Universal Basic Income: Labour Attempts Blatant Pr Stunt, Fucks It Up

A couple weeks ago the Labour Party’s ‘Future of Work Commission’ published a discussion paper on the possibility of instituting a Universal Basic Income. This interesting concept is popular among certain economic theorists involves paying every citizen aged 18 or older $11,000 a year. 

It’s an idea which, in theory, could have a significant impact in reducing inequality, allow for smoother transitioning between jobs, protect those who cannot work, and cut bureaucracy out of the welfare system. But at this point, that’s all it is - a theory. A Universal Basic Income has never been successfully implemented anywhere; the closest we have gotten so far is a small test experiment currently being planned in Finland, and Labour’s paper didn’t exactly give us any new information - it reads more like a 12 page describe and discuss essay than a serious economic analysis. 

But Labour knows this of course. They have no intention of rolling this out as a serious policy before the next election. It’s unnecessarily risky, untested, and by their own own admission they simply to not have the resources to run a proper analysis on major economic overhauls like this as an opposition party. 

So if they were never going to go through with the policy, why would they announce it? The real reason appears to be that Labour is testing out an attack line ahead of the next election that National is a “do-nothing government”, while they are the party of “new ideas”, something both Grant Robertson and Andrew Little pushed when speaking to CRITIC. And it’s fine for them to claim that, but ideas have to be backed up with action. When Labour launched their three years free tuition policy they didn’t just talk about it, they planned it as a legitimate policy with a verifiable method of funding it. They didn’t do that here. This was a cheap PR stunt to try and push their “new ideas” narrative without the risk of actually going through with those ideas. To go around telling people that they’re considering a pie-in-the-sky plan to give everyone $11,000 a year when they know full well it’s never going to happen is just deceptive. 

But that’s not the worst of it. It would be one thing to claim you want to do something you have no intention of following up on, that’s just politics, where promises get broken every day. The real issue is simply that floating the idea of a UBI was a fucking terrible idea in the first place. They basically wrote National’s attack lines for them. Robertson had to know that the second they released that paper, John Key had his spin doctors crafting a response for when the media inevitably asked him about it (he ended up going with ‘barking mad’). 

Labour left themselves wide open to easy criticism from all angles: costs would be too high, it would shrink the workforce, reduce production, it’s not means-tested and so some seniors and people with a number of dependents would actually end up making less. Right wing commentators could barely contain their glee over how easily they were able to attack Labour as half-baked spendthrifts. The Taxpayer’s Union claimed that a UBI would require increasing taxes to 56 percent. Now, all of that could be true or none of it could be, it doesn’t matter, because Labour doesn’t actually have a real plan in place so it is impossible for them to respond to these attacks. 

That’s why you don’t just announce policies willy-nilly. You study them, come up with feasible methods of funding them, and ways to cover all scenarios, so that when you get attacked on it you can point to your plan and correct the record. It’s politics 101, and Labour seems to have failed. 

In a boxing metaphor, Labour hopped in the ring, walked up to their opponent, then turned around and announced to their trainer they were thinking about trying a right hook, all the while taking repeated unguarded blows to the head. 

Labour has committed plenty of unforced errors in the past few years – Internal fighting, leaks to the media, David Cunliffe generally saying stupid things. But this wasn’t an accident or a gaffe. This was intentional. They sat down and worked out a strategy. And it blew up in their faces.

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2016.
Posted 10:49am Sunday 10th April 2016 by Joel MacManus.