Over the weekend, Natalie Bennett did a media drive to promote the Green Party’s election policy around a “citizen’s income”. The idea is extremely simple to explain: every adult in the UK gets £72.40 a week from the government. This takes the place of all current welfare systems. This stipend from the Treasury would be withdrawn once people reached a certain level of income. Apart from being simple to explain, the citizen’s income is also a very bad idea.
First off, I need to address perhaps the single largest intellectual error made by the modern day Left. There is a pretence that we are somehow living in a post-industrial age; that no one actually needs to do anything material in order to maintain our current standard of living. This unravels as a concept the moment you stop and think about it at all: someone obviously needs to plough the fields so that we have basic food supplies, as an obvious for instance. So we can talk about who does what and why, how much they should be paid for it and what rights they should have, but in the end, like I say, someone’s got to plough the fields.
One day, perhaps, we will live in a Star Trek style society in which food can be synthesised out of thin air. At that point, I’d be very happy to discuss a citizen’s income.
Second problem with it is that it would be murderously expensive. £240 billion a year is the estimate; the entire working age benefits package as it stands is about £100 billion, for comparison. Third, £72.40 a week isn’t enough to live off of in many parts of the country. This is one of the reasons we have means testing. What if someone has nine children to feed? The answer from the Greens would be that we keep means testing for such instances. But that then results in the need to continue the current welfare system on top of the citizen’s income, when the whole point was to make things simple. It would also make the whole thing even more extortionate.
There are many more things wrong with a citizen’s income (I think it would set up a rather frightening relationship between people and the state, one I’ve seen the horrific affects of in parts of Central Asia first hand) – this doesn’t mean that Labour can laugh it off. I think it will actually be a real problem for them. This is because the citizen’s income is easy to understand, easy to explain on the doorstep and is verifiably an old school left-wing solution to the poverty problem. During an election in which the Greens get to go around touting this little number, while the Labour door steppers have to say something along the lines of, “Yes, we will be matching Tory cuts. But they’ll be a different sort of cut, nicer cuts”, I know which one I’d rather have in hand.
Of course, it is all unfair. The Greens will never be in government, so having a policy that’s full of holes is no problem for them. Meanwhile, Labour have to act as if their ideas will be tested at some point soon. Politics can be a nasty affair.