Some reservations about Basic Income

Yesterday I was at the launch of the report from a seminar series organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Unit in conjunction with Citizen’s Basic Income Scotland.  My role has been as the resident sceptic; I prepared a series of background papers and a paper outlining the reasons for my doubts, and how they might be overcome.  The results are in the report, Exploring Basic Income in Scotland, available here.  There are my papers on Basic Income and Human Rights and Equality on pp 12-17, Care  on pp 47-52, Housing on pages 62-65.  The longer paper on Reservations about Basic Income is on pp 90-104.

The summary of those reservations goes like this:

Even if we accept all the arguments for Basic Income in principle, there are serious issues to resolve relating to cost, distribution, adequacy and practical implementation.

  • Cost. Basic Income schemes are all very expensive. The first question to ask is not whether we can afford BI, but whether we should – whether the money would not be better used in some other way.
  • Distribution. All the Basic Income schemes which have been developed to date make some poor people worse off. That mainly happens because they try to pay for BI by cutting or reducing existing benefits. Any scheme which does that it is going to benefit some people on higher incomes more than it benefits people on lower ones.
  • Adequacy. The treatment of existing benefits and of current tax allowances cannot work as intended. Basic Income cannot meet all the contingencies currently covered by social security benefits. It should not even try to do so.
  • Implementation. BI will not be without its complications. It is time to address them.

Basic Income cannot be ‘adequate’, but it does not need to be; it only needs to be basic. A modest income could be provided without damage to poor people, so long as it does not affect the status of other benefits.


The ‘will of the majority’ is not a democratic principle

I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but the storm of protest when I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago tells me that some people really can’t tell the difference between democracy and dictatorship.  Twitter doesn’t lend itself to extended arguments, and it’s difficult even to reply sensibly; once a tweet has cropped up in four or five postings, there are too many threads to take account of.  The (admittedly truncated) comment that sparked people off was this:

Democracy is not a system that “implements the majority’s will”. It’s a system that respects and protects the rights of minorities. 

This attracted withering scorn.  One critic – a politics lecturer! – wrote:

Some confusion here about the meaning of democracy, from an emeritus professor of politics.

I tried to explain in these terms. 

The main models of democracy are institutional (eg elections, protected opposition), prescriptive (eg rule of law, deliberation) and normative (eg participation, rights). Majorities are only a device for resolving disagreements. The reason why we have oppositions is that majority views are never enough. Madisonian democracy treats majorities as a coalition of minority interests. In no democratic country does the winner take all.

Majority rule is a convention – a method for arriving at decisions, rather than a principle in itself.  It’s been used (like some other methods) in a variety of circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances are not democratic. I tried to explain that ” majority rule is not intrinsically democratic – it’s also used in dictatorships. Without contest, respect for rights or the ability to vote again, it’s undemocratic.”

It is absurd to suggest that “majority rule is used in dictatorships”. Elections in dictatorships are never used to express the majority will; if they were, they would not be dictatorships.

That’s an astonishing reply. Most of the dictators in the world have been elected.  What makes them dictators is the suppression of opposition and civil rights.

Bizarre. You actually think elections in dictatorships are free and fair, such that they actually represent the majority’s will?

You think that a majority can’t ever truly be oppressive, racist or fascist? Dictators often seek majority votes: eg Mussolini 1934, Hitler 1936, Franco 1947, Marcos 1973. “Autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.” (from

That is exactly my point. Majority voting is only democratic when elections are free and fair. Therefore, you cannot delegitimise majority voting by pointing to the existence of elections in authoritarian regimes, where elections are not free and fair.

An election where winner takes all on a majority vote cannot be democratic, regardless of whether the process is fair. That’s what gives you Mussolini or Mugabe. Democracy must protect the rights of minorities and of opposition, or it isn’t democracy.

And here we circle back again to your smuggling-in of liberal principles of minority protection into the definition of democracy. Opposition is essential for democracy but winner-takes-all is entirely compatible with it as well. Stop conflating important concepts.

