to be hugely appealing to people from across the political spectrum. It is freedom-enhancing, bureaucracy-reducing, and in some cases life-saving, but it's also going to remain no more than a thought experiment. That's a crying shame.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad