The case for Citizens' Income

Submitted by Matthew on 27 March, 2015 - 11:35

The run-in to the General Election in May prompted me to look more closely at the politics of Left Unity and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, both of whom are standing candidates in the election.

Neither of them mentions the Citizen’s Income (CI) also referred to as Basic Income (BI). Prompted by this discovery I then looked at the websites of the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Morning Star, Workers’ Liberty and the Socialist Party. The result was the same.

CI does not appear to be on the agenda, even as an item for discussion, of any of the main left groupings in the UK although certain individuals (e.g. Alex Callinicos) have written about it. Possibly I missed something in this ‘trawling’ exercise — if so, my apologies to those concerned.

CI has been adopted by the Green Party, has been discussed on TV and in the press and there have been numerous studies dedicated to the topic and the idea is promoted by two UK-based organisations: The Civic Income Trust and the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Looking abroad, CI is supported by Syriza, Podemos and in South Africa by COSATU. So, I found it surprising that there isn’t at least some discussion of this issue here on the UK left.

What I want to suggest is that this is wrong. The left should embrace CI (as should the trade unions), there is nothing to lose and much to be gained.

A Citizen’s Income is “an unconditional, automatic and non-withdrawable payment to each individual as a right of citizenship” (Malcolm Torry). The main advantages of adopting CI are as follows:

• It would help ameliorate poverty and unemployment traps.

• Provide a safety net available to all.

• It would help people to take control of their lives and open up choices to them.

• Contribute to social cohesion and end most of the present means-tested welfare systems which are overly complex, intrusive, divisive and employed punitively.

• CI is simple and cheap to administer, easy to understand, non-taxable, non-means-tested and based only on citizenship.

CI could be financed by removing tax allowances and reducing mean-testing and most contributory benefits. A CI could also be funded by a land value tax, a carbon tax, a “Tobin tax”, or any one of a variety of consumption taxes. There would probably be three different levels to CI: a children’s level, the standard adult level and a retiree’s level. Those with disabilities would receive a supplement and there would probably need to be a London weighting.

Rises in the cost of living would mean a rise in CI and this would be monitored by an independent, non-governmental committee. As CI is paid on an individual basis not to a household it will be particularly beneficial to women.

CI cannot be withdrawn as a “punishment” (unlike many welfare benefits). It will provide a financial cushion in periods of unemployment or, for example, when someone needs some free time to acquire a qualification or study, look after a sick or elderly relative... the possibilities are endless. Clearly there are some aspects of welfare where CI will not be applicable: Housing benefit needs vary from household to household and will, almost certainly, continue to require some form of means-testing

Trade unions have nothing to fear from CI — if a particular trade union thinks CI will detract from its recruitment of members or restrict its activities in any way then it is the trade union that is remiss not CI. By strengthening social cohesion CI will help trade unionism. The state of Alaska has been operating a system of modified CI (financed from oil revenues) for a number of years — it has now the second highest rate of trade union membership in the USA (despite Sarah Palin!).

CI is not a panacea, it will not usher in the dawn of a new age, but it will help transform the lives of ordinary people for the better, giving them more flexibility, security, control and choices in their lives. I hope those reading this short advocacy of CI will not dismiss the idea offhand but take some time to consider the issues. Socialism has much to gain from engaging in discussions around CI and, ultimately, adopting it as a policy.

Postscript

I have written this “open letter” or “appeal’ to various groups on the left in a personal capacity. I hold no position in the labour movement and am not a member of any political organisation, nor have I been for many years. Since returning to the UK in 2000, I have consistently voted for the Greens although I have no intention of joining them.

At various times in my life I have been a member of USDAW, AUEW, TGWU and the NUM. After studying at Ruskin College I worked in academia, retiring in 2012; currently I am a retired member of the UCU.

I am an active supporter of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and in 2012 I participated in founding and running the Spanish Miners’ Solidarity Campaign which raised £26,000 for striking miners in Spain.

More: Malcolm Torry, Money for Everyone: Why we need a Citizen’s Income; Guy Standing, A Precariat Charter (particularly pages 316-338) (2013); Citizens' Income; Basic Income

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