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Universal Basic Income: Where Are We Now? Cleo Goodman

Festival of Ideas
Cleo Goodman

Written by Cleo Goodman

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Cleo Goodman is the co-founder of the Basic Income Conversation.

This article is part of a series on universal basic income to coincide with the conference ‘Back to Basics: Income for Everyone?’.

When we began setting up the Basic Income Conversation it was just ahead of the 2019 general election. The Corbyn-McDonnell manifesto the Labour party were campaigning on committed to a basic income pilot. The Scottish basic income experiment feasibility study findings were due to be published the following spring. It felt as though we were riding the wave of a couple of big swells of interest in basic income, unsure whether they would keep building or come crashing down again.

The public didn’t back Labour’s ‘real change’ manifesto. Bad news for basic income, a missed opportunity for a government amenable to the policy. The Scottish project did, however, back pilots for Scotland, but those too were blocked by a Conservative government in Westminster that was not willing to cooperate with the project. Despite this, we hadn’t reached the crest of the wave.

In 2020 there was a global event that would have an impact on every aspect of our lives and of policymaking, the basic income debate too. During the first few weeks of the Covid pandemic, as we scrambled for ideas on how to manage in a world where many forms of work were now off limits due to the public health risk, many came around to basic income for the first time.

People needed an income to make it through lockdowns, but couldn’t go to work. Businesses lost profits while activities were suspended and covering the expense of employees’ salaries during this time hurtled them towards offloading staff or closing down. The self-employed lost work and their income and had no idea when their livelihoods would return. The newly unemployed turned to social security, realising first-hand what people have been trying to get across for years – that the level of income support is inadequate and the systems punitive and unsupportive. Basic income looked like the solution we needed to deliver emergency income. Never had the utility of a universal system been more deeply felt.

The basic income movement was in good enough shape at this point and we were able to see this opportunity for what it was – a game changer for basic income. Basic income organisations, notably the UBI Lab Network, Basic Income UK, Basic Income Network Scotland, with a few paid members of staff and a much larger group of committed and, ironically, unpaid basic income activists, were able to spring into action, running sessions that put together proposals for an emergency basic income and coordinating a large, cross-party group of politicians who backed the idea.

Pandemic measures in the UK did not include a basic income. But through the furlough and self-employed support schemes we did see what happens when people – a lot of people – are provided with an income that is not contingent on them showing up to work. In fact quite the opposite. We also saw once again what happens when income support for people in crisis is provided in a piecemeal fashion, with millions left without.

The pandemic is another in a growing list of global events that has led many people to see basic income as a common-sense solution: automation of jobs, an increasingly debt-based society, record profit making for the richest with very little redistribution to workers, climate change which will require massive industry restructuring and declining wages and living standards.

It is this continued and growing interest in basic income that has led to more and more pilots. There are now 100 pilots happening across the United States of America and, much closer to home, basic income pilots for artists in Ireland  and for care leavers in Wales. The body of evidence is growing and perhaps the data from these latest pilots will lead to commitment to a permanent policy in the UK.

Polling shows that 48 per cent of people in the UK support basic income, up to 52 per cent for Labour voters. The Basic Income Conversation is about to publish new work looking at support for basic income in red wall constituencies that shows support of up to 76 on a 100-point scale.

The conversation at Bristol Ideas this week will happen in the shadow of the Conservative party conference, where we’re hearing advice like ‘get a higher salary’ to weather the cost-of-living crisis from MP Jake Berry, and Suella Braverman once again saying that she wants ‘to cut welfare spending’ because ‘benefits street culture is a feature of modern Britain’. It will happen in the shadow of a cost-of-living crisis and a mini-budget that sent the pound into a record dip. This is a government that is worlds away from implementing a basic income.

Support for the Labour party is currently surging. Unlike the Greens and the Lib Dems, they do not have a policy on basic income. So the path towards a basic income in the UK stretches ahead of us, but we are beginning to see some bold political leadership on this policy. Most notably the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford, who seems to have learnt from the work done in Scotland and blazed ahead with a ground-breaking pilot in Wales, the politicians who co-chair the Cross-Party Parliamentary and Local Government group on basic income and Metro Mayors Jamie Driscoll and Andy Burnham, who proudly advocated for the idea at The World Transformed festival that accompanied the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.

Basic income debate is not just about the policy itself. It is inevitably a conversation about what social security, in the truest sense, actually looks like in the UK. That’s why it is so often positioned alongside comprehensive public services, reforms to housing and better working conditions. The idea of a basic income evokes an inkling of what financial security might feel like and can open up national conversations about what policies are needed to achieve security at a point in history where that needs to be a key focus for the country.

Considering what a Beveridge Report would say in 2022 is a timely and important discussion. But we should also consider how that report could be written and won democratically, with widespread public support, to ensure social security is never again eroded to the state it is in today. Basic income, with its evocative design and reach, long history and high levels of public support has a key role in this conversation.

Image credit: Suzanne Livingstone

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