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How I learnt to stop worrying and love Basic Income

John McDonnell's decision to consider moving to the benefit is the right one, says Jonathan Reynolds. 

The first time Basic Income was pitched to me I have to admit I thought it sounded completely unrealistic. An unconditional payment to each individual, to support their full lives, whether working, studying, caring or being cared for? I remember sitting in Stalybridge Labour Club with a beer after a meeting, when my friend Gordon introduced me to the concept. “How else,” asked Gordon, “will we ensure sufficient support for people as they have to retrain throughout their working lives - not just for several different jobs, but for several different careers?”.

Gordon’s question is the right one, and it stuck with me. My outlook on politics is fundamentally shaped by my experience of growing up in the North East in the 1980s. The closure of entire industries, like coal and shipbuilding, had dramatic and fundamental consequences for the areas built around them. The same is true of the tragic situation in the steel industry today. I still believe the Thatcher Government’s abject response to deindustrialisation lies at the heart of many of the problems the UK faces today, such as low skills, worklessness, poor public health and so on. The UK spent a fraction of what a country like Sweden spent on education and retraining as traditional industries declined, and we have suffered the consequences.

But what should the left’s response be to this sort of seismic economic change? The traditional response, calling for the nationalisation of failing industries, doesn’t solve the problem. Running an industry at a loss because it is subsidised by the taxpayer is not a long-term answer. Globalisation means it was inevitable that the UK would have to exit some traditional industries – I wouldn’t fancy bringing back the cotton mills to Stalybridge, for instance – and education and retraining to take part in new economic opportunities is the only solution.  But as technology and the growth of the MINT countries brings ever more economic disruption, as well as opportunity, we must have a mechanism to provide people with both security and a platform from which to be able to access these new opportunities.  Basic Income would do just that. This is the first of my three justifications for backing it – as a policy to cope with inevitable but fundamental economic change.

The second justification concerns our existing welfare state.  I have always been taken aback by the bewildering complexity of our welfare system. The Child Poverty Action Group Benefits Handbook, which like many MPs I use to help constituents, is bigger than my copy of the Bible. The modern evolution of the welfare state – conditionality, sanctions, and adults being forced to fill in job search diaries as if they were in primary school – I find unconscionable. I don’t deny there are a small group of people who do need a kick up the arse. There are also people who definitely need to access some support to get back into work, especially with numeracy and literacy.  But why should this be punitive? A system which sanctions war veterans for selling poppies, or a person for attending job interview, is both ridiculous and counter-productive.  And that’s before we consider the fundamental problem of our current benefits system – how to taper off benefits when someone does return to work to ensure there is an incentive to work and not a “benefits trap”.

The Government’s answer is universal credit. Having been one of the pathfinder areas for universal credit, I’m afraid they will be disappointed. Thanks to George Osborne, universal credit will not now offer the kind of work incentives it was hoped it would, but the real problem is that it still cannot cope with the real nature of people’s working lives. There is not, as much as some Tory MPs would claim there is, a big group of people who never work and then a larger group who pay their taxes to support these people. Instead, many people move frequently into and out of work, because the work they can get is short-term, or insecure, or because the other responsibilities in their lives cause complications. The benefits system simply cannot cope with these people, and nothing I have seen suggests universal credit will be a solution to that. As an example, not only is universal credit designed to be paid four weeks after a claim is made (on the huge assumption that everyone is paid monthly in arrears and so will have four weeks wages to tide them over), if a claim for universal credit is made too early, and the claimant receives their final pay packet after lodging the claim, they can wait as much as 11 weeks before receiving a penny. It is not surprise that foodbanks are booming.  There are also huge questions regarding conditionality as the nature of work changes: if technology like Uber creates a hypothetically unlimited amount of self-employed work, how will conditionality work? Will every job seeker be forced to do self-employed work in exchange for their meagre support? It’s a problem which is almost upon us now.