The key point here is that majority rule is never, in itself, sufficient to guarantee democracy.  Beyond that, the translation of the conventions of majority rule into claims about ‘the will of the people’  is itself questionable – a device of demagogues and dictators.

Six million people have signed the petition to revoke

The petition to revoke Article 50 has now passed six million signatures.   It is by some margin the largest petition in the UK’s history.  A petition is not proof that the ‘will of the people’ has changed, but it does prove that the ‘will of the people’ was not  represented by the result of the referendum; all that referendum could do was to represent the decision of a majority.

Majority rule is not democracy.  In what circumstances do the rights of 17.4 million voters override the rights of six million? Think about that question, because it comes with its own answer.


The fuss about ‘cultural marxism’

I was nonplussed when a Conservative MP was accused of using an “antisemitic trope” because she said that the Conservatives were “engaged in a battle against Cultural Marxism.”  The accusation is given more force because it was subscribed to by the Board of Deputies of British Jews: this is the report from the Jewish Chronicle.   I’ve been on the receiving end of antisemitism sufficiently often to be sensitive about it, but this one I don’t see.

The idea of “cultural marxism” has been around for the best part of forty years, as a way of distinguishing the work of Gramsci or Lukacs from the traditional marxist emphasis on historical materialism.  This is from a 1983 article, Theses on Cultural Marxism:

Cultural Marxism is the theoretical and interpretive project that approaches culture in its dialectic relation to the social totality. … critical Marxism has had to evolve from the realization that the proletariat and the intellectuals attached to its historic role had lost the capacity for self-organization which could unite the social, moral, and aesthetic aspects of collective experience into a revolutionary project. … It is in this context that cultural Marxism undertakes its theoretical project: to revamp the social, psychoanalytic, and aesthetic elements of theory.

(from J Brenkman, 1983, Theses on cultural marxism, Social Text 7 Spring-Summer 19-33: obtained at

Cultural marxism was identified, in its day, with critical perspectives on class, race and gender – but it made that analysis subordinate to the marxist framework.  The term itself became the subject of criticism, because it was not pure enough for some marxists.  Ioan Davies wrote, in 1991:

throughout the late 1960s and the seventies, British Cultural studies was  firmly anchored in a strategy of political struggle, that its priorities were those of an elaboration of the cultural problems facing the Left at the time. By the 1980s, however, British Cultural Marxism became more culturist and less Marxist, carried along by its own academic institutionalization, shadow-boxing with itself and only indirectly contributing to political practice, so that in the end, notably in the pages of Marxism Today and the
cultural journals that came into being in the last few years of the decade, it became caught up in the process which it had set out to criticize.

(From I Davies, 1991, British Cultural Marxism, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 4(3) pp. 323-344, obtained at

Cultural Marxism, by that account, was past its sell-by date thirty years ago, and a  ‘battle’ against cultural marxism is hardly the most pressing issue in contemporary politics.

So, what’s the problem?  Apparently, the objection to the term ‘cultural marxism’ is that the term has been picked up by the extreme right; according to the New Statesman, Anders Breivik used the term 650 times in the course of a 1000-page document.  I’ve not read that document, and don’t propose to, but I understand that he also banged on about “multiculturalism” and “elites”.  Do we have to stop using those words, as well?

Additional note, 31st march:  Jonathan Portes has objected to this piece in these terms:  “Misses the point. No-one is suggesting you can’t use the phrase “cultural Marxism any more than “Zionism” or (your eg) multiculturalism. But”battle against CM” is very clearly alt-right/white nationalist [no responsible pol would say “battle against multiculturalism” IMO]. ” I think he is right to read the comments in that context, and it follows that I am wrong.


