Politics, like business, needs long-term ideas

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Switzerland is having its own vote on whether it should pay everyone in the country a basic income rather than running a complicated welfare system (Source: Getty)

As Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Junker remarked: “We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it.” Today, Junker no longer has to worry about relying on an electorate for his position, having acquired the role of top dog at the European Commission. However, his past observation remains relevant and speaks to the difficulties politicians face when attempting to deal with 20-year problems in a five-year term. An honest debate on the sustainability of the health service, for example, would be electoral suicide.

For many politicians, the temptation is therefore to fall back on managerialism and the path of least resistance. There have been honourable exceptions: one thinks of Michael Gove's school reforms or, in the case of welfare reform, Iain Duncan Smith's efforts to simplify the system via the introduction of Universal Credit. Both men have scars on their backs and, perhaps tellingly, neither remains in office to oversee their policies. The chancellor has launched a National Infrastructure Commission with the specific aim of taking the politics out of long-term decision making.

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This laudable aim is undermined by the government's inability to make a decision on airport capacity, but it's a step in the right direction and the same approach should be applied to social policy, too. In Switzerland, a political system based on referenda presents opportunities to initiate major policy reform based squarely on the will of the people, and yesterday the country voted on the radical proposal of introducing a universal basic income that would guarantee all residents an income from the state of as much as £21,168.

The policy was rejected by voters but marks another step forward for advocates of the basic income idea. It may sound like socialism run amok but its supporters include the great free-market economist Milton Friedman. Finland is experimenting with the idea, as are some US and Canadian cities. Labour is giving serious consideration to adopting the policy here in the UK. A similar proposal put forward by the Adam Smith Institute, a negative income tax, should also feed into any serious discussion about the future of work and welfare. These may not yet be ideas whose time has come, but the time to debate them certainly has.