Is UBI politically viable?

There is a body of evidence to suggest a) that voters’ assessments of health and welfare policies do not map onto those voters’ material interests (see Frank 2016) and that b) politicians’ perspectives on policies’ viability tend to be risk averse (see Schumacher & Elmelund-Præstekær 2018). Evidence of the former may be found in the shift of lower socio-economic groups away from Labour in 2019 despite a redistributive offer that included UBI (Goodwin & Heath 2020). Evidence of the latter can be found in the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Annaliese Dodds MP, disavowing ‘grand schemes’ (BBC 2020) at a time in which only 12% of voters wish to return to the ‘old normal’ (Britain Thinks 2020, 35). These two related phenomena may mean that policies like UBI are regarded as unfeasible, even if the evidence base is strong. UBI schemes are particularly counterintuitive from a public opinion perspective, as they appear to violate basic principles of the ‘deservingness heuristic’: that help should go only to those in need, recipients should do something in return, and recipients ought not to be responsible for the need that has befallen them (see Nettle & Saxe 2020). These moral concerns are compounded by pragmatic worries that UBI will lead to increased taxation (Ipsos MORI 2017) and might reduce willingness to work (Dalia Research 2017). Nonetheless, we have shown that there is substantial support for UBI across industrialised countries and that support has risen markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic trauma (Nettle, et al. 2020). In particular, we have found that support for the policy is associated with the extent to which individuals view UBI as a means of reducing stress and improving administrative efficiency given the circumstances in which society finds itself.

We conduct a programme of work probing people’s responses to features of UBI, identifying their intuitive representations of the merits and demerits of the policy, their prediction of its consequences, and the kinds of evidence or circumstances they would need to approve of it (see Nettle, Johnson, Johnson & Saxe 2020 for exemplars of this approach). The work draws on existing citizen engagement research. We use a combination of opportunity samples within which we experimentally vary the framing and description of policies, and the information presented on their consequences; surveys of representative samples to understand the beliefs and perceptions associated with support for UBI; and smaller, focus-group style work to understand in more detail the reasoning behind people’s responses and concerns. All data is broken down into socio-economic, ethno-cultural, age and other demographic groups for presentation to political parties.