Extending the furlough isn’t enough. We need a Universal Basic Income.
As we head into a second lockdown in England, everyone deserves proper protection.
by Jonathan Bartley, co leader of the Green Party of England and Wales
The second lockdown is upon England, and the Government has extended the furlough for a few weeks on the day it was set to end. This is welcome. A lifeline to many as we descend deeper into crisis. But for millions who weren’t eligible in the first place, and for millions more struggling to make ends meet including those who have already lost their jobs, this is no help. Ultimately, furlough is a sticking plaster on a problem which needs corrective surgery. We need a universal basic income.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of the situation we are in as we step into this second lockdown. We are only at the beginning of the second wave of Covid-19, with over 300 deaths a day at the moment, and no guarantee that it will be over in a month. Already, around 700,000 people have lost their jobs, the courts are free to pursue evictions of renters who have fallen into arrears. Those relying on inadequate benefits face sanctions, and a double dip recession looms. Millions of Brits remain trapped in debt and destitution, while our failed, private test and trace system struggles to track even 60% of contacts, with the results getting worse every week.
This is the context in which the Government has extended the furlough scheme. Millions more who do not qualify will continue to struggle without enough support. There was nothing for them in the lockdown announcement which is bound to trigger a downward spiral of more debt, destitution and homelessness.
Who could look at the situation in which we find ourselves and conclude it was time for the state to leave so many individuals to fend for themselves? Now is the time to raise our ambition, and raise everyone up, together. Now is the time to introduce a Universal Basic Income.
Looking back over the summer, there can be no mistaking that the measures taken by this Government were a desperate attempt to prop up a collapsing status quo, rather than a sincere attempt to transform, level up or make life better for everyone. Every step of the way, the Chancellor’s schemes have prioritised the preservation of an old economic settlement which already wasn’t working. A desperate, and literally fatal attempt to return to business as usual,
Shovelling us all into restaurants for discounted pizza while the virus circulated unfettered. Implying artists will have to retrain, while hedge funders are exempt from quarantine. Begging us to go back to the office for the sake of sandwich shops and commercial landlords. And as if to really underline the point that this was never about helping those who needed it the most, now even refusing to provide meals for the poorest children for a few days half term. And then refusing even to commend those who do.
The fact that they chose the withdrawal of free school meals as their first big ideological battle of the crisis is significant. This is bigger than the issue of children going hungry for a week, abhorrent as that is. This is about the Government reframing the debate on state support, wheeling out the old cliches of dependency, responsibility and ‘feckless’ parents who have failed to feed their own kids owing to some imagined moral flaw.
If they manage to justify leaving children to go hungry during a pandemic, there will be little constraint on what else they have to justify taking from us, freeing them to tear an already inadequate welfare state to shreds.
But they have completely misjudged the public mood. Dozens of councils have mobilised to provide funding. Hundreds of cafes have offered a meal to children with no questions asked, and millions have stood with Marcus Rashford in demanding a permanent solution to hunger. We must channel this compassion, this basic decency, this togetherness as a society to win lasting change.
The public did not stand for starving children, not just because of common decency but because, this year, we have seen what is possible with the right political will. After decades of hollowing out the public sphere, and years of being told that there was no magic money tree – the old rule book was ripped up almost overnight.
We brought in almost every rough sleeper from the streets. We wrote off debt in the NHS. We prevented landlords from making tenants homeless. We gave people direct financial support. There was of course more that should, and could have been done. But we caught a glimpse of an alternative future. A future which we had been told was idealistic, fantastic and unrealistic, but a future which suddenly felt within touching distance. A future which is now conspicuous by its absence in the latest lockdown announcement.
We have long said that the climate and ecological crisis – and the crisis in the failing economic system causing rampant inequality and destitution – required an emergency response. We need system change. Transformation of the way we live and work. We said we must invest now. Because in a crisis you do whatever it takes because the longer you leave it, the worse it becomes. And we also said that this required a Universal Basic Income which would give everyone the safety, security and opportunity to truly “level up” and move to a better system where neither people nor planet were exploited.
Our recovery from this immediate Covid crisis too must have as its foundation a Universal Basic Income. Rather than reverting to a benefit system where so many fall through the cracks and you must beg for a pittance while proving you’re ‘deserving’ enough, we could give everyone enough to live a good life with dignity, raising everyone up and leaving nobody behind. A regular payment, straight into your bank account, whether you’re in or out of work, no strings attached, no questions asked.
While a lifeline, furlough has kept workers frozen in midair like the Road Runner who has already gone over a cliff, ready to plummet as soon as he looks down. What happens after this lockdown? A Universal Basic Income is different, a real solution. It provides the security to retrain if your industry is in freefall. It offers the freedom to pause your career and care for an elderly parent who needs you more than ever. It gives you time to wait for your line of work to become safe again. This is not state dependence. It is empowerment.
We cannot go into another lockdown without fresh thinking on the purpose of our economy, and what the social security net looks like in the decades ahead. A universal basic income is our chance to prevent millions from falling into destitution, and to afford every single one of us the opportunity to be secure now – and live a fulfilling and dignified life in the future. We must seize it with both hands.
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