To what extent is a universal basic income politically feasible in advanced welfare states?

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Basic income is a policy that would provide a regular income to all individuals within a political community, irrespective of working status or income from other sources. In the last 10 years, basic income has received an unprecedented amount of policy attention from governments, civil society and the media around the world. In an era of austerity and activation, the rediscovery of basic income as a serious policy proposal is surprising and demands explanation. Existing academic research on basic income has mostly focused on theoretical, normative or descriptive questions asking if it would be just or affordable. In comparison, the politics of basic income has been under-researched. This thesis attempts to address that.
Drawing on a political economy framework of ‘constrained partisanship’, this thesis examines the factors that affect the political feasibility of basic income in advanced welfare states. Using a mixed-methods research design, the empirical analysis is divided into three parts. The first section conducts a longitudinal quantitative analysis of the determinants of party support for basic income at elections in 15 European countries between 1980 and 2018 using manifesto data from the Comparative Manifesto Database and other sources. The second section involves a quantitative analysis of voter preferences for basic income, using cross-sectional attitudinal data from wave 8 of the European Social Survey conducted in 2016-2017. The final section is a comparative case study of the UK and Finland, drawing on elite interviews and various political and media documents.
The findings provide evidence that support for basic income is more common and more robust on the left, although the cultural dimension of politics plays a greater role in explaining support among political parties. The analysis also points to the effect of unemployment and labour market risks on political support for basic income. However, the main theoretical contribution of the thesis is to argue that the institutional context explains the variation in support for basic income across countries. The analysis suggests that the most incongruent dimensions of the existing welfare state in relation to a basic income will be the most salient factors in determining support for the policy. In other words, given the raison d’être of a basic income is to transform the existing system, political actors and voters will support a basic income if the most transformative aspects of the policy in a given context are attractive to them. Thus, while basic income in its idealised form is largely politically unfeasible in the short-term, it can have a significant impact on the politics of the welfare state by mobilising political actors and voters in favour of significant reforms to the social security system.
Date of Award24 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJane Millar (Supervisor), Nick Pearce (Supervisor) & Matt Dickson (Supervisor)

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