Many students in UK universities are not being well served

Universities are in the news because of ‘grade inflation‘: the government is taking steps to penalise universities who award too many top grades.  Other recent coverage has focused on plagiarism and essay mills.  Over the course of my career, as a teacher in some institutions, and as an external examiner in several others, I’ve seen standards fall while marks improve.  Part of this has been a change in what marks mean.  A competent, sound piece of work without special merit used to be given a 2:2 mark; now it is routinely given a 2.1.  A piece of work that had some deficiencies but enough to be passed used to get a third class; now it would receive a 2.2, sometimes better. The third class mark in many institutions has almost disappeared, and is mainly arrived at only because results are being averaged.

Some standards have genuinely improved.  It has become much easier for a student to find a range of resources to support an essay, and word-processing and graphics programmes mean that standards of presentation are somewhat higher than they were thirty years ago.  However, in most other respects there has been a fall in the standards achieved.  When I was an undergraduate, I routinely did 36 essays or more in a year, plus unseen exams – that’s how I learned to write.  By the time I started teaching, the students were doing 12.  Now, many do six or less – so they write less in a whole degree than I had to in a year.  Some universities have reduced the number of assessments but increased the number of words required in an assessment, apparently in the belief that more words will give equivalent coverage.  That doesn’t work, because with more words there’s still only one exercise in structuring and ordering material, and students can’t develop through iterative feedback. The fewer exercises that people engage with, the less they learn; the less feedback they get, and the slower it comes, the less opportunity they have to improve and develop. Clearly, if students aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and develop, they can’t achieve develop the skills, or achieve the same standards, that students did in the past.  That’s true regardless of some of the other factors which may affect standards – such as students having to divide time between college and work to fund themselves.  This is not the fault of students; it reflects  a marked deterioration in the service that universities offer, and limits on what students are able to achieve as a result.

The reduction in the number of exercises that students do is part of a broader problem.  When I started teaching, four educational principles were widely accepted.

  • Universities were supposed to show students how to learn, not what to say.
  • Active learning – where students do something, like writing or talking – is better and more effective than passive, where they sit and listen.
  • Teaching has to be student-centred – the central issue is that the student has to learn how to learn, not that the teacher has to deliver a product.
  • The curriculum has to be designed as a structured learning experience.  The development of expertise in subjects and disciplines depends on specialisation and depth, not just on extra information.

Much of this has gone by the board.  Curriculum design has given way to ‘cafeteria’ courses, or pick and mix.  (That also allows researchers to pass off narrow topics of personal interest as courses for students, which is simply bad practice; that type of course is centred on the predilections of teachers, not the needs of students.)     Credit accumulation and transfer generally means that students who have acquired a knowledge base get nodded through – but what matters is the skills base, and that’s a different matter. Some universities now carry forward marks from courses taken in the year before finals  – that must mean that no progression is expected.

Inevitably, as the numbers of students increase, students don’t get the same treatment as they would in smaller cohorts.  Lectures are more common, seminars much less so, and personal tutorials rarer still – the larger the student cohort, the more difficult it is to make the time available.  Students have limited personal contact with teachers.  Beyond that, in most institutions, the sheer numbers of students mean that frequent assessment and rapid feedback is out of the question.   This hasn’t happened by design or deliberate action; it’s just that if numbers go up, and the methods and approaches don’t change with them, the experience of students and teachers is going to be different.

Expanding the numbers of students has happened without a serious rethink of traditional educational processes, and that’s had a pervasive effect on how universities operate. A colleague once suggested to me that I was talking about ‘boiling a frog’, and I promised him I’d steal the phrase.  People will put up with things done slowly that they wouldn’t tolerate if they were done all at once.  I’m not sure at this late stage that anything can be done about it, but many students are getting a terrible deal.

The clock has run down. Revocation is the best option left.

Time’s up.  Our MPs may be tempted to think that the two-week extension from the EU leaves it open to them to negotiate further about Britain’s future with the EU; it doesn’t.   There are only three options left.  One of them expires next Friday, another expires two weeks after that.

The three options that are available are

  • May’s deal – the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU, which the EU still hopes to be agreed;
  • no deal, which despite the MPs’ rejection in principle is the legal default, and
  • revocation of the article 50 notice.  The legal option to do this expires at the end of next Friday.  (The latest communique from the EU suggests that they would be open to revocation for two weeks after that – but they have not said either that revocation would be on the same terms as Britain’s existing membership, or that there will be no cost.)

