What's so bad about a Blue Peter economy anyway?

If Cameron was referring to an economy that takes apart the assumptions and bad habits which led to the problems of the past, that might be seen as a sign of progress.

I wasn't a huge fan of any of the leaders' speeches this year. Miliband attempted grand and defining statements with all the vigour of a schoolboy revolutionary. In response, Cameron seemed to deliberately take a more restrained tone – the result being one part 'statesman', two parts 'grandad'.

But, speechcraft and delivery aside, the real issue was that the speeches pandered to the same old partisan debates: "Red Ed" vs. economic stoicism, public spending vs. public taxes, hard workers vs. other hard workers. In their predictableness, neither caused much of a stir beyond the dwindling numbers of party members present.

As usual, the most innovative debates were on the fringe. One of the most vibrant discussions took the form of the social economy alliance, a movement of entrepreneurs, activists, investors and campaigners. While such a consortium might sound like the material for a bad joke, the effect was that the re-hashed divisive policy debates were cast aside in favour of fresh approaches to the social and economic problems that have been found to be the most pressing of our generation. From energy to public spending, banking to local services, the discussions highlighted the successes of these high-growth, profitable and investment-ready enterprises that work not only in the interests of society (which any job-generating business purports to do), but for tangible social impact. Together they form economic solutions that are genuinely different to the tedious left-right refrains.

Rather than being devoid of tradition and ideology, however, I would argue that the growing social economy movement draws on proud heritage from across the political spectrum, from principles of economic subsidiarity to the lessons from the 1980s venture capital market, the Rochdale pioneers to pre-enlightenment virtue ethics and gift exchange. Again, a counter-intuitive combination, but at a time when trust in the ‘business as usual’ models has hit rock bottom, these ideas are at the very least a curious alternative.

It is clear the old models aren’t working, so what is wrong with crafting new models and new structures? This is why I failed to appreciate Cameron’s point in deriding a "Blue Peter economy". Is it even an insult? If it is an economy which takes apart the assumptions and bad habits which led to the problems of the past, then I don't see anything wrong with that. Perhaps a Blue Peter metaphor would do better to highlight a high trust base, creativity and pursuit of fulfilment, or the values that inspire young people to be active citizens?

The social economy has the potential not only to capture but to realise these ideals, and whilst it is increasingly recognised by and inspiring a generation of young people (university graduates in particular), the parties are missing a trick by not talking about it.  Because living standards are not something passively received by people. The Reaganite tack of comparing people's circumstances to how they were five years ago is fundamentally flawed in that, when asked to consider their living standards, it the personal things which people remember: achievement and loss and grief and celebration, on a local scale which factors in social networks and relationships, not what the state does or doesn't do. And for the right, ambition and opportunity is not just about tax cuts, it is also about personal opportunities and the opportunities to change your lived experiences from one day to the next. Profit is good, but only if that profit makes a social and economic difference on a local, tangible level. This is a leader’s speech-in-waiting.

In terms of the agenda for social economy movement itself, there is still a lot to be done to achieve coherence and public recognition. Ed Miliband had it right in practice but not in principle when he produced clearly packaged retail offers for the 2015 election that describe the added value for people as consumers. This is what this movement should be working towards, and the party that capitalises on this potential for fresh and genuine approaches is one that will find themselves having struck electoral gold.

Caroline Macfarland is the founder of CoVi (Common Vision), a new visual think tank which uses film and interactive media to produce innovative, shareable ideas about politics, economics and society

David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Macfarland is manging director of ResPublica

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.