My third, and final, reason for backing Basic Income is far simpler. I object to the levels of poverty in this country and believe them to be an indefensible waste of talent and resources. I wonder how many successful businesses, or technological inventions, or medical breakthroughs, we miss out upon because we do not give enough people the platform from which they might fulfil their potential. Just think how more competitive the UK might be in the global economy if we stopped doing this? In a recent answer during Women and Equalities questions in the House of Commons, Nicky Morgan defended the government’s redefinition of child poverty to me on the basis that Government must tackle the ‘root causes of poverty’, which for her where educational failure and worklessness. I certainly agree these should be tackled. But what also struck me about this answer was that it essentially returned to a Victorian definition of poverty, i.e. that poverty is a result of character defects or personal problems. It is a position that pre-dates the work of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in 1903. There is no Conservative understanding of the person who works two or three jobs but is still low paid, or who has had a successful career for many years but then fallen on hard times.  Our current response to a scale of these problems is simply insufficient.  

There are many issues still to resolve about Basic Income, such as how to give additional support to those with disabilities, and how to tackle the chronic British problem with housing benefit when we simply do not have sufficient houses. We would also need to consider how long economic immigrants would have to be in the UK before they became eligible. But I am convinced that many fundamental problems in the UK – be it dealing with economic change, work incentives, poverty or a lack of competitiveness – could be tackled in this way. I also think it provides an answer to one of the perennial questions for the Labour Party - how is it that the public loves the NHS yet resents the benefits system? The answer is, I believe, that the NHS provides something for everybody. So should the rest of the welfare state - providing again real social security for all. Moderates within the Labour Party shouldn’t be afraid to embrace radical ideas. I’m coming out for Basic Income.  

Jonathan Reynolds is Labour/Coop MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and Chair of Christians on the Left.

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Ukip needs Nigel Farage to stand in the Stoke by-election

Despite becoming a global political celebrity, the party's former leader has been waiting 25 years for this moment to win a Commons seat. 

When Ukip's 20 MEPs - back at school today in Strasbourg to elect a new EU President - wave (no fists please) at each other today at lunch across the various dining rooms of the EU Parliament, their main subject of interest will not be the eight candidates they will be voting for by secret ballot to replace bearded German socialist Martin Schulz.

For the record, these eight MEPs include four Italians (the favourite is centre-right 63-year-old Antonio Tajani, a former Italian air force pilot and EU insider regularly seen at the best tables of VIP watering holes like the Stanhope Hotel in Brussels), two Belgians, a Romanian and, yes, a Brit. Thats's 66-year-old Jean Lambert of the Green Party. But nobody in Ukip really cares. The party has the worst attendance and voting record of any political party in the EU - ranked 76 out 76.

Electing a new EU president today in Strasbourg is not nearly of so much concern to Ukip MEPs as the upcoming by-election in Stoke - not the least as quite a few of them (especially representing the Midlands) will be thinking of standing. The central Midlands seat of Stoke Central is a dream seat to have come up for Ukip just as Theresa May is setting out her 12-point "clean Brexit" plan stall.

Ladbrokes still have Labour 4/5 favourite with Ukip 9/4. It's worth a bet as the stakes are so much higher for Ukip if they lose. If they do, many will ask whether Ukip really can supplant Labour in 2020? 

With the prime minister making it clear today in her Lancaster House speech that her government want a hard Brexit, this presents a potential dilemma for Ukip. If the Tories deliver a clean Brexit with no membership of the single market, or EEA, then does the purpose of Ukip "holding the Tories' feet to the fire" over Brexit become less relevant? 

If Ukip alternatively wishes to re-invent itself as the new working class party of the north and Midlands, it will need to show that it can beat Labour - now at its lowest ebb under Corbyn - in key seats like Stoke. Ukip know this and are very good at their by-election ground game with veteran by-election campaign managers like Lisa Duffy as good as any strategist. In Stoke, expect a full expeditionary force of Ukip's colourful and Falstaff-like army of by-election activist troops - arriving by train, coach and foot - to campaign and out manoeuvre Corbyn's New Left Red Army. 

Stoke Central is probably the most important by-election for Ukip since Heywood and Middleton in 2014 which became a watershed moment for the party. Even Ukip was taken off-guard by the result. Without much cash and without campaigning with the full Ukip army zeal, they lost by just over 600 votes and got a recount. 

