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Labour forced to clarify universal basic income 'not party policy'

Wednesday 23rd March 2016

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The Labour Party's Future of Work conference saw the party leadership forced to insist that discussion of a universal basic income did not constitute party policy, which is "still some way away."

Labour published a background paper last weekend on the UBI concept, which proposed giving an $11,000 a year ($211 a week) basic income to all New Zealanders as part of a sweeping social welfare and employment policy reform proposal for its Future of Work Commission, the vehicle Labour is using to develop new policies ahead of the 2017 election.

Today, it issued a "10 big ideas" document ahead of today's conference, including a proposal to consider a "limited trial of a UBI type system in a town or region."

"Not all 10 will make it through to the election campaign," said Labour leader Andrew Little

Yet immediately after Little and finance spokesman Grant Robertson insisted to media seeking clarification that UBI was not yet party policy, one of the conference keynote speakers urged parties of the left not to play into political opponents' hands by painting radical new policies as being "in the distant future."

"We always have to act and speak as if it's tomorrow," said Professor Guy Standing, from London University, who gave an impassioned speech defining a new social class, the "precariat", from which he believes a new kind of progressive politics can emerge in response to the income and job insecurity created by globalisation and market-oriented economic policies of the last 35 years.

"Don't kick it further down the road for the future. That's what they want," said Standing, who also warned trade unionists at the conference that the 'precariat' found old-style unions irrelevant to their circumstances, which involved constantly changing work patterns and employment.

While deriding the loss of stable employment, Standing also said the young generation of emerging 'precariat' workers found that "the thought of 30 years in full-time employment doesn't excite them."

"I'm not going to be King Canute," said Standing, who painted a world in which global corporations seek not to offer job security in favour of constant competition amongst an ever-changing and lower cost workforce. "We have to accept how business does business, but we need security, part of the gains, and a voice in how it's done."

Also addressing the conference was Professor Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor in the 1990s Clinton administration, who said a UBI was one way to respond to the fact that emerging technologies were replacing many jobs, with lower-paid service industry jobs often the only alternative. 

Labour's Little stressed the party had so far generated only one new policy in the future of work exercise: a guarantee of three years' free tertiary education or training in the course of a person's working life. 

Responding to Prime Minister John Keys statement that the policy was "barking mad", Little said: "That's because you have a Prime Minister who's incapable of dealing with a big idea. He's never had one."

Robertson urged understanding that Labour was "turning policy-making inside out."

"We're doing it differently, where we're actually saying we want to open ourselves up to new and different ideas and have a mature policy debate about it. It doesn't mean that every time an idea comes out, that is automatically Labour policy."

With the huge changes to traditional ways of working now emerging, "any responsible government has to be thinking about how to prepare for that and how to ensure income security," Robertson said. "That's the stage we're at at the moment. A universal basic income is one of a number of ways of looking at that."

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