Will Sefton (Solidarity 486) talks of the origin of Universal Credit in separation from the Tories’ benefit cuts. Its intellectual origins are from the same neoliberal place. Universal Credit’s intellectual inspiration is “negative income tax”, an idea promoted by the likes of Milton Friedman as an alternative to the welfare systems developed after World War 2 under the pressure of a militant working class.
Unlike those systems, which had at least the rhetoric of redistribution and the state’s responsibility for a decent standard, NIT was meant to reduce the state’s responsibility to a single sliding scale payment. What Iain Duncan Smith added to this idea was making it monthly¬paid in arrears, to ape and instill the discipline of work. For IDS as well, Universal Credit was about expanding the whole set of conditions for receiving benefits.
Conditionality is at the heart of this system. Universal Credit is not some sort of technocratic improvement with unfortunate additions. It is a method of disciplining people into accepting low¬paid, precarious work. As for the point Will Sefton makes about the legacy benefits, it is of course true that they are also terrible. That is why I advocate Labour’s policy should be “Scrap and Replace”. That does not preclude demands to scrap sanctions, work capability assessments and the cuts to the old benefits in the meantime. Demands to do so have been made forcefully by us, DPAC, welfare rights groups and Unite Community for several years now.
If we manage to scrap Universal Credit, the momentum will be with the movement to scrap the cuts and the coercive elements of the legacy benefits. “Pause and fix” also means keeping people on the legacy benefits system until universal credit is “fixed”. Will Sefton argues in the meantime no one should lose out. What’s the difference between that and those advocating “scrap” the system who are also fighting for changes to the legacy benefits?
As to the argument that Universal Credit has the improvement of the single sign¬on and a lack of cliff¬edges — those elements can be a key part of a new system. A movement is developing against Universal Credit. It is making Universal Credit a dirty word. To positively advocate Universal Credit, albeit with a longer list of what needs changing, does not build or develop this movement. On the contrary it lowers the horizon of the movement.