There’s been an interesting debate regarding the so-called “citizen’s income” on both the Left and Right in Britain over the last couple of years. The idea has gained more traction on the Left, with the Greens making it official policy (sort of) in the run in to the last general election. But the reasons many on the Right like the concept made me think deeply about the problems the Left faces across Europe, and I came up with the following.
Portions of the Right like the citizens income because it is a way to actually shrink the state in a counterintuitive sort of a way. By giving people a citizen’s income, you can then demolish all other forms of welfare – unemployment benefits, disability benefits, even pensions. Everyone is “taken care of” once they get a minimum amount from the state – even if it isn’t enough to live on and is far less than some now get from other benefits. Whatever you think of this right-leaning take on citizen’s income, it’s very clear cut and ideologically non-muddy.
The Left on the other hand has been stuck between two opposite directions of travel since at least 2008 – and not just in regards to welfare, but on the bigger picture stuff as well. One direction involves a yearning for the past – the spirit of ’45, “let’s reopen the coal mines somehow”, a wish to revisit the battles of the 80s and win this time – the other, a belief in a bright future, one the Left is willing to come before its time. Call it a “the future is mechanised so let’s give in to it and hand everyone a citizens income” type of buzz. Essentially, the split comes down to how to handle mechanisation and globalisation – resist it with everything you’ve got, or give in to it and try and reap the upsides to it all while ameliorating the downsides. They are mutually exclusive world views – yet most on the Left, even if they don’t know it, hold both of them simultaneously.
It’s no wonder the Left is having problems attracting enough voters to win a general election – it is stuck in an existential crisis as to why it exists other than a dislike of “conservatism” loosely defined. It is trapped between resisting the future by trying to hold onto as much of the post war settlement as possible – and charging happily into a supposedly post-capitalist utopia.
The big problem faced by those on the Left who try and advocate a future-looking response to the world is that the world they are looking towards is still a long way off yet. The type of mechanisation that will render thousands upon thousands of working class jobs redundant is still in its very, very early stages. This is the worst of it for the Left: mechanisation of lower skilled jobs looks almost certain to cause huge societal problems in the medium term, as a very difficult transition into who knows what takes place. Particularly as offering people a citizen’s income instead of their jobs isn’t going to work for most – the lower-skilled working classes will still want jobs, even if the state gives them a (most likely meagre) crust to live on.
I think in the end the Left does have to stop looking to the past and face the future. But in saying that, I can’t tell you right now what that actually means. Does the Left chuck in the towel on trying to maintain any sort of communitarianism of the kind that used to exist in a past period of mass industrialisation? What answers can the Left come up with to manage the transition from where we are now (which causes it enough problems already) to one in which there are huge job loses amongst their traditional voter base through mechanisation but can at the same free people from the need to work menial jobs?
I fear the Right could be dominant during the whole of this transitional period as the Left has no answers and people vote Conservative to hang on as tightly as possible to the past. Actually, I’m sure it will be – unless the Left can come up with a roadmap that has better answers for all of the problems ahead, one that isn’t burying its head in nostalgia land or another that isn’t wishing for a way to avoid all of the problems headed our way and pretending this leftist utopia is painlessly around the corner. The Left needs real answers, in other words. I’m willing to have a think if you are.