Daniel Mermelstein

Universal Basic Income can drive Liberal Democrat success in 2021

At last September's conference the Liberal Democrats adopted Universal Basic Income (UBI) as national policy. I’m part of a campaign group within the party called Lib Dems for Basic Income that helped make that happen, and in this piece I want to turn to May's local elections, our first opportunity as a party to take UBI to the public. We also have a series of events coming up, run in partnership with the Social Liberal Forum and the Compass-hosted Basic Income Conversation, starting with an all-star panel discussing “How to win with UBI” on the evening of 9th March. You can sign up here.

Those of us advocating for UBI to be at the centre of Lib Dem campaigning do so because it is a fundamentally liberal policy, and a powerful idea. But we also do so because it will be a vote winner on the doorstep at election time. One year into a pandemic that has destroyed lives and livelihoods and ruthlessly exposed the glaring inequalities in our society, this is more true than ever before.

At its core, UBI is a very simple concept: pay every individual in society an amount of money, regularly and unconditionally, from the moment they are born to the moment they die.

It's a short statement, but every word is important: it's about individuals, not families or particular groups, but every individual in their own right. It's about being in society, that is, normally resident and able to play a part. It's about regularity: weekly or monthly but always there. It's an amount of money that covers some basic needs, like food and a contribution towards shelter. And crucially, it's about unconditionality: no jumping through hoops, no having to prove that you are "deserving" because you're poor or disabled or unemployed.

Naturally, something that on the face of it appears so radical ("free money for everyone!") generates a huge number of valid objections: how could we possibly afford it? Why should you give money to rich people who don't need it? Why not target scarce resources at the poor? Wouldn't people just stop working if you gave them money? And so on...

There are clear, practical answers to all of these questions and we want all Liberal Democrat candidates and campaigners to be ready to answer these objections on the doorstep. Those of us who have been advocating for Basic Income have seen, time and again, the "Aha!" moments in people's faces when the pieces of this puzzle start to come together.

Many Liberal Democrats don’t know that the late great Paddy Ashdown leaned heavily on the concept of a Basic Income as a fundamental component of his "Citizens’ Britain”, arguing that “every step we take towards a basic income liberates power in the hands of the citizen.” Ashdown accurately predicted the rise of the gig economy and the changing face of the labour market:

"As part time work increases, and a variety of employment contracts develops, the rights and protection of those workers becomes a matter of concern."

His solution?

"The government adopts an income maintenance system which encourages part time work and flexibility – a Basic Income, which gives security to each individual."

He also foresaw the inevitable pushback:

"Although this seems controversial at first, (because it guarantees a tax-free income to each citizen irrespective of work or marital status) it is soon recognised as encouraging enterprise, self-employment and a rational use of technology and human energies."

Basic Income is a liberal idea because it champions the belief that, in general, individuals know what is best for them and need to be trusted. And it recognises that in order to personally flourish and be full participants in society, people need to be free from economic insecurity.

So, thirty years after Paddy Ashdown's call to arms, the Liberal Democrats have fully embraced Basic Income as a central plank of their agenda for Government. In the age of Covid-19 this will be a vote winner for the party.

Why? First, because the pandemic has shown everyone how interrelated we all are. I cannot effectively protect myself from the virus if those around me (my neighbours, my children's teachers, my local delivery drivers) cannot protect themselves as well. People in precarious economic conditions may not be able to isolate or quarantine if that means losing their jobs. If they are forced to take risks, we are all put at risk. So the message of basic economic security for all will fall on fertile ground.

Secondly, because even if we are "all in this together", we are not equally so. The pandemic has exposed the glaring inequalities that have been building up in the country over the last 40 years. The fact is that the poor have been hardest hit by the pandemic and will find it hardest to recover from it. You need look no further than the heartbreaking queues at foodbanks. This is likely to exacerbate inequalities in the years to come, unless we do something about it now.  The country has responded to the need for support. Countless mutual aid and other groups have sprung up in neighbourhoods to fill gaps and support those in need. This is the time for a policy that, like basic income, is all about reducing inequality.

Finally, there are millions of people out there who have never, until now, thought of themselves as "poor", but have suddenly had to apply for Universal Credit for the first time and come face to face with the humiliation and meanness of means-testing. Again, this is fertile ground for a message of basic economic security for all.

Universal Basic Income, a solid floor of economic security for all, is one of those ideas whose time has come. It will allow the Liberal Democrats to stand apart from other parties on the doorstep at these local elections and win votes - and to earn the right to make more noise about this vital intervention, and really deliver for the people of Britain.

“How to win with UBI” will be the first of a series of three events held in partnership between Lib Dems for Basic Income, the Social Liberal Forum, and the Compass-hosted Basic Income Conversation. The event will be chaired by Dr Ian Kearns, Director of the Social Liberal Forum and an advocate of UBI, and will be structured into three parts:

  • In the first, Ian will be joined by Canadian Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith and Tchiyiwe Chihana of UBI Lab Women. They’ll discuss why Universal Basic Income is such an important and powerful idea, its global significance, and its importance in terms of building a genuine equal society.
  • In the second, Ian will quiz three key Lib Dem women on how they think we can win with UBI in this summer’s elections: Jane Dodds, Leader of the Party in Wales, Luisa Porritt, our candidate for Mayor of London, and Wendy Chamberlain MP, our Parliamentary Spokesperson for Scotland and Wales.
  • In the third and final session, we’ll open to the room, to hear suggestions, ideas and needs from candidates and activists across the country.

You can sign up here.

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