In March, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak introduced a set of sweeping government interventions to cover the wages of furloughed employees and self-employed workers. The widespread support for this scheme has been a source of encouragement for those calling for greater state intervention to supplement wages, including who advocate for the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Although UBI bears more similarities with recent interventions in the USA than with the UK furlough scheme, the concept of UBI could nonetheless see a rise in support within mainstream political discourse, given the current popularity of state intervention in the economy across the parties.
Indeed, the furlough scheme has been regarded as successful by 61% of the public and unsuccessful by just 9%, gaining strongest support from 2019 Conservative voters (73%).
However, the UK public appears to have limited familiarity with UBI, with only 48% of the population saying they had heard of the idea before. This is indicative of how it remains a relatively marginal policy proposition in the UK, where the policy is not yet associated with any specific political party or figure. In the US, on the other hand, UBI has become increasingly associated with Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate, who made the policy the centre of his campaign and thus increased public awareness of it. The same is yet to happen in the UK.
Despite the limited awareness of UBI, the majority of respondents were supportive of it once it was explained to them as a policy whereby the Government guarantees every adult citizen a certain amount of money each year, regardless of their employment status of wealth. When explained this way, 56% of the UK public approved of UBI, and only 20% disapproved.
Overall, though a plurality still supported it, 2019 Conservative voters were the least supportive of UBI, with 47% approving and 30% disapproving. On the other hand, 67% of 2019 Labour voters approved and 10% disapproved. Conservative voter’s greater support for the furlough scheme in contrast to its lower level of support for UBI could be a result of party loyalty or, more likely, it could be a reflection of the differences between the two policies. Indeed, the furlough scheme is intended to be temporary, targeted, and only for those in employment or self-employment, whereas UBI would be permanent, universal, and would also distribute money to those not employed or seeking employment. However, it is worth re-emphasising that fewer than half of respondents were aware of the concept of UBI before completing the poll, and it is unclear whether they would change their opinion if given further information about the policy.
Our poll found that 41% of respondents (including 33% of Conservative voters) would be more likely to vote for a political party in the UK if they were to incorporate UBI into their manifesto. This compares to only 17% of respondents who would be less willing to vote for such a party.
These various indications of a degree of support for UBI among Conservative voters suggests that Government should give more serious consideration to it, especially as it phases out the furlough scheme and the Department of Work and Pensions shifts its attention back to the roll-out of its Universal Credit system. Indeed, incorporating elements of UBI into Universal Credit could be a way for the Government to build on the popularity of the furlough scheme and encourage consumer spending as the UK economy tries to recover from the coronavirus crisis. Another option which is being considered by the Chancellor is the universal distribution of vouchers to the UK population which could only be spent in certain sectors, such as hospitality and “face to face” retail, as opposed to online.
A key obstacle for UBI will be discussions about its cost, especially at a time when the UK Government has gone into considerable debt to fund the furlough scheme. Indeed, our poll found that a significant minority (31%) agree that the furlough scheme has spent too much Government money, indicating that a section of the UK population remains opposed to large scale government spending, even as a temporary and targeted intervention at a time of crisis. As a permanent and non-targeted form of UBI would likely require tax increases or cuts to other areas of government spending, such as welfare, it seems likely that opposition to this amount of Government spending would be even more substantial.
Those who have indicated support for UBI may, under normal circumstances, become divided over issues of the amount paid, who the recipients would be, whether other government services would receive less funding, whether taxes would be raised, and on which group and by how much. Indeed, disagreements over such details became apparent in Redfield & Wilton’s earlier research in the USA. Nevertheless, proponents of UBI can take heart from events in recent months showing that, in times of crisis, drastic government intervention can be accepted and supported by vast swathes of the population.