In Defence of Universalism
The Scottish Greens have been arguing for a couple of years that the government should create a universal free household insulation service. This has been very successfully rolled out in Huddersfield by the Kirklees Green Party. It has increased the take up of insulation hugely. And as well all know insulation is the cheapest easiest and best way to ensure savings both of carbon emissions and money.
There was significant opposition from the government and other parties, though to the scheme. One of the reasons was that it was universal, and not targeted at the poorest. This is a strong argument and has been used widely in the New Labour period to argue for a focus of resources, normally on the poorest 15% of the population.
I think poverty reduction is one of the two towering challenges for our society and our world. The other is preventing climate change. But I think that universal free at the point of demand solutions are almost always preferable to targeted ones.
That’s both because the deliver better outcomes and because they are more easily defended. The NHS is the best example of how a universal system can be both effective and popular. The Twitter campaign to get people to express their love of the NHS was a major story. While illness is something that attracts more compassion than other areas of public service, it is a testament to the power of universality that the NHS is the area of public expenditure politicians are most anxious about cutting.
There remains a similar feeling with education, where a universal system still has the power to determine the outcome of elections. The best example of how a move away from universal provision can make a problem more difficult to solve is in housing. Where housing was a vital issue in every election in the twentieth century until 1992, it has now largely disappeared from headline policy. This is because the Thatcherite housing sell off made social housing a targeted service for the poorest, not a universal service for all. It has resulted in serious housing shortages, house price inflation and poor standards in private housing. A poor outcome all round.
Politically, universal free at the point of demand services are much, much more easily defended from cuts. This is why removal of universal services is almost always the thin end of a wedge that ends up with privatisation.
I’ve thought this since I was involved in student politics. At that time there was a big debate about whether tuition fees should be charged to enable grants for the poorest students. This is a targeted approach. But it meant that many students from poorer backgrounds were put off by the headline fees. A universally free system would have been more effective at attracting the poorest students.
And the final outcome of the introduction of a £1000 per year fee seems like it will be the creation of a market in University fees. This process only took 13 years. The end of a universal provision can very quickly result in the end of even targeted provision. Why would a politician defend expenditure that only appeals to very small sections of the electorate? This is a question exacerbated by the propensity for the poorest to vote less than others.
So the future for public services should be a move to universal provision. It’s more effective, it’s less likely to be cut at the whim of a politician and it’s a better way to deliver a more equal society. And with free, universal, insulation, a society that deals with climate change.
This will be politically difficult. Forty years of neo-liberal ideology has sought to question the role of the state in delivering public services. But we all know that the market has proved disastrously unable to deliver either a low carbon or socially just society. We can’t go on failing to tackle these challenges because our governments, both left and right, are tied to a failed market ideology.