Looking back, Heywood was a pivotal moment in Ukip's short history. It was the moment the party realised that its future lay not so much in persuading Disgusted with Dave of Tunbridge Wells to vote for Nigel, but rather with disaffected Labour voters wanting something down about immigration that they saw was changing the very face and identity of their local towns, estates and cities. 

But can Ukip really win Stoke? Well, they really have to try as this is their best chance they might get for a while. Which means that the really interesting question being asked by Ukip MEPs today to Paul Nuttall is "Are you running?" The deadline for candidates on the party's Approved Candidates List to put themselves forward is 4pm on Wednesday 18 January.

So far Nuttall's official line - as told to the Daily Express - is that he is not ruling out standing. As a no-nonsense northerner himself (a working class boy from Bootle in Merseyside who played "junior", not professional, football for Tranmere Rovers), Nuttall would appear to be an ideal working class candidate to empathise with the voters of such a socially dispossessed pottery town.

As Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at East Anglia University wrote in the Guardian: "If Ukip doesn’t win, or doesn’t run Labour close, that calls into question its ability to win parliamentary would suggest that the referendum, far from being a staging post on the road to supplanting Labour, might signal Ukip's peak." 

Ouch. But Hanretty has a point: if Nuttall stands and fails to win in a working class Midlands seat where 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave, it does raise issues about how much impact can make on the Westminster electoral landscape should there be a snap election in the next few months as a result of repeated constitutional challenges to Article 50 (the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be announced this week) and legal challenges such as the Article 127 challenge brought by the pro-EU pressure group British Infuence, now postponed until February.

This case revolves around the claim that Parliament must be consulted not just over the UK's exit as a EU member but also (and separately) its exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) – and by definition from the Single Market. In her speech today, Theresa May made it clear that the UK will be leaving the Single Market, so this challenge is unlikely to go away. All this political jousting and legal posturing is likely to make for quite a political circus when the Stoke by-election date is announced (usually within three months of an MP dying or standing down). Should Ukip not win this by-election prize fight - or give Labour a very bloody nose and lose by a few hundred votes as they did in Middleton and Heywood in 2014 -  it would certainly be damaging for Ukip. 

Not the least if the party's leader and chief general (an MEP commander for the north west) chooses to stand himself. But Nuttall is faced with a tricky dilemma. If he stands and loses, the idea that that UKIP is the new party of choice for working class former Labour voters in the North and and Midlands may not look so convincing. Yet if Nuttall doesn't stand and the party puts up another strong candidate who goes on to win like deputy chairman Suzanne Evans (born in the Midlands) or West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge (who has a strong personal following in the Black Country and industrial Midlands), then Nuttall's own position as leader of a party with two MPs could be frustrated. 

So it is going to be an interesting day for Ukip in Strasbourg that's for sure. Ukip is a strange party in that two of its most senior and high profile politicians - deputy chairman and Health spokesman Suzanne Evans and the respected former Ukip mayor candidate Peter Whittle (culture spokesman and excellent film critic for Standpoint) are not even MEPs although Whittle is proving to be an adept member of the London Assembly.  

If Ukip win in Stoke, and Nuttall's name is not on the ballot, this could have political ramifications. There is a significant difference in Westminster powers and patronage in having two MPs in Westminster rather than one (as currently with Douglas Carswell with whom Suzanne Evans worked closely with as a Ukip member of Vote Leave, which was pointedly not the party's official designated Leave camp). With two MPs, Ukip becomes a party as opposed to a one man political solo show. 

If the newly-elected MP were to be, say, Suzanne Evans - one of the party's star performers on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You - Nuttall's power base as leader (no longer an MEP in 2020 after we exit the EU) might be diluted by another senior party member becoming a star performing Commons MP. 

So there is much at stake both personally and party-wise for Nuttall. Should Ukip be defeated in Stoke Central by some margin, this would be picked up by Tory and Labour strategists as offering evidence that Labour might not be wiped out by so many seats under Corbyn should May go to the country in say March or April to settle the Brexit mandate. Polls have been saying that under Corbyn Labour could lose as many as 80-100 seats should Ukip prove (with Stoke) that the party is, indeed, the number one threat to traditional Labour vote in the north and midlands.

Whatever happens in Stoke, the Tories won't win. They will be watching to see how the working class vote splits. This is why it is so improbable that May will attempt to call an 'early election' this year, even if the polls continue to show she would win by a landslide. 