The options that are no longer eligible available include

  • a second referendum, because there is no time to hold it;
  • Norway plus, Canada Plus, or any other trade-plus-cooperation type of deal – any of them will take months to negotiate;
  • Labour’s plan for a renegotiated settlement – no renegotiation is actually on offer, and we are out of time.

It’s time to get real.  Given that there are only three options, parliamentarians have to make a choice.  Two of those three options have already been rejected by the House of Commons.  Agreeing the Withdrawal Agreement is still possible, but it has been rejected twice by a huge majority, it is unbalanced, and it is incomplete: and it leaves unresolved  problems that will take years to negotiate.

The truth is that there is only one eligible option left: revocation.  Yesterday, I drew attention to a parliamentary petition which has put revocation back on the political agenda. It has, as they say, “gone viral”.  By this morning there were well over 2.5 million signatures on it, despite the site’s continual crashing and the lack of any pointers to it.   Andrew Adonis has said he will move revocation in the Lords on Monday.  It is our best, and possibly our only, hope.

Britain has lost sight of democracy, but it is the European Union that has abandoned its citizens.

We’re hearing a great deal from people who feel that someone or other is ‘betraying’ people about Brexit.  There are around 750,000 references on Google to the phrase ‘Brexit betrayal’, including extensive coverage in the right-wing press, and nearly all of them seem to come from one side of the argument – the same side whose preferences or ‘Will’ have been slavishly, and impractically, followed by the UK government.

I, too, feel a sense of betrayal.  It is a betrayal both by the UK government and by the European Union. The European Union made a solemn declaration that all citizens of the European Union had fundamental rights.  The UK, and every other member state, pledged to protect those rights; the primary mechanisms for that protection was to be the action of the member state.  Both parties have reneged on that commitment, and as part of the same process: they have treated the negotiation just as if it was about a member giving notice to a club, rather than secession from a union.

Article 50 may have been new, but there was a precedent for secession.  When Greenland left the European Union, its citizens were given individually the option of deciding whether or not they wanted to continue as European citizens.  Before the referendum, I had vaguely supposed that something of the kind would be arranged for citizens of the UK – it was only as the arguments developed that I could see it wasn’t going to happen, and tried to raise the issue.  Departing the EU stands to create devastating problems for families, for workers and for people resident abroad in either bloc.  That is why  hundreds of thousands of UK citizens have taken up citizenship of other EU countries to avoid the consequences.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.  Rights that are conditional on governments paying a membership subscription are not ‘fundamental’ rights.  But it has become clear that states are the members of the European Union.  Despite the fine words and the formal declarations, the people who live in those states are not its citizens. Brexit stands to strip every European – both those who are citizens of the United Kingdom, and those who are citizens of other member states – of the protections they were faithfully promised.  There is a clear message in the negotiations, one that goes to every citizen of every member state:  the only citizenship you have that matters is the citizenship of your home country. European citizenship has been degraded to the status of a junk bond: a promise that will never be kept.

Throughout the process, too, both the EU and the UK have treated the negotiations as if they were a matter of international relations, a negotiation between the British Government and the Commission.  That is why the EU made no direct appeal to its British citizens during the referendum, and did nothing to safeguard their interests.

Compounding the problems, the process followed in the UK has been profoundly undemocratic. Democracy is not the rule of the majority. Majority voting is only a convention for resolving disputes. The referendum itself had some claim to democratic legitimacy, even if this was questionable; it excluded millions of people directly affected by the decision, including Britons living in the EU and citizens from other EU countries living in Britain.  But voting is not everything.   One of the tests is that people should have been engaged in a discursive deliberation; that has not happened, because the government was determined to keep its stance a secret (ostensibly, in case the people they were negotiating with found out about it; more probably because they didn’t know what their stance was).   More basically, democracy is supposed to be  a system that defends the rights of minorities.  That is something that this process has signally failed to do.

