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The Basic Income Can Fix Corbyn's Nuclear Problems

28/09/2016 12:52
ArtemSam via Getty Images

Much of my childhood was spent in rural east Somerset, at the foot of the Mendips. For us children, Frome was "the smoke" - an industrial town that we only visited for its railway station, or for rare purchases that the local shops in Evercreech and Shepton Mallet could not provide.

Fast forward 40 years and Frome has morphed into a locus for alternative living. The Transition Movement may have been born in Totnes, but its Westcountry cousin has swiftly overtaken it in terms of political and economic innovation. Frome's "Flatpack Democracy" has produced a town council of independents focused on collaboration, devoid of members from any known political brand.

It was this reputation that brought Upstream, a radio documentary project from Economics for Transition, to the town this summer, to explore how new, wellbeing economics might work when applied in a live situation. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the project). The result is fascinating and unexpected. Over three one-hour programmes, Upstream's Della Duncan digs deep below the surface of Frome's burgeoning "sharing economy" to reveal the still livid scars of thirty years of de-industrialisation and social deprivation.

Frome's pioneering political and economic model may indeed bring hope and inspiration to a wide, even global audience. But at a local level the tensions are palpable. With the factories that I remember from my childhood long gone, and little of real productive substance to replace them, Frome now typifies the divergence of interests between a dispossessed working class that struggles to be heard and an increasingly vocal, socially liberal, aspirational, alternative movement. Nowhere is that divergence more clearly seen than in house prices, which incoming gentrifiers have sent rocketing far beyond the reach of most locals.

This tension - between liberal alternative values and those of the traditional labour movement - runs right through the anti-establishment forces ranged against the current Conservative government. In the middle stands the figure of Jeremy Corbyn - a stalwart of the Labour movement rapidly becoming an icon for many old-school liberals drawn to his principled positions.

Fifty miles to the west of Frome lies Hinkley Point, where a huge new nuclear power station is planned to be built on what are widely regarded as ruinous terms. Corbyn is opposed to this folly, along with everyone of an even slightly green, alternative disposition, but the labour movement, as represented by the trades unions and many in the Labour Party, is broadly in favour. They welcome the jobs the investment will bring, and see it as a boost to British industry rather than a rash mis-allocation of precious resources.

The recent row over Hinkley Point mirrors a far deeper one within the Labour Party over nuclear weapons, where the renewal of Trident also has strong trades union support. Corbyn, a long standing CND supporter, is opposed on principle, but the unions want the investment in jobs that the project will bring. Meanwhile the Conservative government has a free hand. Even Corbyn now accepts the futility of merely deepening Labour disunity over the issue.

It is clearly within the remit of trades unions to fight for good jobs at decent rates of pay, but from a new economy perspective their approach to these nuclear projects looks like outdated thinking. The combined cost of Hinkley C and Trident renewal is at least £50 billion just for construction, while the long-term cost of the power station is estimated at up to £37 billion and of Trident at £167 billion. To target such colossal resources at protecting a relatively small number of skilled jobs - 13,000 in the case of Trident, according to one union estimate; up to 25,000 construction jobs at Hinkley - will do nothing to improve the quality of life of the millions of insecure and poorly paid workers that the labour movement also represents.

What is more, most of the jobs at Hinkley, and many of those related to Trident, are relatively transient. At Hinkley the peak number is estimated at 5,600. Once the plant is built it will require only a few hundred to keep it going. So the unions' approach seems not only outdated but short termist, too. The more important question is not how a few tens of thousand jobs can be secured now, but how the financial security of ordinary people can be re-established in a world in which the only things preventing many human workers being replaced by machines is that human workers are cheaper and easier to get rid of.

If the economy were functioning as it should, progress would not mean more paid work, but fewer, better-paid working hours and more time for people to do the things that really matter to them. From this perspective the unprecedented number of jobs that the UK economy is generating is not good news. If the nation is to prosper, we need to work less, but smarter, getting rid of poorly paid, insecure and increasingly unproductive work and replacing it with the sort of creative, productive activities that allow people to flourish.

The basic income is central to this. Both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn say that Labour is "looking at it", and the TUC at its recent conference passed a motion in favour of it, but there is little evidence to suggest that at present the labour movement sees it as much more than a rejigged benefits system. Its potential, however, is far greater than that: for many it will replace paid work altogether, allowing them to create wealth directly for themselves, their families and their communities without the intervention and profit-taking of investors and middlemen.

This new approach to distributing money-wealth is the missing piece of the puzzle that Upstream uncovered when they went to Frome. A sharing economy requires a sharing of the means of participation, which means ready access to the money needed to get anything done. In the same way, if all those highly skilled, motivated workers destined to work on Hinkley or Trident had the opportunity to decide for themselves how to participate in the economy, their combined output would undoubtedly be far more valuable than the two vast nuclear white elephants that are now in prospect.

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