In her second #ConterManifesto column on big policy ideas for the left, Eve Livingston looks at the concept of Universal Basic Services and why this state-oriented approach might be preferable to the mooted Basic Income proposals...
As I laid out in a previous piece, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is having something of a political moment. With support from groups as disparate as the Adam Smith Institute and the radical left, its popularity for the latter lies in the potential for a restructuring of society, decentralising work and reframing citizens as more than their contributions to labour. But as the overview highlighted, there are reasons why the left might also be wary of UBI despite its noble intentions: not least the onus it passes from the state to the individual, leaving citizens more vulnerable to the market and potentially clearing the path for further privatisation and hollowing out of the welfare state.
So, what if there was a way of embodying a similar principle, while ensuring simultaneously that responsibilities lie firmly with the state, and public services are actively protected and enhanced?
Universal Basic Services (UBS) is an idea explored in most depth by the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London, who define it simply as the universal provision of housing, food, communications and transport free at the point of service. In combination with existing universal healthcare and education, the researchers suggest that this enhanced welfare state would provide a minimum common standard of living, addressing the growing gulf in inequality and its underlying factors including housing provision and an ineffective benefits system.
There are numerous possibilities for the model and logistics of Universal Basic Services - and the UCL report goes on to lay out in substantial detail how their particular vision might work - but at its most basic level, the principles enshrined in UBS should have great appeal for the left. When you consider, for example, that economies depend almost entirely on the products of their citizens’ labour, it seems unthinkable that the provision of services which keep us safe, healthy and productive isn’t already seen as basic economic necessity.
In reality, calls for increased public spending have been met with arguments about “magic money trees” and prioritisation, rather than an understanding that a state’s central purpose should be the safety, happiness and participation of its citizens. This unhalting pursuit of growth, and the austerity measures and affordability arguments that have come with it, have not only failed to deliver societal cohesion and wellbeing, but have actively played a major role in its worsening.
Public services, for their part, act as a crucial mechanism in encouraging redistribution and tackling inequalities. Oxfam estimate that public service provision provides the poorest with the equivalent of 76% of their post-tax income, while UCL’s research suggests that the ‘social wage’ - that is, the financial value of a public service to an individual citizen - generated by UBS would be around £126 weekly. Public service provision as a means for redistribution is also able to bypass many of the problems encountered with other measures: the disproportionate political influence of business and the wealthy and related tax loopholes, for example, as well as political sustainability: high quality services are easier to sell to voters and to protect than higher taxes which aren’t attached to a particular area of expenditure.
Further, while minimum wage legislation is hard-won and vitally important, it hasn’t on its own succeeded in creating the common minimum floor it promised. Economists largely put this down to two factors: that setting it at high rates reduces employment opportunities and raises prices, and that those in low-skilled entry-level roles are the first to suffer as employers make decisions about increased costs.
Far from dismissing minimum wage legislation as a failure, though, UBS might instead create the conditions in which it can reach its full potential: by reducing living costs and consequently increasing retained pay, the model not only overcomes any accusation of minimum wages pricing out cheap labour, but may actively increase the relative value of work that's currently marginalised and undervalued. And despite centrist critiques of universalism as benefitting the already well-off at the expense of the poor, researchers posit that the greatest impact of UBS would be seen by those on the lowest incomes.
In fact, universalism for its own sake is a principle that’s worth defending. Too often a false dichotomy is drawn between universal provision and redistribution, failing to acknowledge that universalism can instead be seen as a mechanism by which redistribution is achieved: one only needs to look at almost any measure of social and economic prosperity to note the dominance of countries with strong universal welfare states at the top.
Targeted approaches to inequality brought in under governments of various stripes have often struggled to live up to their promise (also see various initiatives spearheaded by the World Economic Forum, pictured above) and have instead eroded the principles of social security by reframing state interventions as akin to charitable handouts, discretionary and easily removed, and for ‘other people’, leading to further division and stigma. In fact, a growing body of research shows that systems in which interventions are not targeted are, paradoxically, those in which such interventions have the greatest impact on the least well-off.
For its part, universalism in general and the provision of Universal Basic Services specifically reinforces social solidarity because the ‘social wage’ regained from service provision narrows the gap between citizens and fundamentally brings people together within the same services. Where private services currently can serve to drive down the quality of public provision by concentrating those with financial and social influence in the private sector, a UBS model instead sees a diverse population come together within a service, increasing its quality and sustainability and presenting a true manifestation of the important principle of pooling resources for the public good.
While the left shouldn’t be drawn into debating utopian demands on the grounds of a capitalist construct of ‘affordability’, it’s also worth noting that universalism and basic services make good economic sense even on capitalism’s own terms. For its part, means testing is often expensive and bureaucracy-heavy, with prescriptive form-filling resulting in a gap through which many in need can easily fall. Ironically, universal services allow for more flexibility and personalisation because they are accessed as and when demand emerges rather than administered in a blanket swoop.
In a purely financial sense too, UCL’s research suggests the provision of UBS would cost around £42bn (funded by lowering the personal income tax) as opposed to the £250bn - 13% of the UK’s GDP - estimated cost of Universal Basic Income. This should not be the ground on which the left opposes or embraces either model, as it’s vital to move beyond capitalist ideas and towards an understanding of the economy which centralises equality and wellbeing rather than growth for growth’s sake. Nevertheless, these are useful estimates on which to build a popular case for UBS should the left choose to embrace it in real policy terms.
As with any single idea, UBS is not a panacea and would require a range of other policy measures to offset any potentially problematic by-products or to plug gaps it's unable to address. There are certain circumstances which can never be universal and necessarily require a form of means testing - for example disability and incapacity benefits. These still require specific investment and expenditure and the left should be vigilant of any attempts to misappropriate UBS as leverage against increased spending or focused interventions, monetary or otherwise.
Similarly, questions about the provision of such services present opportunities to the left but can equally serve as threats: while a UBS model should stimulate innovation by encouraging co-production and diversity of thought, which allows for the likes of co-operative and time-banking models, it could also open the door for privatisation. Increased agency and accountability at a local level would be vital in preventing top-down cartels.
There are many forms that a UBS model could take, but as a general idea it should certainly spark interest on the left. As well as reaping the benefits of universalism and capitalising on the key role of public services in tackling inequalities, UBS presents a challenge to neoliberalism by refuting its very basis, that quality is increased by market competition and customer choice - an idea, incidentally, that Universal Basic Income relies upon.
Whereas UBI buys into individualism by handing monetary interventions over to citizens and then stepping back to leave them at the market’s whim, UBS instead places responsibility firmly with the state, challenging its fundamental role and relationship with citizens by centralising the facilitation of relationships and redistribution, and the creation of new forms of ownership and control.
Fundamentally, at the core of any model of universal basic services is a moral and emotional reality that cannot be underestimated: that the poorest in our society are told without equivocation that they deserve the same quality as the rich, and that to have it is their right and not a bonus for which they should be grateful. Symbolism can be easily overlooked or dismissed, but in a society built on division and inequality, there are few messages more radical.