Additional note:  A petition to parliament to revoke Article 50 has picked up nearly 900,000 signatures in less than a day – 10,000 of them just while I was adding this note.   Find it here.


Nothing personal: a proposal to convert the personal allowance from tax to benefits

About ten months ago, I put an argument for a convertible tax allowance on the blog – here is the link. The New Economics Foundation has just floated a very similar idea, in a report called Nothing Personal. The main difference between their proposal and mine is that they are proposing not an optional conversion, but a universal one.  That would have the advantage of ensuring coverage, but it would also have two large disadvantages.  One is that it would call for much more extensive direct administration, because it doesn’t use the existing PAYE system in the same way. The other is that the personal allowance would be reduced to zero, requiring declaration of every penny earned.

The problems of people who beg

Shelter Scotland has published a noteworthy report profiling people begging in Edinburgh.  The report asked questions of 420 people; that’s unlikely to be everyone, but it’s a lot.

Addiction plays a large part, with nearly 90% misusing drugs or alcohol; more than 80% had mental health problems, mainly depression and anxiety, and more than 60% also had physical health problems.  It’s a population that overlaps with street homelessness – 43% said they slept rough – but the two things are not equivalent, and I was struck as much by the differences as by the similarities.  When I worked on the census of homeless people in Aberdeen, it was the support staff who tended to say that the problems were problems of life-style and personal issues; homeless people said that the main problems were that they were cold and they were hungry.  People begging in Edinburgh seem far more likely to say that it’s down to their personal issues.

I did wonder if people might have been steered in some directions by the shape of the questions asked.  One of the messages from the qualitative studies I’ve done with psychiatric patients in the past is that family matters; the people left without support to become homeless are mainly those whose relationships with the family have broken down.  This is hinted at, but overall it’s not a major factor here.  In fairness, though, it’s difficult to set up exploratory, discursive interviews with homeless people (been there, done that); the remarkable thing about the Shelter study is how much information they’ve been able to bring together.

Disability Assistance: the consultation paper opts for too many of the wrong answers

The Scottish Government has launched A Consultation on Improving Disability Assistance in Scotland, with a closing date set for the end of May. The consultation paper makes the important assumption that the design of Disability Assistance should be based broadly on the existing pattern of benefits.  In particular, it proposes

  1. A distinction between benefits for children and young people, for people of working age and for older people
  2. The continued use of a functional assessment, and
  3. The maintenance of components to cover ‘daily living’ and ‘mobility’

A risk of confusion  At three points (on pages 15, 16 and 17) the document suggests that they want to reduce the “risk of confusion between benefits being delivered by both UK and Scottish Governments”.  The existing system of benefits is already deeply confusing, and as a consequence it fails in many important respects to reach the people it is meant to help. The approach laid out in the consultation paper is designed to make sure it is at least as confusing as it was before.

I would point here to three pieces of evidence.  The first is from an ad hoc study done for the DWP.  Three-quarters of the people who benefits are supposed to support do not recognise themselves as being ‘disabled’.  Most of them do not think of themselves as being disabled; others answer that they’re disabled ‘sometimes’.   The second is that people do not understand the basic premise of a benefit that is supposed to cover daily living or care.  A study of unsuccessful claims for Disability Living Allowance found that people receiving Employment and Support Allowance – the long-term sickness benefit – did not understand that DLA was there for different purposes from ESA; that they sometimes made claims with no reasonable hope of success, thinking that they may as well have a crack at it anyway; and if they were refused, they put it down to luck rather than the operation of appropriate criteria.  The third issue is that takeup of these benefits is worryingly low.  None of these figures is certain, but the best guesses are that the mobility component of DLA is claimed by something in the region of 60% of the people entitled, Attendance Allowance by 50% and the care component of DLA (now the ‘daily living’ allowance of PIP) is taken up by 40%.

