Interview. We spoke with Sobel about his support for a UBI during coronavirus quarantine. The subsidies approved by the government don’t cover self-employed workers or delivery riders. ‘We would give every adult in the UK enough money to eat, pay rent and utilities. No obligations, no questions asked.’

Labour MP Alex Sobel: UBI with ‘no questions asked’

A form of universal basic income for the quarantine period has already been approved in the United States and Hong Kong. Leading politicians are discussing or preparing to launch similar ones in Italy (reddito d’emergenza), Spain (ingreso mínimo vital), Germany, Canada and Ireland (Covid-19 pandemic unemployment support).

In the UK, Labour MP Alex Sobel—who occupies an intermediate position on the political spectrum between Blair and Corbyn, and who was in favor of Remain—has gathered the support of 175 MPs from different parties on the proposal for a quarantine income. This measure is necessary to meet the needs of 15% of the British workforce (5 million people) who are self-employed, and over 900,000 people who are working in an on-call regime. 

The government has planned measures for them, but due to bureaucratic processing times, many people will not receive any subsidy until June, while those who only started working as self-employed at the end of fiscal year 2018-2019 will not receive anything, and neither will those were fired during the COVID emergency.

You wrote in the article published by The Independent that, in addition to investing huge resources in the NHS, UBI should be approved as it “would be more holistic and more effective than subsidising a company payroll”. Can you explain to us the details of your proposal and which are the possibilities of approval?

The great thing about UBI is that it’s so simple. We would give every adult in the UK enough money to eat, pay rent, and consume basic home utilities. No strings attached. No questions asked.

UBI would be more holistic because it would cover everyone. Company payroll does not cover the zero-hours Deliveroo driver without a fixed income. Payroll does not cover careers and full-time parents. Payroll does nothing for the self-employed. Payroll is a 70s solution for a 2020 problem. UBI would be simple. If you do payroll you need people going through the company’s tax returns and payroll. You need accountants to calculate who gets what. You need analysts to ensure companies aren’t inflating their pay or trying to cheat the system. You need lawyers for all the little nuances of employment. It would be a mess. As for its chances of passing, I am confident we can get it through. Our government has been turning on the spending taps. If Mitt Romney and Donald Trump can get behind UBI I am sure Boris Johnson can. If not we have 175 MPs from across the parties to put the pressure on him.

Universal Credit System has been often criticized as a form of workfare that discriminates against minorities, disabled people and women. How could a basic income be part of a general restructuring of the Universal Credit System?

Right now UBI is a temporary emergency measure. Not intended to overhaul Britain’s current benefit system. It can only pass this Conservative-dominated Parliament as an emergency measure. I would like to see our cruel Universal Credit System replaced with a holistic universal offer based on income or services or a combination after this crisis is over. People understand universal services as our health system, which is a Universal Service and the most popular institution in the UK. I do not doubt I am the only one. But one step at a time.

Do you think Tories are exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to reduce personal freedoms and approve authoritarian laws?

Yes, they are already using this crisis to increase authoritarianism in our country. The Coronavirus Bill, whilst necessary, has given sweeping powers to government and police. I stood with my fellow Labour MPs to ensure the Bill remains temporary and gained concessions. The government wanted it reviewed every two years. I lobbied to have it reviewed every six months and it succeeded. With Britain’s political system, a Prime Minister with a large majority is difficult to control.

The Remainers have been defeated, but the nationalistic and neoliberal project of Brexit could be strengthened by this crisis. Could the Covid-19 be an opportunity for re-launching a common struggle with European social movements and progressive parties for establishing a universal basic income, reducing the power of financial and economic monopolies and granting freedom of movement?

Before the result of the election, I was part of a group of MPs “Love Socialism, Hate Brexit.” These were MPs on the Left who were internationalists and globalists. That group is evolving into something new for the post-Brexit world. Covid-19 could be a catalyst for a renaissance of internationalism. I remember the 2008 Financial Crisis, the last global crisis of a similar scale. I remember Gordon Brown leading a global response which helped to save the world from a much worse crash its a shame we wasted that response by not changing the financial system. Hopefully, we can see a more fundamental shift in the wake of Corona.

There is definitely space for a Pan-European Social Movement like you describe. Progressive internationalists are organising all over our continent. From Yanis Varoufakis’ “DIEM25” to Benoit Hamon’s Génération.s. In Italy, we see progressives like Nicola Zingaretti rising to positions of influence. Grassroots organisations like the Sardines on the streets. I am very optimistic. These movements can feed into a wider European Progressive Movement.

Keir Starmer won the Labour primaries. Who do you think would have been the best leader and with which strategy? 

I have not endorsed either of our three candidates for leader. I am a pluralist at heart. They are all incredible candidates. I would like to see all three in Labour’s top team after the leadership election. As for strategy, I would like to see Labour start reaching out to the communities we lost now. Not in five years time when there is an election. I would like to see Labour Advice Hubs set up in every community. Where people can go for advice and see the good work Labour is doing.

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