The truth is she can't realistically call an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even if she she wants to. The Act (one of the worst legacies of the Coalition govt which many MPs want repealed) requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for going to the country - something that not even the most suicidally inclined of Labour MPs will be prepared to do as they will be joining MEPs in being out of a job. 

In the event that Labour take the view that a political blood bath - with Ukip the likely winner in many seats like Stoke Central - is the only way to purge the party of Corbyn, then they will also have to swallow the fact that May (if pushed into an election by troublesome, unelected peers) is likely to spike her election wheel with a manifesto pledge to abolish most of the powers of the House of Lords, as well as booting many of the eldest, most pompous and idle. Such a mandate for radical reform of our largely unelected Lords would hardly be difficult to secure. More blood on the carpet. 

In the event that the Supreme Court rules this week that Article 50 must be signed off by both the Commons and the Lords, any Lib Dem and Labour pro-EU zealots will know that any attempted Kamikaze-style amendments (which could technically delay Parliamentary assent for up to thirteen months) will be met with punitive retribution from Downing Street. 

Ukip only lost in Stoke to Labour's Dr Tristram Hunt in 2015 by around 5,000 votes - largely thanks to disaffected working class voters feeling that their once proud industrial "pottery" city - once a Victorian symbol of industrial creativity and production - had become a symbol of a working class British city in decline. Faced with immigration, housing and other social issues, Stoke voters have felt for some time that the pro-EU metropolitan leaning Labour Party has abandoned them.

Not so Ukip, which is exactly why Nigel Farage chose to stage a major Brexit rally hosted by Grassroots Out (GO!) last April at Stoke's Victoria Hall urging the good people to vote to leave the European Union.

Addressing the packed hall, against his political opponent Tory Chris Grayling MP, and Labour's Kate Hoey (herself a Leaver), Farage drew applause from the Stoke crowd when he said: "This is not about left or right – this is about right or wrong." Farage then started up the audience of hundreds in a chant of "We want our country back." 

In other words, Nigel he knows perfectly well that Ukip can win Stoke. Which leads to the obvious question in Strasbourg today: "Are you going to stand Nigel?" 

Officially, Farage has ruled himself out saying he wants to focus on his international and speaking, broadcasting and advisory career. But as Farage said after picking up the leadership reins after they came loose following the resignation of Diane James: "I keep trying to escape ... and before I'm finally free they drag me back". 

The truth is that in his political heart, I suspect Nigel must be going through a dark night of his political soul over whether he should have stood for Stoke Central. Or still can? In so many ways, he has been waiting over 25 years for this moment. By the time the all-important Heywood and Middleton by-election result came on October 2014 (Ukip share of the vote up 36 per cent), Farage had already committed to standing for the south of England seat of Thanet South - his seventh election campaign to become an MP. Had Nigel stood in the Heywood by-election, he probably would have won. 

All his Ukip parliamentary election campaigns have been in the South, South-West or Home Counties, beginning with Eastleigh in Hampshire in 1994 when he won just 952 votes. But the interesting trend to note is that in his last two attempts to get into the Commons,  he has doubled his vote each time. In 2010 election, standing in Buckingham he won 8,410 votes (almost the same number as I won taking votes of Midland labour voters in North Warwickshire in 2015). In 2015, Nigel got 16,026 votes in South Thanet. 

My point is that had Nigel Farage stood for a solid Labour Northern or Midlands seat in 2015, he may well have won then. Yes, Nigel has said that he wants to get his life back after his extraordinary years as the "Mr Brexit" Ukip leader - apparently now the subject of a Warner Bros Bad Boys of Brexit comedy biopic. 

But as somebody who knows how much the pull of the green leather Commons bench - the true seat of western parliamentary democracy - means to Nigel, I sincerely hope he will re-consider standing for Stoke Central. Yes, he wants to earn money and become a global political superstar. But it will certainly be something to think about as he flies through the night to take up his front row seat in Washington on Friday's inauguration. 

And just think, after what Nigel did for Trump campaigning in Mississippi, how could Donald Trump possibly not campaign for his Brexit friend in Stoke? Now that really would be political theatre.