Daniel Mermelstein

How to win with Basic Income: Event Review

Nearly 200 Lib Dem activists signed up to join the “How to win with UBI” online event on Tuesday night, organised in partnership between Lib Dems for Basic Income, the Social Liberal Forum, and the Compass-hosted Basic Income Conversation.

The overall message was summed up by the Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London, Luisa Porritt, who reminded everyone that: "this is a moment where people are really open to new and big ideas. They understand that the pandemic has fundamentally disrupted our world, our society, the way that we live and work.”

Joining Porritt on the panel at the event were Canadian Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith; Tchiyiwe Chihana of UBI Lab Women; Jane Dodds, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Wales; and Wendy Chamberlain MP.

Erskine-Smith, whose party is in a minority government in Canada and is actively looking to introduce a form of basic income at national scale in one of the world’s biggest economies, kicked things off with a powerful answer to the age old challenge of how you pay for it: his point was that societies can’t afford NOT to do it, because of the huge costs incurred when you don’t give people a foundation to stand on. He challenged the Lib Dems to go for it: "If you have a moment in your politics where you are building the platform of a party to really reinvent itself, then [UBI] is an idea that absolutely can draw from the liberal tradition.”

The panellists all agreed that the pandemic has exposed not only the inequalities that have been building up in society over the past decades - but also the huge gaps in the safety net. As Wendy Chamberlain put it, "it is a broken system that is not fit for purpose and sometimes you've got to burn down this house to build something better. I think UBI is definitely part of that.”

Event chair Ian Kairns, Director of the Social Liberal Forum, kept the panelists coming back to the main issue: can UBI be a vote winner for the Liberal Democrats at the May elections? And if so, how?

Tchiyiwe Chihana, whose UBI activism touches on the lives of women and ethnic minorities in particular, thought that a party committed to UBI would send "a message that would go really well at the grassroots. People would actually say this party is standing for me. I am going to be empowered, I will be able to earn, I'll be able to make choices with my life. That's what people want to hear at the grassroots.”

Chamberlain accepted that the argument is unlikely to be won in this election: "We have to be realistic about what we can achieve in May, but i think what we have already achieved is we are starting to make those kind of radical thoughts and solutions part of the conversation and starting to to challenge some of the orthodoxies around our tax and and welfare system. I think that's actually how we create a distinctive voice and get ourselves into the conversation.”

There was a degree of acceptance that there needs to be a more fleshed-out policy proposal before some specific questions can be answered, like how the party proposes to pay for a UBI, or at what level it would be set. That process has already started - and will be continued at the next Lib Dems for Basic Income event on 29th March.

But Jane Dodds was clear that should not be stopping activists from being out there promoting the idea of Basic Income. In her view, Lib Dems should be talking about UBI as a "vision for a change in society. A vision that says we want fairness and we want freedom. So let's really talk about how it can transform our society, how it will give everyone the chance to care, the chance to have a different career, the chance for people to not be poor and queue at food banks. Those are the real things that make a difference to people's lives and that's what we should talk to them about.”

If you agree then you should get involved:

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