Konzelmann et al, Rethinking Britain

Sue Konzelmann, Susan Himmelweit, Jeremy Smith and John Weeks (eds.), Rethinking Britain: Policy ideas for the many, Policy Press for the Progressive Economy Forum, 2019, xvii + 269 pp, 1 4473 5252 5, pbk, £14.99

This book is a collection of short essays first published on the Progressive Economy Forum’s website, which is dedicated to ‘the development of policy solutions based on social democratic principles to economic problems and issues’. (There is a mistake in the glossary entry on ‘progressive/regressive policies’ on p. 244. It should read ‘Policies that decrease (progressive) or increase (regressive) income inequality’.) Each of the essays addresses a particular policy issue, offering a statement of the issue, some analysis, and a list of suggestions as to what should be done. There are thirty-nine essays, as well as section introductions and ‘interludes’: far too many for a review of the entire book: except to say that the collection provides a great deal of food for thought, and the sense that there really are things worth trying in response to what can seem like intractable social policy problems.

Of particular interest to readers of this website and Citizen’s Income Newsletter will be the section on ‘genuine social security’. Here there are essays on tackling the UK’s private debt crisis; how to address high rent levels; how to make occupational pension funds fit for purpose; and how to stop the social security system aggravating mental distress ( – change the policies rather than offering individual therapy). In ‘Reconstructing social security’, Simon Deakin recommends either a Citizen’s Basic Income or a revived social insurance system in a context of demand-led macroeconomic policy that would create stable employment. He clearly prefers the latter approach, suggesting that ‘this mix of policies as precisely what lay behind the Beveridge Report of 1942 and the Full Employment White Paper of 1944 … Since social insurance and full employment policy together delivered three decades of economic growth alongside steady redistribution of incomes and wealth, perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at them’ (p. 169). He appears not to realise that technology, the global economy, and the global employment market have changed somewhat since the 1940s.

Of particular interest will be Stewart Lansley’s and Howard Reed’s costed Citizen’s Basic Income scheme, which would redistribute income from rich to poor, cut child poverty by 45%, and reduce the number of households on means-tested benefits by 20 per cent, all at a net cost of £8bn per annum. This is followed by Ian Gough’s ‘Would Universal Basic Income address the causes of inequality, ill-being and injustice?’ He provides a summary of the UK welfare state’s structure and continuing usefulness, and offers arguments in favour of Citizen’s Basic Income in terms of freedom of choice, work-life balance, gender equality, a response to automation’s effects on the employment market, a reduction in employment insecurity for young people, a secure layer of income that would assist with employment market transitions, and non-interference in personal activities and household arrangements. Then come the objections: a right-wing version would dismantle public services; a scheme would be either inadequate or unaffordable; and schemes like Lansley’s and Reed’s achieve too little. He concludes that Citizen’s Basic Income ‘is an individualistic monetary intervention that does not in itself encourage social solidarity or address the underlying causes of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The problem of changing labour relations and reducing precarious employment are not directly addressed by a basic income’ (p. 177). Finally, he suggests that Citizen’s Basic Income ‘requires a top-down abolition of numerous social support programmes and their replacement with a single payment’, and that more effective remedies would be labour market reform and ‘investing in public services and other forms of social consumption’ (p. 177). These objections need to be taken seriously, because they are frequently heard in the kind of ‘social democratic’ circles from which the authors of this volume have been drawn. The objections are easy to answer: If Ian Gough wishes to stop a right-wing version of Citizen’s Basic Income then he might find it useful to advocate the kind of minimal-cost redistributive version described by Lansley and Reed: a scheme that would not compromise any existing public services, or prevent new ones. He might also find it useful to recognise that small gains, such as the numbers removed from means-testing, and the reductions in poverty, alongside such larger gains as the reduction in child poverty, would be a lot better than the zero gains of pursuing current policies. And also, of course, that implementing a Citizen’s Basic Income would prevent none of the employment market and other policies that he would like to see, and might help to bring about some of the change required. No, a Citizen’s Basic Income cannot achieve everything that we would like to see happen, but it would achieve some of it: and it would exhibit all of the advantages so well listed early on in his essay. But answering the objections is not really the point. What is required is to understand the roots of the deeply felt objections. Simon Deakin’s prescription might offer us a clue. There we found some serious nostalgia, and it is not difficult to sense the same in Gough’s essay. In a less secure world nostalgia is inevitable. The challenge will to harness the emotional energy so that it can create and serve a progressive agenda relevant to today’s social and economic context.

The two essays on Citizen’s Basic Income are important because taken together they provide a most useful summary of where discussion of Basic Income has got to on the Left. What is now required is a debate about what a progressive Citizen’s Basic Income scheme would look like, because otherwise the debate could easily gravitate towards the Right, as Gough fears.