Distinctions on the basis of age.  Wherever a distinction is made on the basis of age, there will be problems in managing the transition between benefits.  The suggestion that people of “working age” have different needs tends irresistibly to give the impression that the criteria have something to do with working, and one of the problems with PIP at present is the mistaken assumption that ability to work is somehow a relevant criterion in assessment – that is not what disability assistance is supposed to be about.

The most important problem, however, is that distinctions on the basis of age can lead to serious inequity, and anomalies in the operation of the benefit.  As things stand at present, people under the age of 65 get PIP, and people over the age of 65 are supposed to get Attendance Allowance.  That implies, on the face of the matter, that people under 65 can get help with mobility, and people over 65 cannot.  However, that is not what happens.  A person who becomes disabled before the cut-off date can continue to receive DLA/PIP after the date.  Fully a third of PIP and DLA claims are made by older people under this rule.  And that means that people with the same disability can get different benefits, depending on when their disability was incurred.  One of the most common causes of disability for people aged 50-70 is stroke; some people who have strokes recover, some others recover partially.  So a person who had a stroke at 63 and recovers partially may get help with mobility, while another person who has a stroke at 67 cannot, even if the functional limitation of the older person is more serious.

The use of a functional assessment. DLA was made by clumping together two rather different benefits: Attendance Allowance for adults below pension age and mobility allowance.   Mobility Allowance was based on a functional assessment – whether or not people could walk; Attendance Allowance was not.  While there have been many challenges to the mobility component, for example those related to conation, it is the care or daily living component which causes most confusion.

The points-based approach to functional assessment was initially based on work by the Office for Population Censuses and Surveys, when the scheme had a very different purpose.  There was no intention to develop a mechanism for individual disabilities to be precisely measured, and points were not the sole test: when the OPCS scheme was initially worked out, one of the critical points made about it was that disability reflected the nature of each person’s most serious impairments, not a cumulation of smaller functional limitations.  The points scheme has never worked well, and one of the reasons why entitlement to DLA and then PIP grew beyond the government’s expectations was that repeated challenges drew attention to groups of people who were simply left out – first people with learning disabilities, then mental disorders, then people with terminal illness and most recently people with fluctuating conditions.  The central problem is simply this: most disabilities do not have a strict, constant and precise relationship to functional capacity or daily activity.  People cannot clearly relate their circumstances to the tests.

There are alternatives.  I have made the case before on this blog, and it bears repetition here.  First, it is possible to identify certain conditions which should imply automatic entitlement, offering benefits on minimal or secondary evidence – either accepting on sight that the person has a qualifying disability (double amputation, severe disfigurement) or passporting benefits on the basis of provision by other agencies (congenital disability, blindness).  Second, there are conditions which will have led to prolonged long term contact with health services, and certification from a consultant is sufficient to establish that the condition is there without requiring further detailed examination of personal circumstances. Examples are terminal illness, multiple sclerosis, MND, malignant neoplasms or brittle bones. Third, there are conditions where existing services in long-term contact with the individual are far better placed to judge the impact of a condition than an independent assessor could be, and it would be appropriate to accept medical certification. Examples are continued psychosis, epilepsy, dementia and learning disability. Only after these three categories are considered is it appropriate to think in terms of further individual assessment of function, or a points scheme.

Daily living and mobility components. The other main issue to consider is whether there should be two components of a combined benefit, at least for people of working age.  The key problems have already been identified here.  People do not understand it, and ‘have a go’ instead; takeup is poor; there are serious inequities because of the treatment of the mobility component.  If there was a separate Mobility Allowance, its rules could be reconsidered to sort out which older people should get it, instead of the arbitrary current rules; and people do understand, more or less, what a Mobility Allowance is about.  Then we could have a reasoned discussion about the other component – whether it is supposed to respond to extra needs, or to provide extra income, some compensation for disability, or some other purpose.  (My own view is that we ought to revive SDA, rather than abandoning it, but I appreciate that that probably puts me in a minority of one.)

Whatever we do, we need to recognise that the current arrangements do not work, and that minor tweaks are not enough; it is time to bring them to an end.