Home » Mark Drakeford’s Unexpectedly Brilliant Idea
Comment Matthew Paul

Mark Drakeford’s Unexpectedly Brilliant Idea

Socialism always starts the same way, and it always ends the same way. A songs and flowers phase which lasts until all the rich people’s money has gone, at which point socialism progresses towards its barbed-wire-and-barbecued-rats endgame.

For now, though, who doesn’t love the idea of the Welsh Government giving everyone free money just for the privilege of being Welsh? 

A Universal Basic Income –one equal state benefit paid to every adult regardless of means– is one of the Holy Grails of left-leaning economists. Now, re-elected to office with the rapturous endorsement of the 47% of Welsh voters who got off their arses on May 6, Mark Drakeford believes he has a mandate for radical change. A basic income pilot scheme is on the way.

Drakeford has been toying with the idea for years. What has changed the game on UBI is the Coronavirus pandemic. In a world where even a Tory chancellor goes about bombing a delighted electorate with helicopter money, the idea of the government paying you to do nothing is firmly established and warmly received. Recent election results show that voters love it.

The mechanics of it all are a bit of a puzzle. The benefits system in Wales is not devolved; claimants receive Universal Credit administered by the (UK Government) Department for Work & Pensions. Unless the nation’s current workhouse beadle, DWP Secretary Therese Coffey, can be persuaded to heap unearned bounty on Labour voters across Wales, Drakeford’s UBI pilot will be limited in scale, and its grateful recipients will have a vested interest in ensuring the scheme’s success. This all makes for a skewed experiment with meaningless conclusions.  

This hasn’t stopped lefties in Wales going wild with excitement. Songs and flowers are in the air. The £110,000 a year of wasted office space that is known as Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe gushed that it was “an incredibly significant commitment by the first minister to tackling Wales’ poverty and health inequalities…a fairer way of allowing people to meet their basic needs.”

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People who work and pay taxes might not automatically see the fairness in unconditional payments to those who can’t be bothered. People without the Future Generations Commissioner’s innate instinct for fairness may even think it fairer to limit state support to those who actually need it, rather than –for example– handing wealthy barristers ten grand a year to spend on Puligny-Montrachet (it doesn’t get you much, mind).

Being untargeted, it also has to be either grotesquely expensive, or to leave some of the poorest worse off than they were before. If it’s affordable for the country, it’s inadequate for the most needy. If it’s so costly you need huge tax increases to pay for it, redistribution on this scale will do more harm than good. Growing the economy by taxing wealth creators is like standing in a boat and hoping to make it go faster by blowing at the sail. 

No country has ever successfully operated a nationwide Universal Basic Income. Unsurprisingly, as paying people not to work has never been much of an incentive to be industrious.

Wales has no shortage of jobs for anyone who wants one. What with Brexit and the pandemic, well over a million EU citizens who used to live and work in Britain returned to their home countries. Half the pubs and cafés in Wales have signs in the window saying they are recruiting. And despite what twenty years of Labour government has done to Welsh educational standards, most people can still read them, so presumably no-one wants the work.

If a bone idle population won’t do these jobs now, they are unlikely to be persuaded to do them by the Welsh Government making work optional.

The Tories, who are not progressive like Sophie Howe and don’t care about fairness, have demonstrated how you get families out of state dependency and into work. The welfare system they inherited in 2010 operated at a level of complexity to make a Megas Logothetēs of the late Byzantine Empire throw up his hands in despair. 

Reforming this mare’s nest into a system of Universal Credit –however imperfect– led to three million new jobs in the economy; most of them full-time and decently paid. The expansion of employment coincided, uncoincidentally, with a significant squeeze on out-of-work benefits. 

Now consider the effect of introducing UBI in Wales, while claimants over the Prince of Wales Bridge still go cap in hand for their Universal Credit. It would turn Wales into a land of milk and honey for English dossers. It is surprising that Plaid Cymru –who also support the idea of a UBI– don’t seem to have thought this one through.

But maybe this is all part of Mark Drakeford’s plan. It’s massively unlikely (because fundamental changes to the welfare system in Wales are legally impossible under the current devolution settlement) that UBI will ever be more than a pilot scheme.

But as political posturing goes, it’s first rate. It makes Welsh Labour look radical. It embarrasses the Nats by forcing them into making some sort of assessment of who is ‘Welsh’ enough to be entitled to claim it. It makes the Tories in Westminster angry. It has all the flowers and songs optimism of real socialism without the catastrophic costs. Lets’ hope so, anyway. Or stock up on charcoal.