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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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