Scrap The Vouchers – It's Time To Roll Out A Universal Basic Income

Vouchers are part of the problem not a solution. They perpetuate an old system which is simply unsustainable, Jonathan Bartley writes.

Vouchers are all the rage. We’ll get some for home insulation. We’ll get them for groceries and free school meals – over the summer at least. And now we could each get a £500 voucher to spend in selected high street stores.

They are of course nothing new. Businesses promote them at Christmas. Asylum seekers got them (until they were scrapped for being dehumanising). They are a way of maintaining loyalty and control. A way of directing our behaviour – and for the government, often the behaviour of the poorest. It is no surprise then that they have made a comeback as the government tries to steer us all out of the biggest economic crisis we have seen for generations.

The idea that we each get £500 to spend in certain types of high street stores is an attempt to get consumption going again – and firmly focused on high street retail. But in so doing it overlooks the fundamental question about who the economy is for – something that will be highlighted all too clearly if vouchers can indeed only be used “face to face” and not online. This would clearly discriminate against the disabled or those who need to shield at home – particularly in the event of a second wave.

“The intervention of the government through the furlough scheme has opened many people’s eyes further to what might actually be possible.”

As such, these vouchers are based on the same desperate thinking that we saw in the financial crisis of 2008. That we must keep spending and consume our way out of an emergency – regardless of whether that consumption is what we want, or even meets our needs.

Instead of vouchers let’s give people cash. More choice. More control. We can spend it if we need to. We can save it if we want to. The main argument against only seems to be that cash for everyone would boost the bank balances of the richest. But of course it doesn’t have to be this way, if it is accompanied by wealth redistribution.

We have long argued for a Universal Basic Income. An unconditional regular cash payment to everyone to do what they want with. But clawed back from the rich through taxing their wealth and clamping down on avoidance and evasion. It could also be funded by a carbon tax on the pollution and environmental destruction that threatens our future – changing patterns of consumption because the good stuff we consume would be cheaper than the bad stuff.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak

We have advocated it for years, not just because it empowers and tackles inequality but because it would provide real security for everyone. It would keep us all safe as we make the fundamental changes that we must make to our economy in the face of the climate emergency. Replacing millions of old jobs in the outdated fossil fuel economy, with new low carbon ones through a Green New Deal.

It is only in the last few years that the idea has gained traction. The intervention of the government through the furlough scheme has opened many people’s eyes further to what might actually be possible. A basic income, with top ups for the disabled and others who need additional support, is an idea whose time has surely come.

A basic income should be the new 21 Century welfare state. Simple, transparent and empowering. The reason why our existing welfare state is in such a mess, and even ends up killing the very people it should be supporting is because of the desire of successive governments to try and maintain the economic system by controlling our behaviour. This is exactly the same thinking that lies behind vouchers, and it’s time we moved to a more empowering model.

The economic system at the moment isn’t just about producing what we need. Like a vampire sucking us dry, it is about consuming as much as it can. It needs people to go out and work and create stuff for people to buy whether they need it or not. And it needs people to work so that they can earn wages to buy the stuff, whether they need it or not.

We need to make the links. This is why we have benefit sanctions and conditionality to force us out to paid work whether it suits us or not. It is why unpaid work is at best devalued, at worst simply not recognised or even penalised by the economy or the benefit system. It is why the government is gambling so recklessly with lifting lockdown so quickly. It is why we face a climate and ecological emergency. And it is why, if the scientists are to be believed, we may see more pandemics like Covid-19.

Vouchers are part of the problem not a solution. They perpetuate an old system which is simply unsustainable. They are about a return to business as usual, not reimagining a better world. A basic income, as well as putting cash in our pockets, would allow us to break free from our addiction to the old economy and bring about the system change we need so we no longer lurch from one crisis to the next.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party


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